By Cathy Elliott
Cathy Elliott
Cathy Elliott
Although each NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race presents its own unique challenge for drivers, the fall event at Richmond International Raceway – coming up on Saturday evening, September 10 – is the one that draws the definitive line in the sand. 

The race is reminiscent of those old magazine advertisements featuring the 98-pound weakling at the beach. When the tanned, buff bully kicked sand in his face and stole his girl, he didn’t just grab his plaid shirt and nerdy eyeglasses and run off to hide. 

Instead, he got motivated; he fought back. He signed up for the home bodybuilding program made famous by Jack LaLanne (who died earlier this year at the remarkable age of 96) and, with hard work and determination, transformed himself into a contender. When the next confrontation rolled around, he was ready. He drew a line in the sand and dared anyone to cross it. That line, we were told, separated the men from the boys. Fur (and sand) flew, but in the end, there was only one man standing. 

I suppose stock car racing and beach brawls have something in common; they both enjoy a challenge. Richmond’s September race weekend is the line that separates the “Men Who Would Be Champions” from the “Guys Who Can’t Hope to Finish Better than 13th.”

Richmond’s fall race is one of the most heavily-promoted events of the season. This is the place where hope meets hype, and everyone from the speedway staff to the media to even NASCAR itself makes certain every possible stop is firmly pulled out. The result is a relentless flood of activity that, from early practice and qualifying sessions until the checkered flag waves on Saturday night, never seems to come up for air. It is a weekend of NASCAR breathlessness. 

Like any good game, it is also a weekend of speculation. The majority of the drivers in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup won’t exactly be walking through the garage with bags over their heads. We will already know who they are, approximately how many points separate them from the handful of guys still in contention to make the Chase, and how many bonus points they’ll start the Chase with. 

We have watched them take one gamble after another for 25 weeks. Now, the moment has come for them to recoup their investment, to line up after the race for that great annual group photo op. We know that come November, one of those 12 smiling faces will be our 2011 champion. 

But which one? In this particular contest, the things we don’t know are the ones that interest us the most. Any good – or bad – gambler is painfully aware that a wild card can completely change the game in a moment, and this game has two of them. The time has come to show those cards, and speculation is running rampant. We know they are face cards, but whose faces will they be?

Here’s the deal (no pun intended), for anyone who is still mildly confused about exactly how NASCAR’s new wild card system works. 

The number one concern I hear rests on the heads of certain veteran drivers and fan favorites who are currently hanging around in the bottom of the top 10, but haven’t won a race this year. Good news: consistency still counts for a lot in NASCAR. At the end of the Richmond event, if your favorite driver’s points total is still high enough to rank him in the top 10, he’s in the Chase, whether he’s won a race or not. You’re good to go. 

If your guy ranks somewhere between 21st and 43rd in the driver standings, now is a good time to go ahead and pick someone else to pull for during the Chase. Even a win at Richmond isn’t going to get the job done for him this season. He can, however, still make it to Victory Lane in the final 10 races, so take heart; his year (and yours) may not be a total loss. 

With the final two spots in the Chase up for grabs, you mid-pack people are in the most interesting position. Consistency may be king, but the performance prince is sitting right there next to him. Spots 11 and 12 boil down to the most basic component of competition -- winning. These two seats will be filled by the pair of drivers ranked 11th through 20th who have the most wins. In the event of a tie, the guy ranked higher in the driver standings gets the nod. 

We have been right there with the competitors this season. We have invested 25 weeks’ worth of time, effort, money and attention in the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, and the moment of payoff is here. Richmond gives us that moment, drawing the ultimate line in the sand, one that only a dozen drivers have the ability to cross. This small track packs a powerful punch. Jack LaLanne would no doubt be proud. 

Talk about tension; Tums would have been a great sponsor for this event, but leave it to Richmond to find one even better. How appropriate that this year’s Chase-setting race is named the Wonderful Pistachios 400, because it is definitely going to be nuts.