1. Denny Hamlin: Hamlin led 202 of 400 laps at Richmond, but the No. 11 Fed Ex team’s decision to stay on the track after a late rain delay proved costly. His shot at the win gone, Hamlin came home 18th, one lap down.
“I’m leading the points,” Hamlin said. “So I’m right where I need to be, just ten weeks too early.
“The Chase is wide open. There doesn’t appear to be a clear-cut favorite to win the Cup. The identity of the 2012 Sprint Cup champion is a lot like NASCAR’s drug policy—it’s anyone’s guess.”
2. Jimmie Johnson: Johnson finished 13th at Richmond, and will start the Chase For The Cup three points back of Denny Hamlin. He’ll lead the way for Hendrick Motorsports, which place all four drivers in the Chase.
“A full third of the Chase field are Hendrick drivers,” Johnson said. “That means there’s a 33% chance a Hendrick driver will win the Sprint Cup. There’s a 100% chance that Hendrick driver will be me. And, as five titles in six years suggests, it’s wise to play the percentages.”
3. Brad Keselowski: Keselowski finished a solid seventh at Richmond, posting his 15th top-10 result of the year. With three wins, he’ll start the Chase tied with Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart, three points back of points leader Denny Hamlin.
“The Chase field is set,” Keselowski said, “and Kyle Busch isn’t in it. Kyle will never be considered a true great of the sport until he wins a Sprint Cup title. Therefore, it compels me to say that ‘Kyle Busch is an asterisk,’ because he’s not a star, but starlike.”
4. Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: Earnhardt started on pole in the Federated Auto Parts 400, leading 67 laps on his way to a 14th in Saturday’s rain-delayed race. With only one win this year, he’ll start nine points behind Denny Hamlin.
“Congratulations to Jeff Gordon,” Earnhardt said. “With his runner-up finish, he’s in the Chase. He said that was like a win to him. That makes him a lot like me, because with my track record, I’ll call anything a win.”
5. Tony Stewart: Stewart scored his first top-5 finish since a fifth at Pocono in early August with a fourth at Richmond. His three wins this year will start him tied for second in the Chase, three points behind Denny Hamlin.
“In most cases,” Stewart said, “I take offense at things. But, as last year’s Sprint Cup champion, I’m going on the defensive. But never fear, that’s still reason enough to throw helmets, punches, and tantrums. These are a few of my favorite things.”
6. Matt Kenseth: Kenseth finished fifth at Richmond, posting his 16th top-1- finish. By virtue of his one victory, he’ll start the Chase nine points down to Denny Hamlin.
“It’s been a crazy year,” Kenseth said. “Honestly, I can’t tell whether I’m coming or going. Fortunately, I’ve got two wins on the year—one at Daytona, and one at Joe Gibbs Racing. Hopefully, Roush Fenway Racing will consider me a ‘loss’ and not a ‘loser.’”
7. Greg Biffle: Biffle finished ninth at Richmond, and, with two wins on the year, will start the Chase tied for fifth, six points out of first.
“I like my chances,” Biffle said. “I’m not going to back down from anyone. As far as the Cup goes, I, like all the favorites, expect to be there at the end. And, unlike Matt Kenseth, I expect to be here at the end.”
8. Clint Bowyer: Bowyer survived a spin through the infield grass before rallying late to win the Federated Auto Parts 400. Bowyer’s second win of the year places him six points behind Chase leader Denny Hamlin.
“I’ve got what no one else has,” Bowyer said. “And that’s 5-Hour Energy sponsorship on my car, which naturally gives me a ‘shot’ to win it all.”
9. Jeff Gordon: Gordon raced his way into the Chase For The Cup with a hard-earned second at Richmond. As the final wildcard entrant, he’ll start last in the field, 12 points out of first.
“We had a little help from Kyle Busch,” Gordon said. “It seems the No. 18 M&M’s car got a little loose, right after the No. 18 pit crew got ‘tight.’ I’m just happy to qualify for the Chase. I’m in, and I’m ecstatic to the inth degree.”
10. Kasey Kahne: Kahne finished 12th at Richmond and qualified for the Chase as the field’s first wildcard. He will start at the bottom of the Chase field, 12 points behind Denny Hamlin.
“I’m starting all the way at the back,” Kahne said. “I’ve been ordered to choose my words carefully, because Hendrick Motorsports doesn’t want anyone to ‘bring up the rear.’”