Updated Sep 10, 2015 at 6:51p ET
We head to Richmond, Va., and Richmond International Raceway this weekend for the critically important 26th race of the 2015 season. The cutoff for the NASCAR playoff known as the Chase for the Cup will occur when the checkered flag waves after 400 laps of racing at Richmond. This is the last opportunity for teams outside the Chase field to make their push and get into the playoff that decides this season's Sprint Cup champion. As we've seen in the past several seasons with the Chase format, it's not too late to pull that clutch performance and make it into NASCAR's post-season playoff. We've seen drivers win their way into the Chase field and race their way in like Brian Vickers did in 2009. With the changes that NASCAR introduced to the Chase last season, we have several drivers hoping to win at Richmond and get one of those final 16 spots in the Chase lineup. So, we should have some surprises in store this weekend, and some real sense of urgency on the driver's part. When you put the drama of all this under the lights at Richmond International Raceway, then you have a prime-time sporting event that no racing fan would dare miss. The additional Chase spots have been adopted in order to get drivers in by virtue of races wins rather than just points status. Positions one through 11 are already clinched with their performances this past week at Darlington and prior. The final five Chase spots are still up for grabs. Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon, Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer are currently vying for those final spots and have some work to do yet to clinch those spots going into the Chase. As far as the drivers outside-looking-in go, Aric Almirola, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle and Kyle Larson are outside the Chase field, and need some help to get in. These drivers would need to win the Federated Auto Parts 400 to get an automatic bid in, or they would need to make a leapfrog pass in the standings of the five drivers currently on Chase spots. So at best, their chances are very slim of making this season's Chase for the Cup.
Since Richmond's oval is a short track with its own group of dominant drivers, let's take a quick look at the recent history at RIR and see who will be running up front this weekend. The short tracks usually produce familiar names when it comes to driver efficiency, so some of these drivers should look familiar as compared to Bristol which was run just a couple weeks ago. The urgency to make the Chase will have an impact on performances, but we still expect the short track aces to have the best outings at Richmond. Here are the loop stats for the last 21 races at Richmond International Raceway.
|DRIVER||AVG FINISH||QUALITY PASSES||FASTEST LAPS||LAPS LED||LAPS IN TOP 15||RATING|
|Dale Earnhardt Jr.||16.0||489||356||226||4,817||86.9|
|Martin Truex Jr.||21.4||414||162||48||4,172||81.0|
This is the second of two races this season at Richmond International Raceway. The first time around was race number nine in the schedule in April of this year. It was one of two victories this season for Stewart Haas Racing driver Kurt Busch. The driver of the No. 41 Chevrolet outdueled Brad Keselowski to dominate the Toyota Owners 400. The veteran driver led 291 of the 400 laps and smashed the competition. Busch beat out short track aces like Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski to take the win. The victory was Chevrolet's first at the track since Harvick visited victory lane there in 2013. Once again this weekend, the biggest threat to Ford dominance at Richmond will come from the Stewart Haas Racing stable. If Ford hopes to hold off the SHR onslaught, the biggest contenders from that camp will be the Penske Racing duo of Joey Logano and Keselowski. The pair have won two of the last three races at the Virginia oval and both are performing well entering the weekend. Also, we can't count out the powerful Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing. Kyle Busch has enjoyed a vast amount of success at this oval, and he has won four prior races at the Virginia short track. His teammate Denny Hamlin is racing well coming into the Federated Auto Parts 400, and he's a two-time winner at RIR. JGR should be well represented on this Saturday night. With so much on the line for so many drivers and teams this weekend, there's certainly going to be a lot of scrambling in this 400-lap event. The following is our review of the drivers to challenge for the checkers, and to post solid runs at Richmond International Raceway.
The Contenders – Drivers in the hunt for the win
Kevin Harvick – The SHR star showed a lot of potential at Darlington this past weekend. Harvick led 44 laps and battled with the leaders all night before finishing fifth. He is locked into the Chase field thanks to his two victories to this point, but looking to go into the playoff with some momentum as we head to Richmond for the regular season finale. Harvick is just too good at Richmond International Raceway to ignore. He is a three-time winner at the small oval, including the 2013 Toyota Owners 400. Harvick also sports an incredible 62-percent Top-10 rate at this facility, so we wouldn't rule out anything for the No. 4 Chevrolet team this Saturday night.
