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Regular-season finale to set NASCAR Chase field in Richmond


Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, Miller looks back on the season to date and what influence NASCAR’s new Chase format has had. Also, Tony Stewart’s second race back in the Cup Series and a tribute to the late Junie Donlavey highlight the stories of the weekend as the series lines up for its regular-season finale at Richmond International Raceway.

NASCAR’s new Chase system in review

So here we are, on the eve of the 26th race of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. As has been the norm since the first iteration of the Chase for the Nextel Cup in 2004, the 26th is occurring at Richmond International Raceway and is serving as the final race of the regular season.

Next up? A 10-race stretch to determine the sport’s champion — nothing new there, of course — in a manner fundamentally different than any NASCAR championship race ever. But before we get to NASCAR’s new “grid” format and the coming eliminations, it’s best to discuss the changes already enacted and seen in this first season of NASCAR’s biggest title overhaul to date.

The largest change in the regular season has been the added value of winning. Now, it’s the 16 drivers who win a race in the first 26 events of the year and remain in the top 30 in points who get to go racing for the title. If 16 don’t win — like this year — the 16-driver field is filled out with the highest non-winning drivers in the point standings. At least three drivers will get that bid after Richmond.

The best part of this new system is that drivers and teams have been rewarded instantly for even one-off success. Perhaps the most telling was AJ Allmendinger’s reaction to his surprise Watkins Glen win, or even the weight lifted from Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s shoulders after winning the season-opening Daytona 500. Some value was returned to regular season events that had been lost as the Chase was drummed up and promoted incessantly. 

In addition, it seems the sport has seen a slight uptick in aggressive team calls near the end of the race for drivers previously qualified. The only issue to that argument is that those risks haven’t always been front-and-center or made in an environment where realistic detriment was nearby. And all too often, the sport’s stakeholders were quick to jump on aggressive calls as if the new Chase format — and not decades of racing DNA — created eventful on-track decisions.

All told, the regular season portion of NASCAR’s new format has worked well. Perhaps the lone improvement would be an increased points payoff — or even an automatic entry to round two — for driver(s) who win the most races. This would create a bit more intrigue to late summer battles between known heavyweights, and not just attention on typically non-delivering underdog hopefuls.

Stakes high and complicated for Chase hopefuls at Richmond

Just one race and one checkered flag remain for several drivers hoping to earn entry to at least the first round of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup. The pressure to make that happen is probably no higher than on veterans Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer.

For Biffle, 10th in the cumulative point standings, a sixth entry to the Chase in the last seven years is on the line. He averaged a 15th-place running position in the spring Richmond race and without a win on Saturday will likely be hoping for Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman or a previous 2014 winner to take the win. Should that happen, Biffle can control his own line to the Chase with a finish of 22nd or better.

Should the series get a new 2014 winner Saturday night, Biffle will have to beat Newman by 19 points while also finishing ahead of Bowyer and Kyle Larson.

For Bowyer, the spot is a bit more dire — though fully controlled should he win the race. A win for Bowyer would be his third career victory at the track and also a heavy dose of irony after his willful, team-ordered actions one year ago sent the NASCAR world into a tailspin over allegations of race fixing.

In total, 18 drivers will be eligible to snare the final Chase position Saturday night should they pull off the win. It might get exciting.

Expectations of anonymity for Stewart should end

I wrote last week of Tony Stewart’s return to the Sprint Cup Series and focused heavily on how the driver was seeking refuge from grief in the one place he knew best — inside a race car. At the time, it seemed understandable that Stewart was going to be largely silent in correspondence with the media save for his quick Friday statement.

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But then Stewart wrecked from Sunday’s race and opted to continue his media silence despite a verifiable interest in both why he crashed from the event and how he handled the return. His crew chief Chad Johnston instead became the face of the team, offering his best explanation and recap.

It didn’t sit right.

Stewart made no secret all weekend that he was open to communication with many, many people in the garage area that weren’t carrying a camera or notebook. He didn’t live in isolation at Atlanta, and had no problem accepting the adoration of fans during his moment in the driver introduction line. Plainly, those moments didn’t corroborate his insistence Friday that he wasn’t emotionally prepared to discuss anything relating or not relating to the fatal Kevin Ward Jr. incident.

Stewart’s reluctance to speak remains understandable seeing as he is still in the crosshairs of an ongoing criminal investigation in upstate New York. But if that’s the reason why Stewart isn’t willing to speak to reporters, then why is he back on track?

That’s a question only he can answer and, well, he’s not talking for the time being. In the meantime, expectations of Stewart being allowed to go through his very public — and fairly unnecessary — return to NASCAR in a private manner need to stop. He’s choosing to be at the racetrack and choosing to return to his status as a public figure. Pursuit of his thoughts and reactions should continue.

Final regular season race could be filled with payback

The best time to take a risk is when the fallout is low. Thus Saturday night’s regular season finale at Richmond might be the perfect time for drivers looking to a settle a score.

Think about it: Denny Hamlin still has to be steamed about Kevin Harvick’s mistake two weeks ago at Bristol Motor Speedway. A mistake from Harvick wrecked Hamlin from the lead and demolished his No. 11. At Richmond, the only thing on the line for Hamlin is, at most, three bonus points from a race win. Otherwise, it’s just an exhibition race before the championship fight begins in earnest next week at Chicago.

When else would be a better time for Hamlin to repay Harvick the favor with a bit of rough driving? An incident wouldn’t affect title hopes for Hamlin or Harvick, and Richmond provides ample cover for retribution as a short track.

Martin Truex Jr. may be thinking the same thing, even though he isn’t yet qualified for a Chase spot. Truex left Sunday night’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway with a damaged race car and a bone to pick with Kyle Busch — a driver who is locked in the Chase. Should Truex deliver Richmond payback, Busch won’t be terribly impacted but the point will have been made.

Circle Sport to run Junie Donlavey tribute

If you look for the No. 33 Saturday night, you won’t see it. Instead, the Circle Sport Chevrolet will be adorned with the No. 90 for one race only as team owner Joe Falk pays tribute to late NASCAR team owner Junie Donlavey.

David Stremme will drive the No. 90 with a special paint scheme — the team calls it “retro Truxmore-inspired livery made famous by Donlavey Racing the during the 1970s and earlier ‘80s” — at the track where Donlavey, a Richmond native, formerly called home. Donlavey passed away in June.

“Junie was a mentor of mine from the time I was competing in NASCAR all the way through my involvement in team ownership,” Falk said in a team press release.

Whenever Donlavey comes up, it’s always fun to discuss just how his team won its only race: the 1981 Mason-Dixon 500 at Dover. That day, Donlavey had Jody Ridley in the car and trailed a dominant Neil Bonnett. Bonnett, however, suffered engine issues and exited the race with 41 of 500 laps to go after leading a startling 404 circuits.

Second-place Cale Yarborough then assumed the lead after unlapping himself, only to suffer a similar fate about 20 laps later. That handed the lead to Ridley who held on to the finish and won his — and Donlavey’s — only career Cup race.

Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller

Photo by Action Sports, Inc.