Richmond is Chase make-or-break for MWR drivers Bowyer, Vickers

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Virtually every winless driver in the top 30 in points is still hoping for a Hail Mary chance to make it into the upcoming Chase for the Sprint Cup this Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway.

But the pressure is perhaps the most on Michael Waltrip Racing’s two Cup drivers, Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers.

Bowyer had been in the Chase picture up until this past Sunday’s race at Atlanta. Between Kasey Kahne’s win and Bowyer’s 38th-place finish, the latter is now on the outside looking in when it comes to the Chase bubble.

Bowyer enters Richmond 23 points behind Greg Biffle, who is the driver on the bubble for the 16th and final Chase berth.

Bowyer can still make the Chase on points if Biffle has a tough night at Richmond and finishes 24 positions behind Bowyer in the race.

Vickers, meanwhile, is a distant 78 points behind Biffle. The only way Vickers can make the Chase is to win Saturday.

“It’s going to be a battle,” Vickers said in a team media release. “It’s going to be intense, that race, knowing that it’s not just about the guys on the cusp for points, it’s about anyone that can win.

“The intensity is going to kick in. To be honest with you, it’s been there all year. I think that every week you show up, your goal is to win and you do everything you can to try to get that win.”

Perhaps not wanting to jinx his chances, Bowyer isn’t talking about the pressure on him this weekend. But he still has plenty to say about the race itself.

“This is one of my best race tracks,” said Bowyer, who has two wins, three top-5 and nine top-10 finishes in 17 starts at the ¾-mile oval. “Looking back over the years you always have a track that fits your driving style and you’re confidence level is more for some reason and this has always been the case for me.

“We’ve run well in the Nationwide Series, always run well in the Cup Series and I’m always excited to get there. This is a fun racing weekend. The fan base is awesome. Night races are always extra special. I’m looking forward to having another good run. Like I said, this is one of my favorite race tracks. People all across the country ask you where your favorite tracks are and this is first or second on my list.”

But Bowyer and Vickers also return to the track that one year ago was the site of one of NASCAR’s biggest scandals in years.

In last season’s final Chase qualifying race at Richmond, MWR executive vice president/general manager Ty Norris wound up being suspended by NASCAR for an attempt to manipulate the finish to get then-MWR driver Martin Truex Jr. into the Chase.

The ploy proved extremely costly for the organization, which was fined a NASCAR record $300,000, and also lost long-standing sponsor NAPA, which pulled its sponsorship after the incident.

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Nearly 25 drivers already set for 2018 Indy 500… in mid-November

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Friday’s announcement that Danica Patrick would end her full-time driving career with a run in the 102nd Indianapolis 500, after also running the Daytona 500 in January, is another shot in the arm for the 2018 marquee event of North American open-wheel racing.

Surprisingly, it keeps the grid moving forward too to where nearly 75 percent of the 33 cars are already set… in mid-November, 2017.

Early confirmations of programs for the next year’s Indianapolis 500 aren’t new, but they’re seemingly coming earlier than normal this year, with a number of expected programs getting announced in the fall of 2017.

Coupled with the fact most of the IndyCar full-season grid for 2018 is set, it’s interesting to take a look at what’s already set for next year.

CONFIRMED FULL-SEASON (19)

The only things to add here are Dale Coyne Racing’s second driver in the No. 19 Honda, the road and street course driver for Ed Carpenter Racing in its No. 20 Chevrolet who may or may not be able to get an Indianapolis 500 extra seat in a third car, and the expected confirmation of Carlin’s graduation into IndyCar after three seasons in Indy Lights.

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (2, Honda): Scott Dixon, Ed Jones
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (2, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan, Matheus Leist
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

CONFIRMED PARTIAL SEASON/INDY ONLY (4)

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Juncos Racing (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Danica Patrick

Here’s where it gets interesting. Castroneves is Team Penske’s confirmed fourth, and Juan Pablo Montoya could be a hypothetical fifth if the stars align – but it’s not in the immediate plans at this moment.

Patrick also makes her somewhat surprising Indianapolis comeback and with Penske, Andretti Autosport and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing not fielding her, the stars are aligned for her to drive with Chip Ganassi Racing in what would be a third car. Neither Patrick nor Ganassi said it’s happening today, but Ganassi acknowledged discussions, via NASCAR Talk.

Wilson finally gets his Indianapolis 500 shot with Andretti a year later as its fifth car. The team ran six last year, with the two Indy-only entries coming in separate partnership efforts between McLaren and Honda (Fernando Alonso) and Michael Shank Racing (Jack Harvey).

Jack Harvey is a very intriguing story for how he’ll be racing next year. NBC Sports understands a working relationship is being hatched between Shank and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and with Harvey bringing a program on behalf of AutoNation/SiriusXM to grow his role into a third-to-half season of racing, this could slot in nicely as SPM’s third car. While not “officially” confirmed, it would not be a surprise to see news revealed from the concerned parties in December.

How could Harvey become SPM three when SPM three was already announced, you ask? With the Calmels Sport with SPM program reportedly on thin ice after negative press, the unlikely union of the French team owner Didier Calmels, one-time open-wheel driver turned-sports car veteran Tristan Gommendy and SPM appears set to join the “announced and dropped before ever turning a wheel” club.

Kaiser’s four-race program with Juncos Racing was announced last month and the Indy Lights champion will likely have Chevrolet power, given the team’s existing relationship from 2017.

WHAT’S STILL TO COME

Playing it out a bit with the usual, “how many engines can each manufacturer provide” story, we know Honda ran 18 cars this year and was stretched to capacity, leaving Chevrolet with the remaining 15.

Work the math from here. Provided Carlin officially announces its entry (it still hasn’t to this point, but is known to have hired IndyCar personnel) and with Honda already stretched between its 12 previously announced full-season cars (4 Andretti, 2 Ganassi, 2 RLL, 2 SPM, 2 Coyne), with a 13th engine available at some races, Carlin would have to be at Chevrolet.

For Indianapolis, Honda already begins to work its car count further beyond those 13 (if SPM 3 gets added for more races) with Ganassi 3 (a TBD, but would be Patrick if confirmed here) and Andretti 5 (Wilson) to get to 15, which leaves just three leases at play to get to 18… again, this is in mid-November.

Provided Pippa Mann can work towards her annual appearance with Coyne, factor in a possible sixth Andretti car and an 18th Honda lease – perhaps a third car at RLL or fourth at Ganassi, SPM or Coyne – and suddenly the Honda inn would already be booked up.

Chevrolet would have the rest, and you can figure out the math from there.

It may only be mid-November, but the race to secure a berth on the grid for next May is already well underway.