Ragan, Kahne race for Chase

Published 2:23 pm Wednesday, September 3, 2008

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer are in. David Ragan and Kasey Kahne want to knock them out.

There’s just one race remaining to determine the 12 drivers who will advance into the Chase and compete for the Sprint Cup title, and this year there’s actually a bit of intrigue.

Bowyer is officially on the bubble, holding down the 12th and final qualifying spot and needing a solid run at Richmond International Raceway to lock up his berth. It doesn’t hurt that he’s returning to the site of his only victory this season.

Of course, some will say he backed into that May victory. Remember, Hamlin dominated the race before a tire problem turned it over to Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch. Those two wrecked out of the lead late, and Bowyer slid past to steal the win.

Still, he was in position to do so and running near the front might be all it takes for him to make the Chase. He’s got a 17-point lead over Ragan and is up 48 over Kahne, the only two drivers with a realistic chance of racing their way in.

“It’s crunch time,” said Bowyer, who can clinch a spot by either winning at Richmond, or finishing second or third and leading the most laps.

“If there’s anything that gives you a good feeling, it’s knowing we won there in the spring, and it’s a track I typically run good at,” he added. “But Richmond is a track where anything can happen, too.”

Hamlin knows that all too well.

Richmond is his home track and he desperately wants to win there. The checkered flag was certainly in his sight in May, when he started from the pole and ran away from the field to lead 381 of the 400 laps. That late tire problem cost him the win and he wound up a heartbreaking 24th.

Although he’s holding down the 11th spot in the standings, another disaster could cost him his Chase spot. He has a bit of cushion, though, and can clinch his berth by finishing 21st, 22nd and leading one lap, or 25th and leading the most laps.

Then there’s Ragan and Kahne, two surprises for very different reasons.

Ragan is in just his second full season of Cup, but struggled through his rookie year and earlier debuts when on-track inexperience angered several veterans. But he’s matured tremendously, and has had a quiet but consistent second season that gives him a legitimate chance to race his way into the Chase.

With Bowyer in striking distance, Ragan knows he controls his own fate.

“The bottom line is we’ve got to go out and beat these guys, no other way around it,” Ragan said.

Indeed, if Ragan wins the race and leads the most laps, he’s in. But that’s no easy feat: Ragan is winless in all three of NASCAR’s top series.

And he’s not exactly been running out front all season. Through the first 25 races, Ragan has only led 15 laps while notching nine top-10 finishes.

He understands that making the Chase is a tremendous achievement, but his Roush Fenway Racing team is a long way from actually contending for the title.

“I think we are a Chase team … but we are not quite a championship team yet,” he said. “You can’t contend for the championship without winning some races. Winning a race is a must.”

There’s also the question of whether Ragan can handle the pressure of one race that ultimately determines how successful a season you have. Since the 2004 addition of the Chase, making it has been the benchmark for judging a year.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been in a situation to be in such a highly watched, one-race kind of year, that you’re make or break,” Ragan said. “I probably don’t realize how big this race is. Maybe after the year is over, I will have time to sit back and think about it.

“But I’m trying not to go about it like that. We’re tense, and we’re thinking about it. But we’ve just got to run our race.”

Kahne is surprisingly sitting back in 14th spot in the standings despite two wins and a hot streak in the early part of summer that briefly made him a serious title contender.

He’s slipped since late June, finishing 33rd and 30th in Sonoma and New Hampshire, and cemented his bubble status with consecutive 40th-place finishes at Michigan and Bristol last month.

“I went into Michigan kind of thinking we had been running really strong, we had been right there every weekend, and maybe we had a shot at being sixth in points,” Kahne said. “Then ‘just racing’ happens. We’re 14th looking in now. It’s going to be close to see if we can even get in the deal now.”

Kahne has been in the Chase before, in 2006 when he finished eighth in the final standings.

But he’s also missed it — in 2004 — with a poor run at Richmond when he entered the event mathematically eligible to make it.

It will take work to get in this year. Kahne needs to finish the race with 48 points more than Bowyer and 31 points ahead of Ragan to clinch a spot.

“We’ve been put in a position where all we can do is do our best and hope it works out for us,” Kahne said. “If we run our race, it doesn’t necessarily mean we are going to make it into the Chase.”

The race is scheduled for Saturday night, but many expect the event to be delayed by Tropical Storm Hanna.

NASCAR can probably wait as late as Wednesday to run the event, and Richmond president Doug Fritz said he’s keeping a close eye on the storm. NASCAR’s top series does not race in the rain, and Fritz said he’d keep fans updated with twice daily postings on the track’s official Web site.

“We are working closely … to monitor the path and potential impact of the storm,” Fritz said. “As always, the safety of our fans, competitors and the local community is of the utmost importance.”