Murto: Chase comes down to Richmond

For those racers hoping to get into NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, it all comes down to this weekend’s Saturday night race at Richmond International Raceway (RIR).

So far, 13 drivers are secure through wins and one driver is secure with points. That leaves two spots open. But with the new format, which guarantees a spot in the Chase to winners in the top 30 in points, we could leave Richmond with an even greater surprise than we did last year after the Clint Bowyer spin-out debacle.

And don’t count out Tony Stewart.

Stewart, of course, came back to racing last week at Atlanta, the first time he’s been seen in public since he was involved in the tragic Aug. 9 accident that took the life of Sprint Car racer Kevin Ward Jr. His fellow racers embraced him, and the fans gave him a standing ovation to welcome him back to the only life he knows.

The rules say a driver must try to qualify for every Sprint Cup event in order to be eligible for the Chase, “except in rare circumstances.” One of those circumstances is if a driver misses a race (or more) due to injury. NASCAR granted one of these exceptions for Stewart.

Some fans complained about the exception, claiming that NASCAR is choosing favorites or that the exception should not exist for anybody regardless the circumstance.

The intent of the exception is to keep drivers from attempting to race when they shouldn’t, such as when injured. We don’t want, for example, a driver suffering from a concussion to try to hide the injury so he or she can remain eligible for the championship run. The exception is there for everybody’s safety.

But in Stewart’s case it’s there for everybody’s healing. There are some who believe that since the situation didn’t involve NASCAR there should be no exception, but NASCAR did the right thing.

Stewart’s accident traumatized the entire sport. It put us under a microscope, one that mostly was out of focus and examined the wrong issues. No, the Aug. 9 tragedy didn’t directly involve NASCAR. But the fact that Stewart is a former NASCAR champion made it national news. And at least one uninformed media member called for government regulation of NASCAR; coverage of the tragedy was so poor it makes one wonder if any topic is covered correctly.

Stewart was correct to stay out of the car for a few weeks. It showed respect for Ward and his family and allowed them to bury their loved one without the distraction of Stewart’s return.

We all were scarred; we all were under the microscope. And we all need to heal. That need was expressed by the overwhelmingly positive reception Stewart received from the fans at Atlanta.

And when Stewart strapped into that race car, he repaid the fans by showing them that he hasn’t lost a thing. In the first 100 miles of the 500-mile race he charged from his 12th starting position to the top five before settling just outside the top 10. Unfortunately Kyle Busch’s car got loose on the exit of Turn 2 about lap 115 and took Stewart into the wall. Stewart tried his best with a damaged car, but a cut tire on lap 173 put him into the wall again, this time ending his night with a 41st-place finish.

Kasey Kahne won the race, and by doing so earned his spot in the Chase. With only one race remaining in the regular season, it’s anybody’s guess as to what drama will unfold.

Drivers just in or barely out of the points will be trying to secure a spot in the Chase with a win or a good finish. Winless drivers in the top 30 will be hoping for an upset, such as we saw with Aric Almirola and A.J. Allmendinger. Drivers already in the Chase will seek another win to better their spot when the points are realigned.

And there’s Tony Stewart. He scored his first Cup victory at RIR, and won there a few times. Though he hasn’t won there since 2002, you can’t count him out. You can’t count anybody out if they’re in the top 30 in points. The last hope many drivers have of making the Chase all comes down to Richmond.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.