Federated Auto Parts 400 Preview: Cut to the Chase

Federated Auto Parts 400 Preview: Cut to the Chase

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

We head to Richmond, Va., and Richmond International Raceway this weekend for the all-important 26th race of the 2014 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 during the off-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 to get drivers in by virtue of races wins rather than just points status. Positions one through 14 are already clinched with their performances this past week at Atlanta and prior. The final two Chase spots are still up for grabs. Ryan Newman and Greg Biffle currently occupy the final two 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, Clint Bowyer and Kyle Larson are 23 and 24 points outside the Chase field. 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 either Newman or Biffle. 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 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 19 races at Richmond International Raceway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Denny Hamlin9.84265901,3905,592112.5
Kyle Busch7.05815349316,593111.1
Kevin Harvick8.86334709217,017109.9
Clint Bowyer12.04851853485,23298.7
Jeff Gordon14.64604078834,88398.1
Tony Stewart9.64622763294,75694.5
Ryan Newman11.05911221005,74792.0
Kurt Busch16.24393673404,37990.9
Carl Edwards13.94632924884,56690.1
Jimmie Johnson17.64082832934,26288.2
Kasey Kahne16.94553552814,45587.6
Dale Earnhardt Jr.16.34303432264,16986.8
Brad Keselowski18.52481542562,32685.8
Matt Kenseth16.04421522604,49085.7
Jeff Burton15.545892754,60885.5
Greg Biffle16.2355176633,87181.5
Martin Truex Jr.21.9389146483,77881.1
Joey Logano16.317962461,52277.8
Jamie McMurray22.030572253,04274.8
Aric Almirola19.47720055371.9

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 three victories this season for Penske Racing driver Joey Logano. The driver of the No. 22 Ford took the lead from Matt Kenseth on the final green-flag run and led the last four laps to win the Toyota Owners 400. Logano out-battled short track aces like Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski to take the win. The biggest threat to the current Ford dominance at Richmond will likely come from the Stewart Haas Racing and Hendrick Motorsports stables. Kevin Harvick and Gordon combined to lead 196 laps the last time we visited RIR and both have shown the ability to win throughout this season. It could be a night for the No. 4 Chevy team to shine, or for four-time champion Gordon to find his winning stride heading into the Chase. Also, we can't count out the powerful Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch has enjoyed a vast amount of success at this oval, and he has won four prior races at the Virginia short track. 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 the Federated Auto Parts 400. 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 his potential at Atlanta last weekend. Harvick suffered a subpar Top-20 finish despite leading 195 laps and looking like the driver to beat most of the night. 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 59-percent Top-10 rate at this facility, so we wouldn't rule out anything for the No. 4 Chevrolet team this Saturday night.

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 a five-race Top-10 streak stopped at Atlanta this past weekend, and he's looking to get back on track in the Federated Auto Parts 400. In 11 career starts at the three-quarter-mile oval, Logano has one victory and three Top-5 finishes to his credit. However, it's his victory here in April's Toyota Owner's 400 that grabs our attention the most. It's been a career-defining season for Logano and that shouldn't change this 400-mile battle in the Richmond oval.

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 rides a four-race Richmond Top-10 streak into this weekend and that includes one pole and 180 laps led over the span. His start here in April netted 35 laps led and a strong fifth-place finish. Kenseth has some unfinished Richmond business that he'll likely take care of this Saturday night.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin is peaking at the right time. His Top-5 finish this past weekend at Atlanta may signal that his tough times are now behind him. He is a two-time Richmond winner, and he sports a whopping 43-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.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning

Jeff Gordon -
The Hendrick Motorsports legend is second only to Terry Labonte among active drivers with 27 Top 10s at Richmond International Speedway, to go along with his two career victories. Gordon comes to Richmond's small oval this week in a great situation regarding the Chase. Despite a poor Atlanta finish, he stands atop the standings going into the Richmond cutoff. With over 1,600 career laps led at RIR and an impressive 63- percent Top-10 rate at the small oval, Gordon has the stats to back up this claim. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet doesn't have urgency on his side this Saturday night, but the team will surely look at this race as a tune up in contending for the championship in the coming weeks.

