Federated Auto Parts 400 Preview: The Scramble for the Chase

Federated Auto Parts 400 Preview: The Scramble for the Chase

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

We head to Richmond, Va., and Richmond International Raceway this weekend for the crucial and final regular-season race of the 2017 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 Monster Energy Cup Series 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 every season since the format change to 16 drivers. With the changes that NASCAR introduced to the Chase three 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. Positions one through 13 are already clinched with their performances this past week at Darlington and prior. The final three Chase spots are still up for grabs. Chase Elliott, Matt Kenseth, and Jamie McMurray currently hold those final

We head to Richmond, Va., and Richmond International Raceway this weekend for the crucial and final regular-season race of the 2017 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 Monster Energy Cup Series 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 every season since the format change to 16 drivers. With the changes that NASCAR introduced to the Chase three 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. Positions one through 13 are already clinched with their performances this past week at Darlington and prior. The final three Chase spots are still up for grabs. Chase Elliott, Matt Kenseth, and Jamie McMurray currently hold those final spots based on point, but have one more race to navigate before they can celebrate. As far as the drivers outside-looking-in go, Clint Bowyer, Erik Jones, Joey Logano and Daniel Suarez are outside the Chase field, and need some help to get in. These drivers would need to pull the Hail Mary win in the Federated Auto Parts 400 to get the automatic bid in. The points disparity is so great that none of these four drivers are going to catch the drivers currently in the final three spots of the Chase. 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 25 races at Richmond International Raceway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Kevin Harvick8.28146721,0149,370110.4
Denny Hamlin9.85707441,6537,473110.3
Kyle Busch7.37236451,0198,462109.8
Brad Keselowski14.34504027644,60896.9
Kurt Busch14.26274696896,31294.3
Clint Bowyer12.95692203486,54293.5
Matt Kenseth16.86013737816,43190.5
Jimmie Johnson15.25933433376,21790.3
Ryan Newman12.17641511257,23989.7
Kyle Larson11.721831202,08688.3
Joey Logano12.53691431903,55287.4
Dale Earnhardt Jr.16.05723662265,57986.2
Kasey Kahne15.85854082815,50386.2
Martin Truex Jr.20.05072652415,24083.5
Jamie McMurray18.7488124294,87179.9
Aric Almirola16.21725201,39974.5
Chase Elliott17.89812055773.2
Ty Dillon26.0304022368.7
A.J. Allmendinger20.92856712,17068.4
Austin Dillon22.012213095567.6

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 the only victory of the season for Penske Racing star, Joey Logano, albeit an encumbered victory. The driver of the No. 22 Ford outdueled Kyle Larson over the final green-flag run to capture the victory. However, NASCAR later ruled that the win was encumbered due to a technical infraction (rear suspension violation) on Logano's Ford. The win would not give him the automatic berth in the Chase for the Cup. The victory for the Penske Ford camp snapped a three-race Toyota win streak at Richmond. Logano now returns to Richmond in desperation mode. He's desperately seeking a win in order to qualify for the Chase, and also erase the specter of his penalty-stricken win at this historic short track earlier this season. Considering the recent struggles of the No. 22 team, this would seem to be a very unlikely scenario for Saturday night.

Once again this weekend, the biggest threat of dominance at Richmond will come from the Toyota teams of Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing. Denny Hamlin is on fire right now and coming off the big win at Darlington this past week. His JGR teammate, Kyle Busch, is also surging and coming off the big short track win at Bristol a couple weeks ago. Martin Truex Jr. is one of the top drivers to beat every week, and Richmond weekend will be no exception. Also, we can't count out the powerful Fords of Stewart Haas Racing. Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch are both improving with each passing week, and the ability to win races is almost within reach for both of these veteran drivers. Brad Keselowski is a one-time Richmond winner, and he finished runner-up here in the spring. There's no ruling out the strong No. 2 team for the possibility of a surprise performance. 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

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin is peaking at the right time. His win at Darlington this past week and his six Top-5 finishes in the last eight races show a surging No. 11 team coming to Richmond. He is a three-time Richmond winner (including this event one year ago), and he sports a strong 41-percent Top-5 rate at the three-quarter-mile oval. With over 1,650 laps led at RIR, Hamlin is quite comfortable with racing at this historic short track. In last year's Federated Auto Parts 400, the Joe Gibbs Racing star led 189 laps from the pole and captured his third-career victory at the track. Hamlin followed that up with a brilliant third-place Richmond finish in April. He's the driver to beat 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 63-percent rate for the surging star of this Toyota racing camp. Busch has finished runner-up in two of his last four 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.

