Federated Auto Parts 400 Preview: Prelude to the Chase

Federated Auto Parts 400 Preview: Prelude to the Chase

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

We head to Richmond, Virginia and Richmond International Raceway this weekend for the critically important 26th race of the 2016 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 two seasons ago, 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 were adopted to get drivers in by virtue of races wins rather than just points status. Positions one through 12 are already clinched with their performances last week at Darlington and prior. The final four Chase spots are still up

We head to Richmond, Virginia and Richmond International Raceway this weekend for the critically important 26th race of the 2016 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 two seasons ago, 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 were adopted to get drivers in by virtue of races wins rather than just points status. Positions one through 12 are already clinched with their performances last week at Darlington and prior. The final four Chase spots are still up for grabs. Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne and Chris Buescher 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, Ryan Blaney, A.J. Allmendinger, Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 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 four 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 23 races at Richmond International Raceway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Kyle Busch6.96436331,0187,732111.1
Kevin Harvick8.47246411,0038,610110.6
Denny Hamlin10.65126501,4056,673108.5
Jeff Gordon13.45254738836,01199.3
Clint Bowyer12.35382143486,22295.7
Kurt Busch14.85234566865,79294.7
Brad Keselowski15.93262826543,85193.8
Jimmie Johnson15.65063363375,76291.3
Carl Edwards13.85223776395,44090.7
Ryan Newman11.66811431006,67390.5
Tony Stewart12.65152853295,35290.0
Matt Kenseth15.75452896145,74989.2
Kasey Kahne15.95344002815,26187.5
Dale Earnhardt Jr.15.35463642265,49187.4
Joey Logano13.42531221652,84385.4
Kyle Larson13.2130901,34383.1
Martin Truex Jr.21.3448167484,47380.1
Greg Biffle17.0408178634,24378.5
Jamie McMurray19.8391119294,14178.0
Chase Elliott14.0448026277.0

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 Joe Gibbs Racing star Carl Edwards. The driver of the No. 19 Toyota outdueled teammate Kyle Busch to pass him on the last lap to win the Toyota Owners 400. The veteran driver led 151 of the 400 laps and smashed the competition. Edwards beat out short track aces like Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Busch to take the win. The victory was Toyota's second-straight at the Virginia short track.

Once again this weekend, the biggest threat to Toyota dominance at Richmond will come from the Stewart Haas Racing stable. If Toyota hopes to hold off the SHR onslaught, the biggest contenders from that camp will be Harvick and Kurt Busch. The pair have won twice in the last three seasons at the Virginia oval and both are performing well entering the weekend. Also, we can't count out the powerful Fords of Penske Racing. Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano swept Richmond in 2014, and both have the homerun potential to steal this one away for the Ford camp. 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 last weekend. Harvick won the pole and led 214 laps and battled with the leaders all night before finishing runner-up after an air gun jam on a late pit stop foiled his chance to win. 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 61-percent Top-10 rate at this facility, so we wouldn't rule out anything for the No. 4 Chevrolet team this Saturday night.

Kyle Busch -
Richmond International Raceway is statistically Busch's best oval on the circuit. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has four-career victories and a whopping 15 Top-5 finishes 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 15 Top-5 finishes check in at a stellar 68-percent rate for the surging star of this Toyota racing camp. Busch has finished runner-up in his last two Richmond starts, so he's just barely missing victory lane here of late. We get the sense that we'll see his "A" game 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 seven-race Top-10 streak entering this week show that his tough times are now behind him. He is a two-time Richmond winner, and he sports a strong 35-percent Top-5 rate at the ¾-mile oval. With over 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.

Joey Logano -
The Penske Racing youngster has been heating up the last month or so. Logano enters the Richmond weekend with a top Chase seed thanks to his one win and great points standing at this point in the season. He has had fast enough cars to win each of the last four races, but has been missing one piece of the puzzle to get to victory lane. In 15-career starts at the ¾-mile oval, Logano has one victory and five Top-5 finishes to his credit. He's riding a five-race Top-10 streak at the Richmond oval into this weekend. However, it's his victory here in 2014 that grabs our attention the most. It's been a good 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

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 impressive 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, two victories, 639 laps led, five Top 5s and 12 Top 10s in 24-career starts at the central Virginia bull ring. The last time the Sprint Cup Series visited this oval, he made a trip to victory lane. We don't expect that this time around, but Edwards should crack the Top 10 in this Saturday night's Federated Auto Parts 400.

Brad Keselowski -
The Penske Racing star is looking to get the upper hand before the start of the Chase. After a good Darlington performance and finish, he's climbed to second 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 two years ago, and he's led over 650 laps in his last six Richmond outings. The driver of the No. 2 Ford has Top-10 finishes in four of his last five events, so Keselowski is riding a good wave of momentum into this very important race.