Brad Keselowski – The Penske Racing star is looking to get the upper hand before the start of the Chase. After a great Darlington performance and finish, he's climbed to fourth in the point standings. Keselowski comes to Richmond looking to exploit his short track expertise. The Penske Racing star has subpar career numbers at the Richmond oval, but he's been getting better quickly in recent appearances. He won this event one year ago, and he's led close to 650 laps in his last four Richmond outings. The driver of the No. 2 Ford is not far removed from his runner-up finish and dominant performance at the Loudon short track a few weeks ago, so the team has very high expectations for this event.
Kurt Busch – Busch has high hopes for the Chase this season, and the Stewart Haas Racing driver should be very competitive this Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway. Busch enters Richmond weekend ninth in the point standings, but with the valuable pair of victories he needs to hold a berth in the Chase for the Cup. He has been very competitive the last few weeks with two Top-10 finishes in the last four races. The driver of the No. 41 Chevrolet has a win and runner-up finish in his last four Richmond starts. Busch will be going for the season sweep of RIR in Saturday night's Federated Auto Parts 400, and he will make a strong bid for that sweep.
Joey Logano – The Penske Racing youngster has been absolutely on fire the second half of the summer. Logano enters the Richmond weekend with a top Chase seed thanks to his three victories this season. He has won two of the last four races and that includes the big short track win a Bristol a couple weeks ago. In 13 career starts at the three-quarter-mile oval, Logano has one victory and four Top-5 finishes to his credit. However, it's his victory here in 2014 that grabs our attention the most. It's been a career-defining season for Logano and a run at a first Sprint Cup Series championship that will begin after this 400-mile battle in the Richmond oval.
Solid Plays – Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning
Kyle Busch – Richmond International Raceway is statistically Busch's best oval on the circuit. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has four career victories at the Virginia short track. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota clearly knows how to run up front at Richmond, and the numbers bear this out. His 14 Top-10 finishes check in at a stellar 70-percent rate for the surging star of this Toyota racing camp. Busch didn't get to race at RIR earlier in the season due to the injuries he sustained in his Daytona crash at the start of the season. We get the sense that we'll see the Busch of old in the Federated Auto Parts 400, and he'll serve notice that he's going to be a factor in this season's championship chase.
Denny Hamlin – Hamlin is peaking at the right time. His three-race Top-5 streak entering this week show that his tough times are now behind him. He is a two-time Richmond winner, and he sports a whopping 39-percent Top-5 rate at the three-quarter-mile oval. With close to 1,400 laps led at RIR, Hamlin is quite comfortable with racing at this historic short track. It's been since 2010 when he last visited victory lane at this oval, so motivation to win will be big as well as to continue pointing his team north with the Chase beginning. If you're looking for a wild card to come out of the deck and win the Federated Auto Parts 400, the No. 11 Toyota team could be it.
Carl Edwards – We don't typically think of Joe Gibbs Racing star Edwards when it comes to short track racing, however the No. 19 team has been pretty consistent on the banks of RIR. The scramble to shore up his Chase position will be a big motivating factor for this driver and team this weekend. Edwards has one pole, one victory, 488 laps led, four Top 5s and 11 Top 10s in 22-career starts at the central Virginia bull ring. Coming off the Darlington win this past weekend, the veteran driver is surging coming to Richmond International Raceway. Edwards should crack the Top 10 in this Saturday night's Federated Auto Parts 400.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Earnhardt is a three-time Richmond winner, and top performer at this historic short track. The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet is looking to shore up his standings position prior to the Chase starting, so we're convinced he'll be in top form this weekend. Earnhardt suffered a bit of a Richmond slump from 2009 to 2011, but signs are pointing high for this weekend. He has cracked the Top 10 in his last four-straight oval track races entering the weekend, and that includes the Bristol short track a couple weeks ago. If you're looking for a very safe fantasy racing play at Richmond International Raceway, Earnhardt is your guy.
Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Richmond who can provide a solid finish
Matt Kenseth – This is shaping up to be an odd season for the Joe Gibbs Racing star, and ironically, one of his best chances to challenge for the championship since his 2003 title season. Kenseth's stats at the three-quarter-mile oval aren't very impressive, but he is a one-time winner at this facility. The victory came way back in 2002, and it's high time he visited victory lane here again. Kenseth has cracked the Top 10 in five of his last six starts at RIR entering this weekend and that includes one pole and 180 laps led over the span. His start here in April netted a strong seventh-place finish. Kenseth has some unfinished Richmond business that he'll likely take care of this Saturday night.
Clint Bowyer – This week we visit one of the tracks that Bowyer loves to call one of his favorites in the series. Richmond has been good to the Michael Waltrip Racing star. He has two career victories, close to 350 laps led, and 11 Top 10s at the Virginia short track. Bowyer has led most of those laps in just the last four seasons of racing at RIR. The veteran driver clearly has the skills and knowledge of this small oval to secure a good finish. The No. 15 Toyota team will be racing hard trying to clinch a spot in the Chase, and we expect the team to give 100-percent effort at Richmond.
