Conventional wisdom for the last few days has been that Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin had all but locked up the last Top-10 slot and the last wild card, respectively. But poor qualifying efforts by both drivers suddenly put both positions back in play. As we prepare for the final race of the NASCAR regular season, let's take a look at the scenarios for the various drivers still mathematically alive.
There are three spots technically in play: the 9th (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) and 10th (Stewart) spots, and the second wild card (Hamlin). And the drivers from positions 11-23 are mathematically still alive, though as Clint Bowyer put it on Friday, there'd have to be large numbers of the field dropping over dead for some of them to get in. Still, there are 14 drivers eligible for three spots; the previous mathematical high coming into Richmond was seven in 2005.
So here, courtesy of NASCAR.com, are the basics of the Chase scenarios. Obviously, there are so many if-thens in play that we can't possibly track them all, but here's a start:
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Controls his own destiny. Clinches with a finish of 20th or better; 21st or better with one lap led; 22nd or better leading the most laps.
Tony Stewart: Also controls his own destiny. Clinches with a finish of 18th or better; 19th or better with one lap led; 20th or better leading the most laps.
Denny Hamlin: Clinches with a win. Also clinches if he stays ahead of all one-win drivers, if no driver inside the top 20 wins a second race, or if Brad Keselowski gets into the top 10 and he stays ahead of all other one-win drivers.
AJ Allmendinger: Needs a win and help (i.e. problems with Hamlin) to get in.
Clint Bowyer: See Allmendinger. This is his best track, however.
Greg Biffle: See Bowyer and Allmendinger.
Martin Truex Jr.: See ... well, you know what we're going to say.
Kasey Kahne: Yep, also needs a win. He has one here already.
Joey Logano, Mark Martin, Juan Pablo Montoya: See above.
Paul Menard: Here it gets a bit more interesting. If Menard wins, he's in the Chase. Problem is, he has no finish higher than 16th at Richmond.
Marcos Ambrose: Needs a win and to get into the top 20, and the latter should happen if the former does.
David Ragan: Same story as Ambrose. These guys haven't made it easy on themselves, have they?
Realistically speaking, we're probably looking at Earnhardt, Stewart and Hamlin. But their relatively poor qualifying efforts -- Stewart will start 22nd, Earnhardt 27th and Hamlin 28th -- make this race a bit more interesting than one might expect. And no matter what, there'll be some painful second-guessing for those drivers who've come so close but will fall short.