Martin Truex Jr. -
Coming off the disappointing near-miss of victory lane at Darlington, Truex is racing very well coming to Richmond this week. The No. 78 Toyota team posted a good 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 eight-career Top 10s at the three-quarter-mile oval and four of them have come in just his last five trips to central Virginia. The Furniture Row Racing star turned in his career-best Richmond performance in this event one year ago. Truex led 193 laps and finished third in that Federated Auto Parts 400. He has the capacity to turn in that same performance again. Considering that he's already engraved into the Chase field and having a great season, Truex will swing for the fences in this one as he has nothing to lose.

Kevin Harvick -
The SHR star showed a lot of potential at Darlington this past weekend. Harvick won the pole and led 22 laps before falling back to finish ninth after some struggles. He is locked into the Chase field thanks to his victory at Sonoma this summer, 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 64-percent Top-10 rate at this facility. The veteran driver has picked up the pace of late with Top-5 finishes in five of his last six Richmond starts. We wouldn't rule out anything for the No. 4 Ford team this Saturday night.

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

Brad Keselowski -
The Penske Racing star is looking to get back in top form before the start of the Chase. After poor finishes in the last four-straight races, the No. 2 team comes to Richmond looking to reverse their fortunes before the Chase for the Cup begins. Keselowski will look to exploit his short track racing expertise in this 400-lap event. 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 three years ago, and he's led over 750 laps since the 2013 season at Richmond. The driver of the No. 2 Ford has finishes of fourth- and second-place in his last two outings at RIR, so Keselowski has some quiet confidence entering this race.

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 13th 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 three Top-10 finishes in the last four races, including a strong third-place finish at Darlington this past weekend. The driver of the No. 41 Ford has a win and five Top 10s in his last six 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. Kenseth is winless through the first 25 races, but still faces the probability he'll be racing in the Chase the following week at Chicago. Entering the free agency pool in 2018, he'll be looking to impress over the final 11 races to improve his chances of signing somewhere good for next year. Kenseth's stats at the three-quarter-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 six of his nine Richmond starts since joining JGR. During that span he's led over 700 laps, claimed two pole positions and claimed a victory in one event. It's difficult to see that Richmond excellence faltering for Kenseth in his last start at the oval for Gibbs.

Erik Jones -
The impressive rookie just keeps reeling off great finishes. Last week Jones slayed the rookie-unfriendly Darlington oval. He posted a brilliant fifth-place finish in the Bojangles' Southern 500. That keeps him squarely in the solid plays list again this week for Richmond. Since we're returning to a short track, it's difficult to forget Jones' pole position, tons of laps led and runner-up finish at the Bristol short track just a couple weeks ago. This should be another great short track performance for the No. 77 Toyota team. Jones crashed and DNF'd here in April, but don't let that deter your fantasy racing expectations. This driver and team are hot right now, and everything they touch turns to fantasy racing gold.

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

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 in 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 potential of the Chip Ganassi Racing driver is not to be underestimated. Larson recently sat on the outside pole at the Bristol short track, led 70 laps and cracked the Top 10. His seven-career starts at RIR have yielded one pole position, one runner-up finish and six Top-15 finishes. We expect to see the No. 42 team up the ante Saturday night. Larson is prepping to challenge for the championship.

Joey Logano -
The Penske Racing youngster has been just awful the last several weeks. Logano is currently mired in a five-race Top-10 drought and he's been conspicuously missing from racing at the front with the leaders since the late spring. The No. 22 team is in disarray. However, there's one thing that's not in question, and that's Logano's talent. He has it in spades, and he's quite skilled at racing at Richmond as his stats bear out. The Penske Racing star rides a seven-race Richmond Top-10 streak into this weekend, and he has two career victories at the oval, although the one in the spring was heavily penalized by the sanctioning body. Logano will look to erase that blight on his record and race his way into the Chase with a Hail Mary win. He won't likely win, but he'll turn in his best performance in weeks attempting to win.

