Saturday night's race at Richmond International Raceway is the last one before the 16-driver Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field is set. (The Federated Auto Parts 400 is at 7:30 p.m. Saturday on NBC Sports Network.)
The field for the 10-race Chase is filled primarily with 16 drivers who win races during the “regular season.” When there aren’t 16 different winners, the remaining spots go to the top points earners who did not win a race. This year, there have been 11 different race winners, so either four or five spots will be awarded based on points after Saturday night.
Dave Burns is part of the NBC Sports broadcast team for NASCAR. He’ll be in his familiar role of pit reporter Saturday. Burns spoke with The News this week about what to expect in Virginia, and about his view from the pits.
Burns said some of the drama at Richmond will be watching drivers who can only get into the Chase with a race win. That list includes Greg Biffle, Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon, AJ Allmendinger, Casey Mears, Danica Patrick, Tony Stewart, David Ragan, Sam Hornish Jr., Trevor Bayne, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Justin Allgaier.
Then there are drivers on the bubble such as Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola and Kasey Kahne, who can make the Chase only if they make a substantial gain in points to overtake other drivers.
“There’s not a lot of room there for Almirola to gain on Bowyer if Bowyer has a halfway decent night,” Burns said. “So from that standpoint, and even for Almirola, how does he do himself the best? He wins the race and then Bowyer gets pushed out.”
Burns, who also does some NASCAR broadcasts as an analyst in the booth, said there have been some outstanding individual stories this year on the Sprint Cup circuit. Probably none stands out more than Kyle Busch, who suffered a broken right leg and a fractured left foot after a wreck at Daytona on Feb. 21. Busch missed 11 races after that, but was back racing a Sprint Cup car 84 days after his accident. He ended up winning four races and qualifying for the Chase.
“Coming back from any injury for an athlete is incredibly difficult, but the demands that are put on a driver” are extraordinary, Burns said.
“I think anything Kyle does now and through the Chase is pretty compelling. The way that he came back, and the attitude, the fortitude he had to have to stick with it, showed us a different side of him that nobody wants to see, but I think we didn’t know that Kyle had it. … He’s maybe tougher than we thought. He’s maybe a little more dedicated than even we thought.”
Another big story is Jeff Gordon, who is racing his final full-time season. Gordon, 44, can clinch a spot in the Chase by finishing 17th or better at Richmond.
“Jeff is trying to put that championship spark in one more time,” Burns said. “That’s been fun to watch. He has handled it extremely well. Everywhere he goes, people want to give him gifts, and congratulate him and thank him for a wonderful career. I think that’s been pretty compelling as well.”
What’s the toughest part of being a pit reporter? Burns said it is being brief.
“The job requires that we are in and out of the broadcast very quickly,” he said. “Sometimes the noise is so great that it really is kind of a pain for us to be on much more than that because we’re right down in the action.
“That noise adds to the excitement of the report, but we can’t take but 30 seconds, 45 seconds -- a minute is a really long report. And so you think about the kind of information that you want to get into a story in that short period of time, and the challenge is to be brief with words.
“And that’s something that I’m not always good at, and I certainly wasn’t good at when I started, but that’s the challenge now. What kind of a punch, what kind of impact can I make in a short period of time to give the viewer something to grab onto and go away with.”