During the 36-race season, just a few on the NASCAR schedule arguably stand out as races more important than others. These are races where even the casual fan pays some attention.
There is no doubt the Daytona 500 in February is the sport’s signature event. Few sports begin a season with their marquee event, but stock car racing has done that for more than half a century.
Other tradition-rich races include the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, both races in Talladega, Ala., Daytona’s Coke Zero (Firecracker) 400, the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis and the Southern 500 in Darlington, S.C. The season’s final race, the Ford Ecoboost 400 in Homestead, Fla., is the other race on this list for no reason other than its timing.
The last race on the list of important events runs on Saturday night in Richmond, Va. The Federated Auto Parts 400 would be just another race, except it will determine who earns the final spots in NASCAR’s version of the 16-driver playoffs, the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
The 11 drivers winning at least one race this year are already in. Those are Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Martin Truex, Jr., Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards. That leaves five spots up for grabs.
From there, those with the most points of non-winners get in. Two of those spots will most surely go to Jamie McMurray and Ryan Newman.
In a strong position to move on is NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon. The four-time champion can advance with a 17th place finish, or other scenarios if he finishes lower.
A majority of NASCAR fans would admit to rooting for Gordon to make the Chase. Before the season, he announced this would be his last year as the driver of the Rick Hendrick-owned 24 car. A fitting send-off would include Gordon qualifying for at least the first of four Chase rounds.
The 44-year-old from Pittsboro, Ind., burst onto the scene in the mid-1990s as a youngster with a lot of talent. Ironically, Gordon’s first start in NASCAR’s premier racing series was Richard Petty’s last. His 92 wins rank third only to Petty’s 200 (NASCAR raced more than once per week years ago), and David Pearson’s 105.
Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. brought new fans to the sport. His success attracted some, but frustrated fans of other drivers, especially those of Earnhardt and his father, Dale Earnhardt, Sr., who loudly booed Gordon at any opportunity. Gordon slowly earned enough respect to the point where other fans now hope he makes the Chase.
Those with the inside track on the two other spots are Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer. Aric Almirola and Kasey Kahne hope to win at Richmond to guarantee a spot and knock out one of those ahead of them, should they be unable to surpass their point total.
The Chase begins next Sunday in Chicago with all 16 drivers separated by only a few points based on their number of wins. Four drivers will be eliminated every four weeks until the season finale in Homestead.
Look for some aggressive driving from those desperately trying to make the Chase. The yellow flag will likely fly early and often. In addition to the high stakes, there is something about Saturday night racing.