Kyle Larson – Larson has high hopes for a good finish this weekend at RIR. He's one of a handful of drivers still eligible to win a race and get an automatic bid into the Chase. Given his short track skills and career stats, that's a bit of a reach, but it won't stop the young driver from going for broke this weekend. However, it's far more likely that Larson will replicate the performance he had here in April. The young driver piloted the No. 42 Chevrolet to a respectable 12th-place finish in the Toyota Owners 400. That was one of a few Top-15 finishes this season for this driver on the short track circuit.
Ryan Newman – He's been living up to his potential most of the summer, by maintaining his Top 15 driver points status. The veteran driver's urgency to perform and secure a spot in the Chase was evident with his Top-15 finish this past weekend at Darlington. Newman should surely look forward to Saturday night's Federated Auto Parts 400. The driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet has forged some solid runs at the three-quarter-mile oval in recent seasons, especially in the fall installment at this track. Three of his last four trips to RIR have resulted in Top-10 finishes. He hasn't finished outside the Top 15 at Richmond since the 2011 season. He has the potential to crack the Top 10 again in this prime time racing event.
Martin Truex Jr. – The No. 78 Chevrolet team posted a great 10th-place finish this past April at Richmond International Raceway, and that's just the last of a few great runs for this driver at this short track. Truex has five career Top 10s at the three-quarter-mile oval and three of them have come in just his last four trips to central Virginia. Considering that he's already inked into the Chase field and having a great season, Truex will be very happy to pull into Richmond this weekend. The Furniture Row Racing veteran should challenge the Top 10 in the Federated Auto Parts 400.
Aric Almirola – After Top-15 finishes in two of the last three races, Almirola comes to Richmond International Raceway hoping to race his way into this season's Chase for the Cup. He'll have his work cut out for him in this 400-lap race. The driver of the No. 43 Ford has seven-career starts at the historic Richmond oval and two Top-10 finishes to his credit. Almirola posted the last of those in this event one year ago. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver sits dangerously on the bubble for the Chase entering Richmond, so he knows there's zero margin for error in this race.
Slow Down – Drivers to avoid this week
Jimmie Johnson – Strangely enough, Richmond is one of Johnson's worst tracks on the circuit from an average finish standpoint (17.0 average finish). He hasn't won at the track since 2008, and his Top-10 rate at RIR has now dropped to a lowly 37-percent. Johnson used to carry big point leads to Richmond, so the motivation to race for the win was not there. That won't be the case this weekend, however, his poor recent performances are hard to overlook. His 19th-place finish at Darlington this past weekend is not a good sign coming to Richmond. We expect much more than this from the No. 48 Chevrolet team. It's best to bench Johnson this week and deploy him later on during the Chase.
Jeff Gordon – The Hendrick Motorsports legend is first among active drivers with 29 Top 10s at Richmond International Speedway, to go along with his two career victories. With over 1,600 career laps led at RIR and an impressive 64- percent Top-10 rate at the small oval, it would seem improbable that we've put Gordon in the “slow down” list this week. However, the recent level of performance for this team is very concerning. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet only has one Top 10 in his last five oval track races. That includes two major whiffs at Bristol and Darlington the past two weeks. At this crucial point in the fantasy season it doesn't make sense to gamble on a slumping Gordon and No. 24 team.
Paul Menard – Unfortunately for Menard, he's done nothing over his career to distinguish himself at Richmond International Raceway. In 17 career starts he's only posted one Top-10 finish and has a lowly average finish of 23.5. The No. 27 Chevrolet team has had a steady season, but this track has always posed problems for the veteran driver. Menard's recent level performance has been a concern as well. With finishes of 24th- and 26th-place each of the last two weeks, the RCR driver is limping into Richmond. There are better drivers in the field to select for this all-important 26th-race of the season.
Greg Biffle – The Roush Fenway Racing veteran has cooled later in his career at the Richmond oval. Biffle collected five Top-10 finishes in his first nine starts at the oval. Since then he's only broke into the Top 10 once in his last 17 trips to the middle Virginia oval. While he's had only one DNF for his career at Richmond, the subpar finishes are enough to cross the No. 16 Ford team off the list. Biffle has a lot to race for this weekend to secure a Chase spot that he currently pursues, and that added pressure may work against him at an oval where he's historically struggled.
Taylor is a three-time FSWA Racing Writer of the Year.
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