Brad Keselowski -
The Penske Racing star is looking to right the ship before the start of the Chase. After a poor Atlanta finish, he's slipped to fifth 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. In the last two races at this historic short track, Keselowski has led well over 250 laps, and it netted him a fourth-place finish here in the spring of this year. The driver of the No. 2 Ford is not far removed from his runner-up finish at the Bristol short track a couple weeks ago, so the team has very high expectations for this event.

Carl Edwards -
We don't typically think of Roush Fenway Racing star Edwards when it comes to short track racing, however the No. 99 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, 427 laps led, four Top 5s and eight Top 10s in his last nine trips to the central Virginia bull ring. His most recent outing at Richmond yielded a ninth-place finish in April's Toyota Owners 400. Edwards should crack the Top 10 once again in this Saturday night's Federated Auto Parts 400.

Ryan Newman -
He's been living up to his potential most of the summer, by maintaining his Top 10 driver points status. The veteran driver's urgency to perform and secure a spot in the Chase was evident with his Top-10 finish this past weekend at Atlanta. 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. Over that four-race span Newman has a strong average finish of 8.5. He has the potential to better that mark in this prime time racing event.

Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Richmond who can provide a solid finish

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 qualified 13th and finished seventh in April's Toyota Owners 400, so the Hendrick team has this oval pegged. That was Earnhardt's second Top-10 finish in his last three trips to Richmond. If you're looking for a very safe fantasy racing play at Richmond International Raceway, Earnhardt is your guy.

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 nine Top 10s at the Virginia short track. Bowyer has led most of those laps in just the last three 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 to clinch a spot in the Chase, and we expect the team to give 100-percent effort at Richmond.

Brian Vickers -
Vickers 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 not that big of a reach. However, it's far more likely that Vickers will replicate the performance he had here in April. The veteran driver piloted the No. 55 Toyota 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.

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 21st in the point standings, but with the valuable victory he needs to hold a berth in the Chase for the Cup. He has been very competitive the last few weeks with two Top-5 finishes in the last four races. The driver of the No. 41 Chevrolet had a particularly strong fifth-place finish at the Bristol short track a couple weeks ago. Busch led 73 laps and finished runner-up in this event one year ago so chances are good for another Top-10 effort this Saturday night.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The No. 78 Chevrolet team posted a great Top-10 this past April at Richmond International Raceway, and that's just the last of many great runs for this driver at this short track. Truex has four career Top 10s at the three-quarter-mile oval and two of them have come in just his last two trips to central Virginia. Considering that not much has gone right the last three weeks for this driver and team, 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.

A.J. Allmendinger -
Allmendinger will be back behind the wheel of the No. 47 Chevrolet again this weekend at the Richmond short track. He had been racing very well until his mishap and bad finish at Atlanta this past weekend. His last seven trips to this three-quarter-mile oval have been very successful. Allmendinger has bagged three Top-10 and six Top-15 finishes in those appearances. That works out to an impressive 11.0 average finish at the short track since the 2010 season. The JTG Daugherty Racing veteran makes about the best start you can find at the end of your fantasy racing lineup.

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 (17.9 average finish). He hasn't won at the track since 2008, and his last visit to the Top 10 was in 2012. 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 last four trips to the Richmond short track have netted finishes of 13th-, 12th-, 40th- and 32nd-place. 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.

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. However, his recent malaise goes beyond just poor performance and more over into the attitude and morale side of things. Busch hasn't cracked the Top 10 in the last five events and he has two demoralizing DNF's during this span. It culminated with his run-in with Martin Truex Jr. this past weekend at Atlanta. If there was ever a driver "going through the motions" it's Busch at this point and time.

Paul Menard -
Unfortunately for Menard, he's done nothing over his career to distinguish himself at Richmond International Raceway. In 15 career starts he's only posted one Top-10 finish and has a lowly average finish of 24.5. The No. 27 Chevrolet team has had a great season, but this track has always posed problems for the veteran driver. In Menard's last start at the historic short track, he qualified ninth and finished a disappointing 24th in April's Toyota Owners 400. 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 15 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 the Chase spot that he currently holds, and that added pressure may work against him at an oval where he's historically struggled.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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