This weekend's race at Richmond International Raceway is the final event on the NASCAR Sprint Cup calendar before the 10-race Chase for the Championship kicks off. No team wants to arrive at this week's race needing to still book a spot in NASCAR's playoffs, yet every season there are drivers on the brink of popping in, or falling out. Drivers to keep an eye on at the edge of the Chase standings include Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon and the two current wild card holders, Kasey Kahne and Martin Truex Jr.
Last week's race at Atlanta Motor Speedway may have given us a preview of how the Chase field will shape up. Jimmie Johnson encountered problems, but his spot is secure. Kasey Kahne was pushed to the brink by ruining his car in a restart pile up and Kyle Busch locked himself in with a victory. Richmond's final race before the Chase always puts on a good show. This year's edition isn't expected to be any different, and fantasy owners will probably want to choose their starting lineups more carefully this week than others.
Kyle Busch - Busch's win in Sunday night's Advocare 500 clinched a spot in the Chase for the driver of the No. 18 car. It was a strong effort all night from the Joe Gibbs Racing team. Always in contention among the leaders, it did not fall afoul of mistakes on pit road or in adjusting the chassis. Kyle has two wins in the last five Richmond races, one of the better records at the track. His average finish in the last five is 9.6, and he only finished off of the lead lap once in that time. Busch is a top driver without the burden of having to qualify for the Chase this week, which fantasy owners may value more than someone with ground to make up.
Clint Bowyer - Bowyer's Richmond record in the last five races is the best among active drivers. His average finish is 7.6 in that time, including a win and four top-10 finishes. He led much of Sunday's race in Atlanta, looking as though anyone who wanted to take the win would have to make their way past him, but troubles dashed those hopes. The No. 15 was one of a few that suffered engine trouble, and a promising evening turned into a 39th-place classification. Bowyer is another driver who doesn't have to worry about securing a Chase spot this week in Richmond, and the luxury of simply focusing on winning could make the difference. Fantasy owners looking for a safe option that won't be taking too many risks should consider Bowyer.
Kurt Busch - A new full-time drive with a top team can boost a driver's confidence. Busch has made hay with his Furniture Row Racing seat in 2013, and you can rest assured that he'll do the same with Stewart-HAAS Racing in 2014. He only has one top-10 finish in the last five Richmond races, but Busch is riding a wave of momentum forward. Four top-10 finishes in the last five races leading to Richmond demonstrates that Busch has his legs underneath him, and can capitalize on tracks where he excels. He is on the bubble for making the Chase, so he may be a slightly riskier play than others in the category, but Busch is generally a driver who can be used at Richmond with confidence.
Kevin Harvick - Harvick's ninth-place finish Sunday night was just his second top-10 in the last six races. His car was competitive from the green flag, and he avoided the trouble that caught many other drivers out. Harvick's spot in the Chase is secure, and he owns two winner's trophies from the last five races at Richmond. He is another driver looking to leave his current ride on top, before driving for Stewart-HAAS next season. Whenever the Sprint Cup visits Richmond, fantasy players can usually count on a top performance from Harvick. He won at the track earlier this season, and that makes him an even more attractive fantasy option this week when only the victory truly matters.
Carl Edwards - There haven't been many opportunities for fantasy owners to select Edwards this season, but Richmond is a nice time to do so. His average finish in the last five races at the track is 8.0, including two top-5s and four top-10s. He sits fourth in points but hasn't scored consistent top-10 finishes since May. Still, he is another driver who tends to perform well when the series comes to Richmond, and he does not have to take unnecessary risks to claim a spot in the Chase. His sixth-place finish at the track in April came from a start of just 28th, an impressive run that demonstrates promise for this week.
Martin Truex Jr. - Perhaps the most disappointing recent record at Richmond belongs to Truex. His single lead-lap finish in the last five races at the track drops his average finish to a lowly 24.0. He did not score any top finishes in that span and is not the most confident selection for rosters this week. His third-place finish in Sunday's race was just his second top-10 finish in the last seven races. He hasn't scored consecutive top-10s since June and is holding onto one of the two wild-card entries to this season's Chase. The good news is that Truex's Chase hopes lie in his own hands, though he would probably prefer that opportunity come at a track other than Richmond.
Joey Logano - While Logano has made up plenty of ground in the last few races, his continued climb might slow just a bit at Richmond. He sits eighth in points, largely due to his performances in the latest stretch of races. It has been six races since Logano hasn't finished inside the top 10, an exceptional run for this Penske Racing team. Logano's average finish in the last five Richmond races is 20.6, though, and he was only able to finish on the lead lap once in that span. Sure, he scored a top-5 there earlier this season, but that reversed a trend that included three finishes outside of the top 20 in those five tries. Logano is a risk with upside this week.
Brad Keselowski - The No. 2 looked like he could have been on his way to his first victory in 2013 Sunday night in Atlanta. That win wasn't to be, though, as Keselowski dropped from the lead after losing cylinders in his engine. When the night ended Keselowski finished four laps down in 34th position, still searching for a victory for his defense of the title. While the defending champion is typically regarded as a top short-track racer, his record at Richmond isn't the greatest. His last five races at the small oval include just three lead-lap finishes and two top-10s. Consistency is lacking for the No. 2 at the Virginia track, making him a difficult choice for fantasy rosters this week.
Greg Biffle - A single top-10 finish in the last five Richmond races makes Biffle a gamble for fantasy owners this week. His average finish at the track is 18.2 in the last five races, and his average start isn't any better at 24.2. He raced home to a mediocre 15th-place finish Sunday in Atlanta, but turned in three top-10 finishes in the four races prior to last week. Biffle is on the cusp of making the Chase. A good night this week could mean a run at the championship, while a bad one could have the team looking more toward 2014 than the final races of the season. Biffle simply is not as reliable of a fantasy option as others this week.
Denny Hamlin - Hamlin has suffered a number of setbacks in 2013, and won't be a Chase competitor, but Richmond is a place where he typically excels. Yet another stumbling block came Sunday night when he was held on pit lane for not satisfying the penalty he received for a prior misstep, putting him two laps behind the competition. His average finish of 8.2 in the last five Richmond runs includes two top-5 and three top-10 finishes, which is respectable. When he is able to make it to the end of races at the Richmond oval he usually finishes well, but the bad luck he has had in 2013 makes a top finish seem unlikely and would come against the run of play this week.