Only one race remains until the playoff field is set for NASCAR’s first postseason run that they’re calling "The Chase for the Championship." How fitting that the race to decide the fate of several drivers is at Richmond International Raceway, a fast three-quarter mile track.
The latest trend in NASCAR is that everything is newer, bigger, better, and most importantly, more profitable. What has happened in the process is that NASCAR has become bland because the newer better tracks don’t produce better racing. Defining better racing is subjective to the viewer.
For me personally, I prefer drivers racing all elements to the extreme measure; driver vs driver, driver vs the track, driver vs his own machine, and driver vs the fans. Richmond captures all those elements better than any track with the exception of maybe Bristol. The tight short track racing alone sets Richmond apart from several tracks.
Factor in the race being run under the lights, giving it a "prime time" Monday night football feel and then what’s at stake, man... It doesn’t get much better than this. But it does because of the old school NASCAR ties.
Richmond, the Capital of the Confederacy, with all it’s tradition gives something back to NASCAR traditionalists by ending a constant streak of takeaways during NASCAR’s progression into mainstream America. Places like Rockingham have said goodbye, the Southern 500 at Darlington is finished, but fortunately in a race this important it happens at a place like Richmond.
Beginning Thursday night, the Craftsman Truck series race waves the Green flag to the best party in NASCAR. The celebration continues through Friday with practices, qualifying, and then the Busch Series race. Saturday, after a few Alka-Seltzers, Excedrin, and hair of the Dog that bit you, you’re set to go all out for the main event. Between the BBQ, booze, and friendly NASCAR crazy people, Richmond is number one.
Tony Stewart is our likely choice. He’s a three-time winner on the track, but the last time he won was five races ago. He’s still respected in the odds as the second favorite.
This race means everything for a few drivers attempting to make the playoffs, but for Stewart, there is no pressure. Look for another great effort.
Dale Earnhardt Jr (6-1) has run at Richmond, no one has a better finish there over 10 races, which is why he is the favorite. Junior won the Richmond race earlier this season for his second career win there. When he won there in May, the Rebel crowd went wild with jubilation in a Southern celebration we’ve never seen before.
Junior is so overwhelmingly popular because he is also old school. As NASCAR’s number one driver, he has a lot of weight on his shoulders from all the fans. Should he go on to win the driving championship this season, it would further solidify his status as one of America’s most popular superstars. His odds to win the title are 4-1.
Matt Kenseth (10-1) comes in with five straight top 7 finishes. He won in ”˜02 and was fifth in his last start at Richmond. No one is talking about Kenseth right now as a candidate to win the title. His odds to win are 8-1. Back to back driving titles for Kenseth would surely command respect.
Mark Martin (14-1) was seventh at Richmond in May giving him his 21 top 10 finishes in 37 starts. He has one win, back in 1990.
Rusty Wallace (20-1) is the tracks’ all-time money winner and also the active leader with six wins. His last victory came in ”˜97, but in the 12 races since then no one has had a better average finish. He’s always said Richmond is one of his very favorites, but the clock is ticking on his driving career.
Ryan Newman (10-1) ran second in his first two career starts at Richmond. He was 39th in the spring last year, then won in the fall. In this year’s race, he finished ninth.
Bobby Labonte (12-1) finished third on the three-quarter mile track in May. He’s never won at Richmond, but has finished second twice. In what has been an awful two year stretch for Labonte, Richmond is the one place that has been real good to him.
Jeff Gordon (8/1) and Jimmie Johnson (7/1), as always, will be set for this one. The duo has been phenomenal all season. Earlier this year, Johnson had his best Richmond finish ever with a second, while Gordon was sixth. Lifetime, Gordon has two Richmond wins, the last coming in 2000. Richmond is not one of Gordon’s better tracks (nine top 5 finishes in 23 starts).
While most tracks have had Gordon grow on them over the years, Richmond remains intact with its old school tradition and is teaching their next generation to dislike Gordon just as much as they do. It’s juvenile and lacking of all thought process, but somehow I wouldn’t want it any other way.