The Federated Auto Parts 400 is the last race of the regular season before the 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup begins in earnest Sept. 20 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois. Sixteen drivers will make the Chase, and four of those spots remain up for grabs at Richmond.
The 11 Sprint Cup drivers who have won at least one race this year are locked into the Chase. Jamie McMurray, currently 12th in the preliminary Chase standings, simply needs to start the Federated Auto Parts 400 to clinch his Chase berth. The remaining four spots are held by winless drivers who are the highest in points – Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon, Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer. But should someone new win Saturday night – someone like Stewart – one of those non-winners will be sent home.
Stewart, whose favorite school subject was math, knows his formula for making his ninth Chase appearance is as basic as it gets. Should he wheel his No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing to his 49th career Sprint Cup win and fourth at Richmond, he’ll be a member of the 2015 Chase. If he finishes second, another Chase run will have to wait until next year.
The win-and-you’re-in concept is easy in theory, but hard in execution. Nonetheless, it has been done. And even when the odds are stacked high, one good race can unleash a torrent of success.
Stewart knows this firsthand. Four years ago Stewart arrived in Richmond winless on the season and not quite locked into the Chase. He earned a spot in the Chase via his point standing, but Stewart openly claimed he was just taking up space. Nonetheless, when the 2011 Chase started at Chicagoland, Stewart caught fire. He won. Then he won again, and again, and again and again. Five wins in a 10-race span brought Stewart his third NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, and it seemingly came out of nowhere.
It will take an out-of-nowhere victory for Stewart to try and replicate the lightning he caught in a bottle in the fall of 2011, but since his make-it-or-break-it race is at Richmond, count nothing out.
The .75-mile oval is Stewart’s favorite racetrack across all of the venues the Sprint Cup Series visits. It’s where he earned his first career Sprint Cup win in just his 25th start. It’s a track where he raced prior to his successful NASCAR career, where he ran a USAC Midget and Silver Crown car on his way up the racing ladder.
Since his maiden Sprint Cup victory, Stewart has earned two more Sprint Cup wins at Richmond and tallied 11 top-fives and 19 top-10s with a total of 950 laps led. Augmenting those numbers are a pair of wins in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and (2002 and 2003) and a Late Model victory (2012).
After a throwback theme last weekend at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, Stewart is looking to keep the retro vibe going by pulling on his past success at Richmond to throw him into this year’s Chase.