Martin Truex Jr. -
Coming off the surprising win at Darlington, Truex is riding high coming to Richmond this week. The No. 78 Chevrolet team posted a great ninth-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 six-career Top 10s at the ¾-mile oval and four of them have come in just his last six 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 crack the Top 10 in the Federated Auto Parts 400.

Kyle Larson -
Larson has high hopes for a good finish this weekend at RIR. He's already locked up a spot in the Chase for the Cup, but he's looking to improve his seeding the playoff format. 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. The momentum of the Chip Ganassi Racing driver is not to be underestimated. Larson has one win and three Top-10 finishes in the last five events. His five-career starts at RIR have yielded one pole position and four Top-15 finishes. We expect to see the No. 42 team up the ante Saturday night. Larson should claim a career-best Richmond finish.

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

Chase Elliott -
After second- and 10th-place finishes the last two weeks, the No. 24 team is looking sharp once again, and Elliott continues to chase that elusive first-career win. This week the task will be simple, hold your points position and race your way into the Chase for the Cup based on points. However, if that opportunity to win presents itself, you can be sure Elliott will seize it. This will be the rookie driver's third-career start at Richmond International Raceway. He has solid 16th- and 12th-place finishes in his first two starts. We expect that the lessons learned from those performances will be employed to great effect this weekend. Look for Elliott to challenge the Top 10.

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 sixth in the point standings, but with the valuable win he needs to hold a berth in the Chase for the Cup. He has been very competitive the last few weeks with one Top-10 and three Top-15 finishes in the last five races. The driver of the No. 41 Chevrolet has a win and three Top 10s in his last four Richmond starts. Busch will be looking to improve his level of performance in one final tune-up before the Chase for the Cup.

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 ¾-mile oval aren't very impressive, but he is a two-time winner at this facility. The veteran driver has really picked up his performance at RIR since joining Joe Gibbs Racing a few seasons ago. Kenseth has cracked the Top 10 in seven of his last eight starts at the Richmond short track entering this weekend and that includes one pole and over 500 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.

Jamie McMurray -
This veteran driver has been riding a pretty hot hand of late. McMurray comes into Richmond with three Top 10s and four Top 15s in the last five races. He'll be looking to race his way into the Chase for the Cup, so motivation won't be in short supply. McMurray didn't do much to distinguish himself at Richmond earlier in his career, but recent starts have turned very positive. The driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet has three Top-5 and five Top-15 finishes at Richmond in his last six trips to central Virginia. McMurray knows he needs a good performance to lock up a Chase berth, so he'll be on his "A" game for this 400-lap battle.

Ryan Newman -
He's struggling to maintain Top 15 standings status all season, but that urgency seemed to kick into high gear the last month. The veteran driver's urgency to perform and secure a spot in the Chase was evident with his eighth-place 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 ¾-mile oval in recent seasons, especially in the fall installment at this track. Three of his last six trips to RIR have resulted in Top-10 finishes. He hasn't finished outside the Top 20 at Richmond since the 2008 season. He has the potential to crack the Top 10 again in this prime time racing event.

A.J. Allmendinger -
While it would take a Hail Mary style win for Allmendinger to make the Chase for the Cup, we still expect the No. 47 team to bring it strong for the Federated Auto Parts 400. The veteran driver has been racing with that sense of urgency the last month or so. Allmendinger grabbed Top-10 finishes at Watkins Glen and Bristol, and he collected Top-15 finishes at Pocono and Michigan. The team has looked very well balanced on those varying style of race tracks. The Top 10 at Bristol's short track is very noteworthy considering we'll be short track racing again this weekend. Allmendinger has seven-career Top-15 finishes in 18 starts at RIR.

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 (16.2 average finish). He hasn't won at the track since 2008, and his Top-10 rate at RIR has now dropped to a lowly 41-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 33rd-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.

Aric Almirola -
The season can't end soon enough for the struggling Richard Petty Motorsports driver. However, Almirola will have to struggle through the next 11 events before he can take a break and hit the reset button during the off-season. The veteran driver has only one Top-20 finish in his last five races, and he has two troubling DNF's. Richmond International Raceway has held a certain amount of success for Almirola with three Top 10s in nine-career starts (33-percent). However, it's his most recent race at the Virginia short track that we need to pay the most attention. Almirola started 24th and finished 21st in this April's Toyota Owners 400. It was his worst finish at the small oval since the 2012 season.

Paul Menard -
Unfortunately for Menard, he's done nothing over his career to distinguish himself at Richmond International Raceway. In 19-career starts he's only posted one Top-10 finish and has a lowly average finish of 23.6. The No. 27 Chevrolet team has had an inconsistent season, and this track has always posed problems for the veteran driver. Menard's recent level performance has been a concern as well. With finishes of 26th- and 22nd-place in his last two Richmond starts, the RCR driver is clearly struggling at the Richmond short track. 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 19 trips to the central Virginia short track. 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 is limping into the final third of the season with two DNF's and three finishes outside the Top 25 in the last five races. It's best to steer clear of the No. 16 team and Biffle for this Richmond race.

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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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