Jimmie Johnson -
This is typically the race where Clark Kent steps into the phone booth and becomes Superman. Johnson has muddled through most of the summer, much like he did in 2016. However, once we got to Richmond and the races began to really count, the No. 48 team picked up their game. We expect that to happen again this year. Johnson owns three-career victories at this oval and 12 Top-10 finishes. Those are not eye-popping Johnson-esque numbers, but there is a pattern of consistency here of late. His last two Richmond starts yielded a pair of 11th-place finishes. Before that he had a four-race Richmond Top-10 streak on the board. The No. 48 team has been better at this short track in recent seasons, and it's good enough to warrant some fantasy consideration this Saturday night.

Jamie McMurray -
This veteran driver has been riding a pretty hot hand of late. McMurray comes into Richmond with two Top 10s and five Top 15s in the last six 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-10 finishes at Richmond in his last eight 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 -
Newman's win earlier this season at Phoenix has him firmly fixed into the Chase field, but he'll still be racing for seeding and to work out the kinks before the Chase begins. Fortunately for the No. 31 team, Newman has Richmond International Raceway pegged. His 31-career starts at RIR have yielded one win, and 17 Top-10 (55-percent) finishes. Newman's most recent start at the oval in April netted 25 laps led and a strong seventh-place finish. The short tracks have been more than kind to this veteran driver and team in 2017, and Newman should take full advantage in this very important race. His three-race Top-10 streak entering the weekend also shows the current momentum of this Richard Childress Racing driver as we enter the playoffs.

Clint Bowyer -
While it would take a Hail Mary style win for Bowyer to make the Chase for the Cup, we still expect the No. 14 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, but his luck has been miserable at times. Bowyer sports some pretty strong career Richmond stats. He's a two-time winner at the historic short track, and he has a strong 12.9 average finish for his career at the facility. The veteran driver cracks the Top 10 here at a very respectable 52-percent rate. Bowyer finished 15th here in the spring, but we would peg that as the floor. He has a much higher ceiling for this event since so much is on the line. With a Chase berth on the line, the No. 14 team and Bowyer should step up their game considerably at Richmond.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Chase Elliott -
The No. 24 Chevrolet team just hasn't been as sharp as we'd like to see approaching the Chase. Elliott's last seven races have only yielded two Top-10 finishes. While it hasn't been all bad for this driver and team, it has been a whole lot of mediocrity. Richmond International Raceway hasn't been a venue of success for this young driver. In Elliott's four-career starts at the oval he's collected 16th-, 12th-, 19th- and 24th-place finishes. That's far from excellent. When we look back to the No. 24 team's last start on a short track just a few weeks ago at Bristol, Elliott labored to an unimpressive 18th-place finish in the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race. We're not exactly moved with optimism for this weekend.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
We can't stop picking on Earnhardt, not even for Richmond weekend. The No. 88 team's malaise continued at Darlington last week. That's an oval that the NASCAR icon has normally sliced and diced due to the high-groove style of racing there. His 22nd-place finish was very uncharacteristic for Darlington. Now Earnhardt comes to Richmond for his last-career start at this oval. He's a three-time Richmond winner and sports a respectable 40-percent Top-10 rate at this facility. However, current trends suggest to ignore the career stats for this driver and team. Earnhardt labored to a woeful 30th-place finish here in April. We're not optimistic that a reversal or rebound effort is in store for this driver and team.

Kasey Kahne -
Kahne is locked into the Chase due to his surprising Indianapolis win a few weeks ago. That assurance won't motivate the No. 5 team to much of a degree this weekend. It is likely that we're seeing one of a handful of Kahne's final starts to cap his 14-seaon Cup career. Heading into 2018 as a free agent driver and with few prospects to race, Kahne could likely be entering the twilight of his NASCAR career. You would think that would motivate this veteran driver to better finishes, but it hasn't. Since the Indy win he's only visited the Top 15 once in his last five starts. Richmond wasn't a good outing earlier in the year either. Kahne's 22nd-place finish in that event mirrors his 20.3 average finish to this point in the 2017 season.

Ryan Blaney -
The Wood Brothers Racing driver has fallen on hard times of late. Blaney has been riddled with inconsistency through the late summer coming into fall. The No. 21 team is coming off a disappointing 31st-place finish this past week at Darlington, and looking to shore things up before the Chase begins. Blaney's kryptonite this season has been the short tracks. Anything under a mile in length has been problematic for the No. 21 Ford team. Although Blaney did slug his way to hard-fought 10th-place finish at Bristol a couple weeks ago, that outing has been the exception rather than the rule. He crashed and finished 36th at Richmond in April, and that has been more the story for this driver at RIR. He's yet to crack the Top 25 in his three-career starts at this tough short track.

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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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