Richmond II: The Countdown: 1 race to go

Going into Richmond, 10 drivers still in the running, to make the "Chase" Five berths clinched, three by past series champions The arithmetic is not complex, but it is no doubt compelling. Only five berths in the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup...

Going into Richmond, 10 drivers still in the running, to make the "Chase"
Five berths clinched, three by past series champions

The arithmetic is not complex, but it is no doubt compelling. Only five berths in the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup have been clinched. Ten drivers remain in the running. Only one race remains before the Chase begins.

Those three numbers add up to this inevitability: Excitement.

Expect a raucous Chevy Rock & Roll 400, this weekend at Richmond International Raceway. The three-quarters-mile oval is considered by many to be the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series' "perfect" track. Saturday night's event, then, could be perfection "squared." Under the lights, with a national television audience watching, the first "Chase" field will be filled and the stage set for the 10-race championship showdown starting next week.

Series point leader Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet) heads the list of drivers already locked in. The others: four-time series champion Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet); Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet); 2002 champion Tony Stewart (No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet); and defending series champion Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DEWALT Power Tools Ford).

For all practical purposes, you can add sixth-place Elliott Sadler (No. 38 M&M's Ford) to that list. Sadler, who won this past Sunday's event at California Speedway, needs only to start at Richmond, to make the Chase.

As for the other group, the one immersed in uncertainty, Kurt Busch (No. 97 Sharpie Ford) has the edge on paper, coming into this weekend in seventh place. Behind him are eight others also alive, with a chance to either be in the top 10 after Saturday -- or within 400 points of the standings' leader, which is the second way to make the Chase.

"A bunch of guys could make it in, if the No. 48 has some problems ... anything can happen at Richmond," said ninth-place Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge).

Raybestos Rookie of the Year candidate Kahne and four-time series runner-up Mark Martin (No. 6 Viagra Ford) vaulted into the Top 10 thanks to their 2-3 finish at California Speedway behind Sadler. But their perches are precarious. They've gone from hunters to the hunted in one week. Only 56 points separate Martin from 15th-place Kevin Harvick (No. 29 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet).

And as far as the 400-point cut-off -- which looked like it would be a non-factor several weeks ago -- Harvick is only 480 behind Johnson, or 80 points away from a coveted place in the Chase.

Perhaps no one covets a place more than Martin, who is a walking history of "almosts."

* In 1990 he finished second in the series championship standings, a scant 26 points behind Dale Earnhardt.

* In 1994, he again was runner-up to Earnhardt.

* In 1998, he finished second to the series' new star, Jeff Gordon.

* And in 2002 he had his fourth runner-up finish, that time only 38 points behind champion Tony Stewart.

Martin has been playing his emotions close to the vest, as Richmond has approached.

"[That's] because I've had my heart broken plenty of times in this business," Martin said. "Things seem to find a way of not working out for me. If I don't count my chickens before they hatch, then I won't have any problems here. ... I've learned through the years that keeping an even keel is a good maintenance, a good way to preserve yourself.

"We've got a race to go do at Richmond. We go do our job, everything goes our way, we'll have something to talk about Saturday night. If it doesn't, we'll set our sights on winning a bunch of races here in the last 10 races, which I know that we can do with our team right now."

-nascar-

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