Race outcome in Atlanta set the stage for the final battles to be held in Richmond
Kurt Busch versus Jeff Gordon.
Martin Truex Jr. versus Ryan Newman.
Those aren't just idle propositions at a Las Vegas sports book. In fact, they are matchups with very real and important consequences.
Those are the two head-to-head battles that are likely to decide two of the final spots in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup in Saturday night's race at Richmond.
Yes, there are plenty of other permutations. But in all likelihood, the driver who prevails in each of these two matchups will compete for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, and the driver on the short end will not.
With a fourth-place run in Sunday night's AdvoCare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Busch jumped back into 10th-place in the standings and opened a six-point margin over 11th-place Gordon, who finished sixth at the 1.54-mile intermediate track.
Busch may need every point of that advantage, because, on paper, Gordon has a superior record at Richmond. Gordon's average finish of 14.3 at the three-quarter-mile short track is 3.6 positions better than Busch's 17.9, but that doesn't tell the whole story.
Over the last 13 Richmond races, Gordon has recorded 11 finishes of 12th or better, six of which were top fives. Contrast that to Busch's seven top-12 runs and three top fives in the last 13 races. But, again, that doesn't tell the full story.
With an experienced over-the-wall crew, Gordon has a clear edge over Busch's No. 78 team on pit road. The Furniture Row team has been inconsistent this season, and a blown pit stop could very well decide the final Chase spot.
On the other hand, Busch's crew chief, Todd Berrier, has found consistent speed in the No. 78 Gen-6 Chevrolet SS, something Gordon hasn't had in his No. 24 Chevy on a regular basis. Busch led 36 laps at Richmond in April before finishing ninth. Gordon was 11th in the spring race.
Accordingly, this matchup could come down to speed on the track versus speed in the pits.
Busch is a lame duck at Furniture Row, having already announced that he will take the seat in a fourth car at Stewart-Haas Racing. Busch, however, would like nothing better than to deliver a Chase berth as a going-away present to the team that has helped resurrect his career.
Gordon, on the other hand, knows what it's like to overcome long odds to make the Chase. In last year's race at Richmond, he stole a playoff berth from Kyle Busch with a second-place run.
Late in that race, Kyle Busch's team made a critical error in failing to cover Gordon's move to pit road for fresh tires. On superior rubber, Gordon rallied to knock Busch out of the Chase by three points.
Berrier isn't likely to make that same mistake.
A victory at Richmond locks Busch into the top 10. For Gordon, a win earns at least a Wild Card berth in the Chase. Consider, though, that Busch notched his lone win at Richmond back in 2005. Gordon hasn't won at the .75-mile track since 2000.
This one is too close to call, and it's entirely possible that the six-point lead Busch carries into the event could be the deciding factor.
If this matchup follows form, Truex is in trouble.
After a strong third-place run at Atlanta, with pain in his broken right wrist plaguing him as he wrestled his No. 56 Toyota through the corners, Truex retained control of the second provisional Wild Card berth in the Chase by five points over Newman.
The bad news is that Truex hasn't had a finish at Richmond better than 17th since he ran seventh in his first Richmond start for Michael Waltrip Racing back in 2010. The worse news is that Truex's average finish at RIR is 23.7, nearly 12 positions higher than Newman's 11.8.
If Truex is racing with a broken wrist, Newman is driving with a large chip on his shoulder that might outweigh the heavy foot on his accelerator. In mid-July, Newman got official word of his ouster from Stewart-Haas Racing to make room for Kevin Harvick.
Clearly, Newman has a point to prove as he tries to nail down a full-time ride for 2014.
In terms of average finish, Richmond is Newman's second-best track to Pocono (11.7). Statistically, Richmond is Truex's worst track. Accordingly, the driver of the No. 56 Toyota has a lot to overcome in order to keep Newman at bay.
As in the case with Busch and Gordon, the lead Truex holds entering the race may prove critical.
Their worst nightmare is Greg Biffle (who like Truex and Newman has one victory this season) falling out of the top 10 and grabbing the second Wild Card spot. Conversely, Kasey Kahne, 12th in points with two wins, could race his way back into the top 10 and promote both Truex and Newman into Wild Card spots.
Most likely, however, the drivers will decide the issue between them, and Truex will have to find a way to overcome Newman's huge statistical edge.
By Reid Spencer - NASCAR Wire Service
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.