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Air Guard 400 Preview: The Cut for the "Chase"

Mark Taylor

Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A four-time FSWA award winner, Taylor was named the 2016 Racing Writer of the Year. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

The Sprint Cup Series comes to Richmond, Virginia and Richmond International Raceway this weekend for the all important 26th race of the 2010 season. The "cut" for the 12-driver 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 Top 12 to make their push and get into the Chase. 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. 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 spectacle that no racing fan would dare miss. It will be interesting to see which "bubble" teams can pull that clutch performance on this prime-time stage and vault into the Chase, and what possible teams may have a heart-break and miss the 10-race playoff format. Positions one through 11 are pretty much locked up. The 12th and final spot is the real hot potato for this event. Clint Bowyer currently holds down that spot, but he has Jamie McMurray, Mark Martin and Ryan Newman lurking about 120-140 points behind waiting for the driver of the No. 33 Chevrolet to stumble.

Since Richmond's oval is a short track with its own group of dominant drivers, let's take a look at the recent history at RIR and see who will be running up front this weekend. The short tracks usually bear the usual suspects when it comes to driver efficiency, so some of these names could 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 11 races at Richmond International Raceway.

Denny Hamlin8.82653548993,445117.4
Kyle Busch5.53093366243,937114.1
Kevin Harvick8.53553536804,130114.0
Jeff Gordon16.22352396483,13899.5
Tony Stewart8.32881891963,17598.2
Kurt Busch15.62932622312,81095.4
Mark Martin11.318014462,86493.9
Ryan Newman11.029267833,61893.8
Clint Bowyer10.229543242,67693.7
Dale Earnhardt Jr.17.62432521522,35888.8
Kasey Kahne16.82512342492,53988.4
Jimmie Johnson17.32461372452,34387.0
Jeff Burton14.627068452,88486.8
Greg Biffle14.317390572,32583.6
Martin Truex Jr.23.722163292,08981.9
Carl Edwards18.523179172,09579.5
Matt Kenseth19.317670491,85978.2
Marcos Ambrose14.0924043975.7
David Reutimann19.4147491041,13375.1
Juan Pablo Montoya23.42122001,38674.8

This is the second of two races this season at Richmond International Raceway. The first time around was race No. 10 in May of this year. It was one of three wins this season for Kyle Busch. The Joe Gibbs Racing star led 226 of the 400 laps run in the Crown Royal Heath Calhoun 400 and took the third straight win for owner Joe Gibbs at Richmond International Raceway. Busch's teammate Denny Hamlin won this event one year ago in similar dominating style, so you could say that the Gibbs' boys are defending their home turf this weekend. The biggest threat to Toyota dominance at Richmond will likely come from the Hendrick Motorsports stable. Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon have combined to lead 670 laps at this small oval in the last six races. It could be a night for the No. 24 team to shine, or for defending champion Johnson to find his winning stride heading into the Chase. Here is our list of drivers to take the checkers, and to post solid runs at Richmond International Raceway, under the lights.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Jeff Gordon
The Hendrick Motorsports legend is second only to Mark Martin among active drivers with 23 Top 10's at Richmond International Speedway, with his two career victories. Gordon's success at the Virginia short track isn't out of date either. He's riding a seven-race Top 10 streak at RIR into this event, and he's led a whopping 600-plus laps during this span. Gordon led 144 laps in May at Richmond and finished runner-up for the fifth time in his career at the Virginia short track.

Denny Hamlin
Hamlin has been mired in a really bad slump in the handful of races leading up to the Chase. However, the driver of the No. 11 Fed Ex Toyota is a very talented and dangerous short track driver. Hamlin has good stats on the short tracks at RIR is no exception. He's led a whopping 899 laps in just nine career starts at the small oval and he's brought home five Top-10 finishes in those events. Hamlin collected his first career Richmond win in this race one year ago, when he dominated the Chevy Rock & Roll 400.

Jimmie Johnson
Strangely enough, Richmond is one of Johnson's worst tracks on the circuit from an average finish standpoint (17.8 average finish). However, he has rallied later in his career to post great numbers at the three-quarter-mile oval. He changed that stigma with three victories between the 2007 and 2008 seasons. Johnson has returned to his mediocre form the last two years at Richmond, but we believe the Chase will force him to be on top of his game this weekend. The No. 48 team will kick it into high gear with the Chase approaching, so another win is easily possible despite this team's recent struggles.

Kyle Busch
Richmond International Raceway is statistically Busch's best oval on the circuit. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has won the last two spring races at the Virginia short track, and he comes there this weekend hoping to win his first fall race at the facility. Busch clearly knows how to run up front at Richmond, and the numbers bear this out. He boasts an amazing nine Top 5's in 11 career starts at RIR. Considering that Busch is not far removed from his dominant short track win at Bristol a couple weeks ago, we expect the No. 18 Toyota to be lightning fast this weekend.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are a near lock for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning

Tony Stewart
Three-time Richmond winner Stewart is looking to establish his level of competitiveness heading into this season's Chase for the Cup. Stewart's win at Atlanta last weekend will go a long way towards staking that claim on this season's championship. He enters this event with a 65 percent Top 10 rate at the facility and that ranks him among the best in the Sprint Cup Series. While a long shot for victory lane at Richmond, we believe the urgency to secure a good spot in the Chase for the Cup will lead Stewart to yet another Top 10 at the three-quarter-mile oval.

