NASCAR Throwback weekend’s finale on Sunday was a painful one for Clint Bowyer fans; he finished last after his engine failed just 18 laps into the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. It was a disappointing end for the Emporia, Kansas native who finds himself in the 17th spot in the playoff standings – currently missing the cutoff by 91 points. That means that everything is on the line this weekend at Richmond; he will need a win to earn a spot in the playoffs.
Nothing is impossible, and that may be especially true for Bowyer headed into this weekend. He boasts two wins and four Top-5 finishes at Richmond. That record is the third-best among drivers who have yet to guarantee their spot in the playoffs, behind only Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth, who is currently in on points. A win by Bowyer, or anyone else who has yet to notch one in 2017, would mean the end of playoff hopes for another KC-area driver: Joplin, Missouri native Jamie McMurray.
McMurray is currently on the bubble, holding onto the 16th and final playoff spot. If there is a repeat winner on Saturday, McMurray will be safe. A new winner, though, would make things interesting. Though McMurray is safe from being eliminated on points (it is not possible for Bowyer to close the gap; it’ll take a win to change the picture), he sits only one point behind Matt Kenseth, and only three behind Chase Elliott. A bad night for either McMurray, Kenseth or Elliott combined with a 2017 first-time winner would shake up the playoff picture and cut the drivers getting in on points to two. That could, of course, be McMurray himself. He has never won at Richmond, but has earned eight Top-10 and three Top-5 finishes at the track.
None of the drivers fighting for the last three playoff spots are new to this kind of pressure. Kenseth, Elliott and McMurray all qualified for the postseason last year, with Kenseth holding on until the third round. Both Elliott and McMurray were eliminated following the first round cutoff. Bowyer’s last trip to the playoffs (formerly The Chase) came in 2015, when he qualified on points. His championship run was cut short, though, after losing points to first-round penalties. He was eliminated before the second round.
The first step to winning a championship is making the playoffs, and this weekend’s race will solidify whose dreams are still alive.