NASCAR Barometer: Keselowski Reigns in Richmond

NASCAR Barometer: Keselowski Reigns in Richmond

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Brad Keselowski started from pole position and led all but 17 laps in Saturday's Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway. As the driver having scored the most regular-season wins with Saturday's victory, it guarantees the No. 2 driver the top seed in the Chase for the Championship, which kicks off next week at Chicagoland Speedway.

Saturday's race stood in stark contrast to the action-packed affairs we're used to seeing at Richmond. There was no trace of the usual fender-to-fender racing that makes short-track racing so exciting, and was characterized by long green-flag stretches that are relatively uncommon at short tracks. Additionally, Penske Racing's dominance made it virtually impossible for other teams to try gambling on pit road, leading to a relatively clean and processional affair.

The race locked the Chase field, though, with Ryan Newman and Greg Biffle joining the exclusive club. Those two drivers join Matt Kenseth as the only drivers in the Chase field without a win. That means Kyle Larson and Clint Bowyer, two drivers once on the cusp of a spot, are on the outside looking in. While non-Chase drivers will be searching for wins in the last 10 races, most of the attention will be focused on the championship contenders.

UPGRADE

Brad Keselowski - Keselowski started from pole Saturday night, and jumped out to an immediate lead once the racing got under way. He dominated the vast majority of the race, pausing only to battle with briefly with Kevin Harvick. His domination set the series record for the most laps led in a race and was nothing short of comprehensive. Saturday's win earns him the top seed heading into the Chase, and those extra points that come with that distinction could prove extremely valuable. Keselowski is a past winner in Chicago with three of his last five starts resulting in top-10 finishes there. While fantasy owners can't expect the same domination this week, Keselowski's confidence is going to be sky high.

Kevin Harvick -
Harvick was the only competitor able to challenge the dominance of Keselowski early in Saturday's race. The No. 4 was able to get his nose out front and lead a few laps, breaking the No. 2 team's stranglehold on the race. That challenge came early on, though. Harvick endured trouble on pit road again, which prevented him from being able to challenge Keselowski's dominance for the rest of the race. Harvick admitted that the work on pit road is the biggest area that the team needs to improve in order to contend for this season's championship. Harvick has two wins, seven top-5s, and eight top-10s from 13 Chicago starts. His average finish at the track is 9.9, and he should be strong again this week.

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon was finally able to overcome the bad luck that plagued his last few races. The driver of the No. 24 battled an ill-handling car for much of Saturday's race, but wrestled it to a solid finish. Throughout the race Gordon was complaining about how bad he felt the car was running, only to be told by his crew that he was one of the fastest cars on track. The veteran persevered through the difficulty and tallied yet another top-5 finish to set off into the Chase with the breeze at his back. Gordon has an average start and finish of 11.6 at Chicago in his 13 races there. His lone win at the track came in 2006, and he finished sixth in last year's race.

Jamie McMurray -
McMurray worked hard Saturday night and put himself in position to capitalize if anything altered the dominance of the top drivers in Richmond. The chips didn't fall in his favor, though. McMurray raced to a top-5 finish, his first since finishing fifth at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May. Though the team came up short of a spot in the Chase, this season's effort and promise shone much brighter than the recent past, and many strides have been taken forward. This team could be one to watch next year as they continue to make moves to climb up the pecking order. McMurray has one top-5 and two top-10 finishes at Chicago in his career for an average finish of 22.4.

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer did everything in his power to force his way into the Chase Saturday night, but all of that effort simply was not enough. He put together a great handling car and was able to come into close contact with Keselowski after a debris caution, but a third-place finish was all that the team could muster. He will certainly be disappointed to miss the Chase, but Saturday's effort was a solid step forward as the team works to build an organization that can be considered a regular championship contender. Bowyer has only failed to score a top-10 finish once in his eight trips to Chicago, and boasts an average finish at the track of 10th. There is still time for a Bowyer win this year.

DOWNGRADE

Greg Biffle - Biffle had to do all he could to hang on to his spot in the Chase Saturday night. The No. 16 car didn't have what Biffle needed to race further ahead in the pack than he was, and he spent much of the night on the cusp of falling out of the Chase as a result. The number of competitors multiple laps down to the leader was ultimately what saved Biffle's free fall and gifted him his spot in the Chase. Though Roush Fenway Racing has taken major steps forward as the season approached the playoffs, Biffle and the No. 16 still appear to be a step behind the true contenders. Biffle's Chicago record includes just one top-5 finish with an average result of 18th from 11 starts.

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth drifted high into the marbles and made contact with the outside wall early in Saturday's race. The hit damaged his car's suspension and forced him behind the wall for repairs. When the team made all the necessary fixes the No. 20 car rolled back onto the track more than 60 laps down to the leaders. Kenseth also has a past win at Chicago, and carries an average finish of 11.8 from his 13 starts there. His Richmond outing is not the send off into the Chase the team was looking for, but that is now the hand they've been dealt. Kenseth has been consistent and threatening much of this season, and continues to race well most weeks. He will need to bounce back quickly from this disappointment.

Kyle Busch -
Yet again Busch failed to match expectations. He is a favorite each time he visits Richmond, and for good reason. In Friday's Nationwide Series race he led every single lap en route to victory, but wasn't able to make much of an impression on Sunday. The Joe Gibbs Racing teammates just didn't have the edge that the lead cars had on Saturday and Busch wasn't able to overcome that. He finished 14th Saturday, which wasn't great, but continued his run of consistent steps forward in finishes since he finished 42nd at Pocono Raceway six races ago. Busch needs to continue that improvement. He has scored top-5 finishes in each of the last two Chicagoland races, which bodes well for his ability to continue that climb this week.

Denny Hamlin -
Though Hamlin never had the machinery to be able to effectively compete with the leaders last week, unfortunate circumstances stunted what might have otherwise been a better finish. The No. 11 didn't qualify or practice well for Saturday's race, and was deeper in the pack when a caution period for a fan climbing the safety fence in turn 4 caught him two laps down. Hamlin was not able to recover from that misfortune and ended the race outside of the top 20. Hamlin will need to reverse his trend at Chicago to improve this week. He has never won at the track, and scored just one top-10 finish in the last four races there. He ended this race last year with an engine failure.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Jimmie Johnson - Despite finishing eighth in Saturday's race, Johnson is still the biggest surprise of the race due to his health. Johnson, one of the fittest drivers on the circuit, was dehydrated and exhausted following the race. Johnson exited his car and was forced to the ground due to dizziness and cramps. He was taken to the infield care center and received five liters of intravenous fluid. An athlete of Johnson's condition to endure such a shock could raise big questions and doubts in the champion's mind. He was scheduled to compete in a triathlon Sunday, but will be a spectator instead. He will need some rest and recovery before heading to Chicago where he has never won, and carries an average finish of 8.9 from 12 starts.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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