One race remains before the Chase for the Cup, NASCAR's version of the playoffs, begins in the Sprint Cup Series. With the regular season drawing to a close, that means racing's so-called silly season, when drivers whose contracts might be up earnestly begin seeking out contracts with new teams for rides in the next season, is about to kick into high gear.
One notable NASCAR driver who, it appears, could be without a Sprint Cup ride in 2012 is Kansas City-area driver Clint Bowyer, who has been a member of the Richard Childress Racing team for the past six years. Bowyer, from Emporia, Kan., is without a contract for 2012, and it does not appear at this time that Richard Childress will retain his services for a seventh season.
Childress told Sirius XM NASCAR Radio this week that the chances of securing a sponsor for Bowyer's No. 33 Chevrolet are not good. "We've tried, and we've really worked hard to put the deal together to keep Clint," Childress said. "It's not 100 percent off the table, but it's getting tougher as the days go by."
There have been reports that Bowyer might have an offer from Richard Petty Motorsports, which currently has drivers A.J. Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose under contract. The trouble is, Petty, despite the name, is not as elite a team in NASCAR as Childress.
Bowyer won the Nationwide Series championship in 2008, driving for Richard Childress. He has four career wins in the Sprint Cup Series and has qualified for the Chase for the Cup in three of the last four years.
They're billing the final regular season race on Saturday night, the Wonderful Pistachios 400 at three-quarter-mile Richmond International Raceway, as the Race to the Chase. The ten-race Chase begins next weekend at Chicagoland Speedway. Meanwhile, with business still to be conducted at Richmond, three positions among the 12 qualifying Chase drivers are still undetermined. As it stands right now, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin would fill out the Chase field, but none of the three has officially clinched a spot.
Brad Keselowski, who stands 11th in the current points standings and has clinched at least a wild-card spot in the Chase, may hold the key in who makes it into the final three spots in the Chase lineup. Keselowski, who drives the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford for Penske Racing, trails Stewart by 23 points and Earnhardt by 25 points. Earnhardt is ninth in the standings and Stewart is in 10th place, the last two of the automatic qualifying positions for The Chase.
The potential danger to Earnhardt and Stewart in Sunday's race at Richmond is that neither has a Sprint Cup win this season. This doesn't matter as long as they remain in the top-ten in points. But if Keselowski were to pass one or both in the standings with his performance in Saturday night's race, Stewart would be eliminated from the Chase because the two wild-card entries, which is the category that the Stewart-Haas Racing owner-driver would fall into, are ultimately determined by the number of season wins. The final spot in the Chase would then be opened up to anyone with two wins, down to David Ragan in 23rd place.
All of this becomes moot, regardless of what the No. 2 car does, if Earnhardt finishes 20th or better Saturday night, and if Stewart comes in better than 18th.
"I'm not really all that worried about it, to be honest with y'all," Earnhardt told reporters today. "I feel like we're a good enough team to get in there. I've felt like that all year long." Earnhardt last made the Chase in 2008.
Said Stewart: "If we're running in the top ten, like I feel we should be, we won't have to worry about it either way." Stewart finished third in the rain-postponed Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Tuesday. Since the Chase for the Cup was first held in 2003, Stewart has missed the championship only one time (in 2006).