Will Brian France be shaking in his loafers Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway?
NASCAR's Chase was France's idea, and it has been a good one. There is no argument that the playoff has created an intensity both heading toward the end of the regular season, as drivers jockey for the final few spots in the Chase, and within the Chase itself, as drivers battle for the championship.
This season, however, NASCAR faces the very real possibility that two drivers who have combined to win eight races (Mark Martin and Kyle Busch, each with four wins) could miss the playoff. For diehard NASCAR fans who appreciate consistency, this isn't a problem. But for the casual fan, it's hard to understand how the two drivers who have won the most races aren't in the playoff.
It looks like Martin, who will start on the pole Saturday night, will just squeak in, and Busch could, too. But if a situation arises where both drop out of the top 12, NASCAR will have a mess on its hands.
This is exactly the kind of scenario opponents of the Bowl Championship Series are hoping for in college football. The prevailing feeling there is that a major injustice needs to occur before the conference presidents feel compelled enough to make a change.
Martin and Busch missing the Chase could be the injustice NASCAR needs to change its points system to award more of a differential between first and second place, which currently is only 15 points.
Depending on what happens Saturday night, that could be a discussion that haunts NASCAR throughout the 10-race Chase.
But before the playoff begins, the field has to be set.
Going into Saturday night's Chevy Rock & Roll 400, only 122 points separate Carl Edwards in fifth from Kyle Busch in 14th, meaning one incident – a wreck, a mechanical malfunction, a blown tire – could turn the standings on its head.
Here is a look at five storylines as the race to the Chase winds down in Richmond:
1. It all starts with Kyle Busch:
As Ricky Craven spelled out perfectly, Kyle Busch will dictate what happens Saturday night. If Busch bolts to the front, the rest of the bubble boys will feel they must react accordingly.
What exactly that will look like will vary from driver to driver. Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Kurt Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya still only need to finish around the top 20 to clinch, so they won't feel the pressure to react.
But Ryan Newman, Mark Martin, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Brian Vickers will have to adjust their strategies to minimize whatever damage Busch might inflict. This will mean racing each other, because if they can't catch Busch, they must try to stay ahead of one another.
However, if Busch struggles – and considering how up and down he's been this season, that is a possibility despite Richmond being one of his best tracks – the bubble boys will be able to race their own race, with only Kenseth having to pay attention to where Vickers is running.
2. Is anyone safe?
Yes and no. For example, Edwards needs only to finish 24th or better to clinch a spot in the Chase.
If he were to suffer another mechanical issue and finish 37th, as he did last weekend at Atlanta, he stands to lose a minimum of 82 points to anyone who finishes inside the top 10. And if one of those were a victorious Busch, Edwards would lose no fewer than 138 points, which could potentially knock him from fifth all the way out of the Chase.
Probable, no, but definitely possible.
Realistically, every driver between fifth and 11th in the standings is safe. This includes Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Kurt Busch, Juan Pablo Montoya, Ryan Newman, Mark Martin and Greg Biffle, leaving Matt Kenseth as the most prone to dropping out.
3. Who's good at Richmond?
Nobody is better at Richmond than Kyle Busch, whose average finish there is 6.1. In nine Richmond races, Busch has seven top-10 finishes.
Here is a look at the average finish at Richmond over the last 10 years of each driver on the Chase bubble: Busch (6.1), Martin (10.6), Newman (11.7), Biffle (15.8), Kenseth (16.7), Kahne (18.5), Kurt Busch (18.7), Edwards (19), Montoya (27.8), Vickers (27.8).
Of those on the bubble, Kyle Busch, Martin, Newman, Kenseth, Kahne and Kurt Busch have won at Richmond.
4. Will Denny Hamlin finally get it done at home?
Hamlin, who grew up in nearby Cheserfield, Va., has led laps in all seven Richmond races he's competed in, including 381 of 410 a year ago and 148 earlier this season, but he's never been to Victory Lane.
"We got a car that’s good enough to do it," Hamlin said Friday. "We've just got to execute, do everything right and make sure we have our best pit stops on the last one. It's all about making sure we run good at the right time tomorrow."
5. How will Kurt Busch respond to losing his crew chief?
The rumor has been out there for a while that Pat Tryson would leave Kurt Busch's pit box at the end of the 2009 season in favor of Martin Truex Jr. over at Michael Waltrip Racing. Tryson leaving became official Friday, at probably the worst possible time for Busch, who's still in a fight to make the Chase.
"It's unfortunate that Pat made that type of decision [now]," a visibly agitated Busch said Friday. "It seems as if our focus right now should really be on the Chase and making it into the Chase. So it was a tough week for that type of news."
Busch will probably qualify for the Chase, but expectations after that have to be lowered. Chances are that he and Tryson will continue working together only as long as Busch still remains in contention. But once they lose site of the points leaders, Roger Penske will likely give Tryson an early departure in order for Busch to begin work with whoever will be his crew chief in 2010.