For 14 NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers, hope springs eternal for at least a few more hours.
But when the checkered flag drops to signal the end of the Air Guard 400 at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday night, 11 of them will leave — their championship hopes dashed — to play out the string while a dozen drivers will go on to Chicagoland Speedway next week for the first of the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.
This is how the Chase numbers work: The top 10 drivers make up the first part of the 12-driver playoff. Spots 11 and 12 go to those drivers outside the top 10 with the most wins, provided they are in the top 20. The wild-card tiebreaker is points position.
First off, nine drivers are already in the post-season hunt: Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman.
Brad Keselowski, with three wins, has locked up at least a wild-card berth.
With the help of the kind folks who live and breathe statistics down at NASCAR HQ in Daytona Beach, here is a guide to what can happen and what has to happen for the 14 hopefuls seeking three Chase spots.
1: Dale Earnhardt Jr. must finish 20th or better at RIR to lock him into the Chase.
2: Tony Stewart needs a finish of 18th or better to make the Chase.
3: Denny Hamlin, with one win, needs to stay ahead of all one-win drivers, and hope there are no other two-win drivers inside the Top 20.
4: AJ Allmendinger needs a win at RIR and that is the only way he gets in the Chase.
5: Clint Bowyer’s wreck at Atlanta all but ended his hopes but a win Saturday, and some bad luck by the guys in front of him and he might make the Chase.
6: Greg Biffle is among the six winless drivers seeking a spot and his only chance is to win at RIR and hope for some help.
7: Martin Truex Jr. is peaking at the right time with two Top 5s in is last four starts, but he needs to win Saturday for any chance at a Chase spot.
8: Kasey Kahne is a former RIR winner but his only hope is if he can repeat that feat. Otherwise it’s bye-bye time.
9: Joey Logano needs a win and lots of drivers in front of him dropping out early. He finished fourth at RIR last season.
10: Mark Martin doesn’t want to end his full-time Cup career on the outside looking in, but unless he wins Saturday that is where he’ll be.
11: Paul Menard has a win this season — at Indianapolis — but he’s so far back in the points that only a win gets him a Chase nod.
12: Marcos Ambrose also has a win — at Watkins Glen — but he’s outside of the Top 20 right now and only a win gets him in.
13: Juan Pablo Montoya has only a hope and a prayer: Hope that he wins and pray that bad luck falls on everybody in front of him
14: David Ragan has a win — July in Daytona —but only a win at RIR and loads of help keeps his hopes alive.
VETTEL POISED TO CLINCH
Over in Formula One, Sebastian Vettel is all but home and cooled in his quest for a second consecutive world championship with the series at Monza this week.
Vettel sits atop the leader board with 259 points with seven Grands Prix left on the 2011 calendar.
Mark Webber is second with 167 points, Fernando Alonso third at 157, then Jenson Button with 149 and Lewis Hamilton at 146.
A win in F1 is worth 25 championship points, so it is mathematically possible that each of those four drivers could overtake Vettel, but that would entail the Red Bull team falling completely off the grid and that’s not going to happen.
Start the engraving process now, that race is over.
The Thrill from West Hill will get another two chances to win in the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series. Paul Tracy is on the verge of signing a two-race deal — for Kentucky and Las Vegas — with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing to drive the No. 22 Dallara as a fill-in for the injured Justin Wilson. Tracy’s best finish in six starts this season was 12th in the second half of the Texas doubleheader.