The final preview of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase kicked off Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway with Carl Edwards and Juan Pablo Montoya bringing the field to the green flag. It was the second pole of the season for Edwards and he immediately picked up the bonus points for leading a lap, not that they mattered.
As with most short-track races, Saturday night at Richmond was a close affair with plenty of cars rubbing one another and racing hard. Brakes were on every team's mind as they worked to keep them cool and avoid any failures. Like ever other race though, it was the team that could keep up with the changing track that would take the victory.
When the night was over we officially knew who would be the 12 Chase competitors and how they would rank heading into the final races. Hamlin, with his sixth win of the season coming Saturday night, will be the top-ranked driver in New Hampshire, the first of the final 10 races making up NASCAR's playoffs.
Denny Hamlin Hamlin was able to wrestle control of the lead at Richmond after Carl Edwards had taken his turn for the first segment. Hamlin was on a charge and there wasn't much that was going to keep him away from the lead. Hamlin came off of a last-place finish just one week ago in Atlanta to be one of the fastest cars yet again. The other Chase competitors have to be wary of the No. 11 team, but Hamlin knows that he is not immune to mistakes and poor finishes. He'll need his dominant consistency from earlier in the season to take root now if he wants to win his first championship.
Kyle Busch Busch started deep in the field Saturday night, but was firmly at the front in the closing laps. Busch has now scored five top-10 results in the seven races leading into the Chase. His worst finish in that stretch was 23rd at Pocono Raceway. Numbers like those suggest that we could be looking at a serious title challenger. Busch finished 11th in his last visit to New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and looks likely to get his Chase started with great momentum behind him. Busch could be the title favorite, but in order to win it, he'll have to beat his teammate.
Jimmie Johnson Johnson had another strong night at Richmond where he was one of the fastest cars. That situation has been the case at a number of tracks this season, but in 2010 more than other years he has been struck down by bad luck. The four-time champion is hoping that he has passed his bad luck streak and that it is clear sailing to his fifth Sprint Cup. Johnson practically owns New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He hasn't finished outside of the top 10 at that track since 2006, and he is on a run of seven straight top-10 finishes there as well. If there was ever a lock for Johnson as a fantasy starter, next week is it.
A.J. Allmendinger The No. 43 team had a great night in Richmond. Allmendinger qualified in the top five and hung with the leaders much longer than most people would have expected. He was fifth after yellow-flag pit stops just before the halfway mark and ultimately finished eighth. The Californian has only enjoyed one top-five and four top-10 finishes so far this season, but their effort at Richmond will give the team a lot of encouragement. Allmendinger is already looking forward to the 2011 season, but he did score a top-10 finish at New Hampshire earlier this season. If you are looking for a fourth fantasy option next week, Allmendinger might be your man.
Carl Edwards Edwards started the season with just one top-five finish in the first 10 races. In the last seven races he's scored five of them. Edwards and the Roush Fenway Racing teams have definitely turned up their wicks as the season has come down to the wire. Edwards is focused on the Chase, and went into Saturday night chiefly focused on the 10 bonus points a victory would give him to begin the final run. The No. 99 finished 25th in the last New Hampshire Motor Speedway race, and they've only scored one top-10 result in the last five starts there. Edwards may be on a roll, but he has some work to do to overcome his New Hampshire statistics.
Greg Biffle Despite clinching a spot in the Chase, Biffle had a rough night and wasn't a factor in Saturday night's results. He found himself pitting directly after a caution just before the halfway mark because of a flat tire. That issue put him a number of laps down and ruined any chance he had at winning the race. Biffle scored five top-fives and 14 top-10s this season prior to the Chase, and consistency will be a big positive to have on your side to win this championship. Biffle and team will need to find that consistency, and avoid any other mistakes and problems in order to put the Sprint Cup in their trophy case.
Mark Martin Martin's season of struggle continued Saturday night in Richmond. He was never one of the fastest cars and battled with chassis set up throughout the night. Unusually, Martin was running the night off of the lead lap. He would not overtake Clint Bowyer for a position in the Chase, but even if he had made it, his results this season indicate that he wouldn't have been a title threat. Martin won the 2009 Sylvania 300, so he certainly knows how to close the deal at New Hampshire though. His average finish in the last five races at the track is 10.2. With just seven top-10s so far this season, it is tough to see Martin having much of an impact in the remaining races.
David Reutimann Reutimann finds himself in the downgrade column for the second week in a row. While racing Kurt Busch early in the race, the two had contact, which cut a tire on Reutimann's car, spinning him out and bringing out the first caution of the night. Even with tough results like Saturday's, the No. 00 Michael Waltrip Racing team has a lot to be proud of in 2010 with a win and five top-fives with another 10 races left to run. With just one top-five finish to his name at New Hampshire, Reutimann may be in store for another difficult weekend, but the team still has some spring in its step.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. The current season has been a disaster for Earnhardt. Each time it looks like he is ready to pounce with a fast car, something jumps up and bites him. This week the handling of the car just went south very quickly. By the time the race took a short break for some rain, Earnhardt was three laps down. Nothing has gone right for him this year and he is outside of the Chase along with teammate Mark Martin. One of Earnhardt's six top-10 finishes came in the team's last visit to New Hampshire earlier this year. His average finish in the last five races at the track is 17.0.