(SportsNetwork.com) - It's now or never for a lot of drivers if they want to clinch a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Just two positions remain in the 16-driver Chase field, as the Sprint Cup Series concludes its 26-race regular season on Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway.
Kasey Kahne punched his ticket into the playoffs by earning his first win of the season this past Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. With his Hendrick Motorsports teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson already locked in, Kahne had been under a lot of pressure to make the Chase. Prior to Atlanta, he was 33 points behind Greg Biffle for the 16th and final spot on the provisional Chase grid.
"There won't be as much pressure on us for a while now," Kahne said. "I feel like making the Chase, there's a lot of pressure, and you don't really see that again until probably late in the Chase.
"It could be a little different this year, with the way it's structured. But in the past, I've been in the Chase and not felt near the pressure. Late in the Chase, obviously, if you're racing for a championship, that would be the ultimate pressure. But we have never been strong enough late in the Chase to be there, so I think (Atlanta) was max pressure and (Richmond) would have even been more, if we didn't get the win."
Kahne became the 13th different driver to win a Sprint Cup race this season.
Per NASCAR's new playoff format for its premier series, any driver who wins at least one race during the regular season is virtually guaranteed a spot in the Chase, provided he or she has finished in the top 30 in points and attempted to qualify for every regular season race, except in rare instances.
Earnhardt, Gordon and Johnson as well as Team Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano lead the series with three wins each this season. Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick have two victories apiece, while A.J. Allmendinger, Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Kahne have one win each.
Even though he has yet to win a race in 2014, Matt Kenseth guaranteed himself a spot in the Chase after finishing a season-best second at Atlanta. Kenseth has accumulated enough points throughout the regular season to qualify for the playoffs. He is currently third in the point standings.
At least one more driver who has not won a race this season will qualify for the Chase.
Only Ryan Newman controls his own destiny, no matter who wins at Richmond. If there is a repeat winner from this year or if Kenseth scores the victory in the regular season finale, Newman is guaranteed a position in the Chase if he finishes 41st or better, or if he finishes 42nd with at least one lap led.
If there is a new winner this season (not including Kenseth), Newman would automatically clinch a spot with an 18th-place finish or better, or if he finishes 19th and leads at least one lap. A 20th-place finish or higher and the most laps led would secure a position for Newman as well.
Newman is presently 15th on the Chase grid, 19 points ahead of Biffle.
The Chase-clinching scenario for Biffle at Richmond includes a 22nd-place finish or better if there is a repeat winner from this season or if Kenseth or Newman wins the race.
If there is a new winner (not including Kenseth or Newman), Biffle would need to outpoint Newman by 19 points and stay ahead of Clint Bowyer and rookie Kyle Larson. Heading into Richmond, Bowyer is 23 points behind Biffle, while Larson trails by 24.
"If the 5 (Kahne) wouldn't have won, we would have been close to getting locked in with the way all the points shook out," Biffle said following his 10th-place finish at Atlanta. "I don't think we would have been able to lose two spots, but it is what it is. We've got to race as hard as we can. We know if one of those guys behind us (in the point standings) wins next week, it bumps us out, so we'll run as hard as we can."
Bowyer and Larson are the only other drivers who can clinch a spot in the Chase without a victory during the regular season.
Before Atlanta, Bowyer sat 15th on the Chase grid, three points ahead of Biffle and 31 points in front of Larson, who was then ranked 17th. But Bowyer suffered a broken shifter early in the Atlanta race and spent 20 laps in the garage for repairs before his return to the track. He ended up finishing 38th.
Two of Bowyer's eight career wins in the series have come at Richmond -- in May 2008 and September 2012. His last Sprint Cup victory occurred almost two years ago at Charlotte (65-race winless streak).
"It seems like if it weren't for bad luck, we wouldn't have any luck," Bowyer said. "We've been good at Richmond, but we are going to need a really good finish, if not a win, to make it into the Chase."
Larson finished eighth at Atlanta. He is hoping to become the first rookie driver to qualify for the Chase since Hamlin in 2006.
"The top 10 is not bad, but it doesn't really matter anymore because Kasey won," Larson said. "So happy for Kasey, but that pretty much ends our Chase hopes, unless we win."
Paul Menard, Austin Dillon, Jamie McMurray, Brian Vickers, Marcos Ambrose, Casey Mears, Martin Truex Jr., Tony Stewart, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Danica Patrick, Justin Allgaier and Michael Annett are all currently ranked in the top 30 in points, but any one of them would have to win at Richmond in order to make the Chase.
Last week, NASCAR revealed that Stewart would remain eligible for a spot in the Chase despite his not attempting to qualify for the races at Michigan International Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway. He qualified for the Aug. 10 event at Watkins Glen International but did not race there. One day before Watkins Glen, Stewart struck and killed driver Kevin Ward Jr. during a sprint car event at a dirt track in upstate New York. He had been in seclusion for nearly three weeks before his return to racing at Atlanta.
In announcing Stewart's waiver for the Chase, NASCAR president Mike Helton said it was due to "a very unique set of circumstances."
Stewart's first career win in the series happened at Richmond in September 1999, his rookie season. He also won the spring races there in 2001 and '02.
Patrick, who is Stewart's teammate, is coming off a Sprint Cup career-best finish of sixth at Atlanta.
"I have sucked at Richmond every time, so I sure hope I can run well at Richmond now," Patrick said.
David Gilliland, David Ragan and Cole Whitt are 31-33, respectively, in points. It's possible for Gilliland, Ragan or Whitt to qualify for the playoffs if they won at Richmond. All three of them are within 40 points of 30th-place Annett.