Fortunately for Jimmie Johnson, his spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship was sewn up at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway two weekends ago. However, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing on the line as the series pulls into the tight confines of Richmond (Va.) International Raceway for Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400, the final race of the “regular season.”
Before the 12-driver, 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship starts Sept. 16 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., there’s the not-so-small matter of who starts the Chase as the leader, something Johnson hopes to do. By scoring his fourth win of the season last Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Denny Hamlin broke what was a four-way tie with Johnson, Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski, who each have three wins this season. If the Chase was to begin this weekend, Hamlin would be the leader by virtue of his four wins – the key factor in how drivers are seeded once they are locked in. To get that top spot, Johnson will need to win at Richmond and Hamlin would need to finish third or worse as the top seed would then be based on each driver’s next-best finish this season.
The task may be difficult as the list of drivers hoping to secure the final spots in the Chase is somewhat lengthy. Johnson struggled earlier in his career at the .75-mile Richmond oval but has recently posted better finishes. He swept the 2007 races and won again in September 2008. He was involved in several on-track incidents during the race last September, and will need to keep the fenders on his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet if he is hoping for a different outcome this year.
So while Johnson can take pride in the fact that he is the only driver to have clinched a spot in the Chase every year since its inception in 2004, there is still more on the line as he attempts to enter the Chase as the top seed for the first time since 2007 and the second time in its nine-year history.