Kevin Harvick
Harvick has just one more race to get through in order to assume the point position for this season's Chase for the Cup. The Richard Childress Racing veteran is having a fantastic season, and is just too good at Richmond International Raceway to ignore. He owns an incredible 10 Top-10 finishes in his last 11 starts at RIR, and that includes one victory (2006). With the kind of season the No. 29 team is having, we wouldn't rule out a surprise run for the checkers this Saturday night.

Jeff Burton
Burton is on target for his typical 18-20 Top-10 finishes in a season. The driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet has had some modest success at the short oval in Richmond. Burton owns a career Top 10 rate near 47 percent and he has three Top 10's in his last four trips to the central Virginia track. In this spring's Crown Royal 400, the Richard Childress Racing veteran looked particularly strong leading 20 laps and finishing fourth.

Ryan Newman
The Stewart-Haas veteran is a one-time winner at Richmond International Raceway, and he has a portfolio full of Top-10 finishes at the small oval. Short tracks have been good to the No. 39 team all season long, as evidenced by Newman's recent Top 10 at Bristol. Newman is riding a three-race Top 10 streak at RIR into this event, and that includes his solid eighth-place finish here in May of this year.

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

Martin Truex Jr.
The No. 56 Toyota team returns to the scene of their solid seventh-place finish at RIR in the spring. Truex doesn't sport even slightly impressive career numbers at the three-quarter-mile oval but he does bring the experience of crew chief Pat Tryson to Richmond. The veteran chief not only guided Truex to his Top 10 at the small oval in the spring, but he also led his former driver Kurt Busch to a lot of success at the facility. We expect the MWR star to rack up another great finish in the Air Guard 400.

Clint Bowyer
This week we visit one of the tracks that Bowyer has collected a Sprint Cup Series win. Richmond has been good to the RCR racing star. Aside from the win he has four career Top 10's at the Virginia short track. The No. 33 Chevrolet team will be racing to secure their spot in the Chase, and we expect the team to give 100 percent effort with the season on the line.

Kurt Busch
The No. 2 team is running well this season and battling to secure a good spot in the Chase for the Cup. A good finish at Richmond will be instrumental in helping Busch to secure a good spot in the field. Busch loves short track racing and he's a one-time winner at RIR. While he's not performed at peak efficiency of late at Richmond, Busch should be poised for a great finish on Saturday night. He overcame lots of adversity to finish second in this event one year ago. A similar performance could be in store this weekend.

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 come on strong in recent weeks. We believe this momentum will carry into the Richmond weekend. Edwards has only four career Top 10's at RIR, but one of those come in the spring race at the small oval. It was a career-best fifth-place finish for Edwards that day. We don't think he'll be that good this Saturday night, but a Top-15 finish would seem to be a lock.

Brad Keselowski
It's hard to base a fantasy racing recommendation simply on the basis of one good race, but that's what we're doing with Keselowski. We've seen a lot of progress from the Penske Racing youngster this season. He's proven to be most effective on the series' short tracks, and his three Top-15 finishes at Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond this spring bear that fact out. He most recently finished 19th at Bristol, so Keselowski should be primed for a similar Top 15 effort at Richmond this weekend.

Marcos Ambrose
He's been pretty solid on short tracks during his brief Sprint Cup Series career. These were the first ovals that Ambrose began to show some real signs of talent on after switching to NASCAR. The driver of the No. 47 Toyota recorded a career-best Richmond finish in May with a solid ninth-place finish in the Crown Royal 400. That is Ambrose's best oval-track finish in the 2010 season.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Jamie McMurray
McMurray's on-and-off season has frustrated fantasy owners. He has shown signs of being super-dominant (with wins at Daytona and Indianapolis) but he can come back the following week and look less than impressive. McMurray has only three career Top 10's in 15 starts at RIR, and a lowly average finish of 25.2 at the Virginia short track. There are weeks to play the No. 1 Chevrolet team, and this is not one of them.

Mark Martin
This season can't seem to end soon enough for Martin and the No. 5 team. The veteran driver has been held out of victory lane to this point in 2010, and he looks like a sure bet to miss this season's Chase for the Cup field. Despite having good career Richmond stats, Martin looked totally clueless when the Sprint Cup Series visited here in the spring. Martin posted a decade-worst 25th-place finish at the three-quarter-mile oval, and his recent subpar outing at Bristol is a bad indicator heading into this weekend.

Matt Kenseth
Of the elite drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Kenseth is the one to avoid this weekend. The Roush Fenway Racing star has one career win at RIR, but it came years earlier in his career. Kenseth has been locked out of the Top 10 in his last six trips to the Central Virginia oval, and that doesn't bode well heading into Saturday night's Air Guard 400.

Elliott Sadler
The veteran driver is looking for a new ride for the 2011 season, and this is not a good weekend to audition if you're Sadler. The Virginia native has had career-long struggles at his home state track. Sadler has one career Top-10 finish in 23 trips to Richmond International Raceway. His last four visits to the track have been particularly bad with no finishes inside the Top 25. The No. 19 team is not likely to reverse this trend in this visit to RIR.