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Wonderful Pistachios 400 Preview: Cut to 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, Va., and Richmond International Raceway this weekend for the all important 26th race of the 2011 season. The "cut" 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. 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 fan would dare miss. It will be interesting to see which "bubble" teams can pull that clutch performance on this huge stage and vault into the Chase, and what possible teams may go up in flames and miss the 10-race playoff format. NASCAR tweaked the Chase rules before this season started, so it's a bit more complex on deciding who is in and who is out of the Chase field. For the first time, wild card berths have been adopted in order to get drivers in by virtue of races wins rather than just points status. Positions one through eight is pretty much locked up. The final two spots in the Top 10 and the two wild card berths are still up for grabs. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart are looking to sew up the Top 10 berths with decent, Top 20 performances at Richmond. That is all it will take for the duo to claim a spot at the Chase table. As far as the wild cards go, Brad Keselowski currently holds one of those spots with three wins and Denny Hamlin would get the other wild card by virtue of his one victory. The guys that are on life support and would require a Hail Mary to get in would be: A.J. Allmendinger, Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle, Martin Truex Jr., Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano and Mark Martin. These drivers would need to win the Wonderful Pistachios 400 and get some help from other drivers to get in. So at best, their chances are very slim of making this season's Chase.

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 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 13 races at Richmond International Raceway.

Denny Hamlin7.53174931,1884,215120.4
Kyle Busch4.93694408594,641116.0
Kevin Harvick8.84203586804,768110.2
Clint Bowyer9.534587753,47197.9
Jeff Gordon17.62822696523,49297.8
Tony Stewart8.93431971963,63795.9
Ryan Newman11.736269834,17792.6
Mark Martin12.220314963,16992.2
Kurt Busch16.33232722313,11491.2
Jimmie Johnson15.52851732522,84388.7
Kasey Kahne16.72912582782,97888.2
Jeff Burton14.629874683,26786.6
Dale Earnhardt Jr.19.02752651522,52384.2
Carl Edwards16.83031171232,83483.0
Greg Biffle15.7214117572,59081.3
Martin Truex Jr.23.826183412,42981.1
Matt Kenseth19.024274652,46679.5
Juan Pablo Montoya22.225545281,88979.1
Joey Logano12.89631066677.4
Marcos Ambrose14.013114083975.8

This is the second of two races this season at Richmond International Raceway. The first time around was race No. 9 in the schedule in April of this year. It was one of four wins this season for Kyle Busch. The Joe Gibbs Racing star led 235 of the 400 laps run in the Crown Royal Matthew & Daniel Hansen 400 and took the fifth 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 348 laps at this small oval in the last five 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. Also, we can't count out the powerful Fords of Roush Fenway Racing. Carl Edwards has enjoyed a vast amount of success at this oval, and his teammate Matt Kenseth has just been absolutely on fire of late. Here is our list of drivers to challenge for the checkers, and to post solid runs at Richmond International Raceway.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kyle Busch -
Richmond International Raceway is statistically Busch's best oval on the circuit. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has won three of the last five races at the Virginia short track. Busch clearly knows how to run up front at Richmond, and the numbers bear this out. He boasts an amazing 11 Top 5's in 13 career starts at RIR. In addition, Busch has led over 850 laps in those 13 starts. With the Chase for the Cup just around the corner, no better time for a statement win by the No. 18 Toyota team than now.

Jeff Gordon -
The Hendrick Motorsports legend is second only to Mark Martin among active drivers with 23 Top 10's at Richmond International Speedway, to go along with his two career victories. Gordon has been coming on steadily of late, and challenging for victories almost every week. With over 1,400 career laps led at RIR and an impressive 38 percent Top-5 rate at the small oval, Gordon has the stats to back up this claim. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet has two wins this season and he narrowly missed a third with a dominant performance recently at Bristol Motor Speedway.

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 pulled out a workmanlike Top 10 at Bristol a couple weeks ago to assuage our fears. Hamlin has great career stats on the short tracks and RIR is no exception. He's won two of the last four races at Richmond, and he collected a stellar runner-up finish at the small oval in the spring of this year. Hamlin doesn't even know what it is to not race up front at this facility. With a whopping 1,188 laps led out of 4,410 laps raced, Hamlin has led 27 percent of the Richmond laps the last six seasons.

Matt Kenseth -
This is shaping up to be a complete season for the Roush Fenway Racing star, and 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, but it's no reason to downgrade the driver of the No. 17 Ford. Kenseth flexed his bullring muscles recently at Bristol by leading 110 laps and cracking the Top 10. The bottom line is that this race team is showing the form right now to challenge for the victory on Saturday night in the Wonderful Pistachios 400.

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

Jimmie Johnson -
Strangely enough, Richmond is one of Johnson's worst tracks on the circuit from an average finish standpoint (16.5 average finish). However, he has rallied later in his career to post great numbers at the three-quarter-mile oval. Johnson changed that stigma with three victories between the 2007 and 2008 seasons. The Hendrick Motorsports star has returned to his mediocre form the last three years at Richmond, but we believe the Chase implications will force him to be on top of his game this weekend. The reigning Sprint Cup series champion raced to a workmanlike eighth-place finish here in April, and we expect similar results this time around.

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 pretty decent statistics on these bullrings. The championship implications will be a big motivating factor for this driver and team this weekend. Edwards has only six career Top 10's at RIR, but three of those have come in the last three events at the small oval. He has one pole position to go along with that three-race Richmond Top 10 streak, so he should also qualify well for the Wonderful Pistachios 400.

Brad Keselowski -
The hottest driver entering the Chase for the Cup isn't Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch or even Jeff Gordon. It's the young driver of the No. 2 Dodge. We've seen epic progress from the Penske Racing driver the last 6 weeks. Keselowksi has proven to be a Top 3 threat almost every weekend, and an outside contender for race victories. His big win at Bristol Motor Speedway a couple weeks ago underscores Keselowski's abilities on the short tracks. His four prior trips to RIR have only yielded a pair of Top-15 finishes, so we're willing to bet a career-best effort is on tap for Saturday night.

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 sports a career 58 percent Top 10 rate at RIR coming into this event. If you're looking for a very safe fantasy racing play at Richmond, Newman is your guy.

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

Martin Truex Jr. -
The No. 56 Toyota team may be on Chase life support, but that's no reason for the MWR veteran driver to perform poorly at Richmond. Truex doesn't sport even slightly impressive career numbers at the three-quarter-mile oval but he does bring a good deal of momentum to RIR this weekend. Truex has cracked the Top 15 in four of his last five races, and he's performing the best he has all season. His runner-up finish at Bristol a couple weeks ago is a good example of his potential for the Wonderful Pistachios 400.

Juan Pablo Montoya -
Despite being eliminated from Chase contention, the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing star should be very competitive this Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway. Montoya has been generally competitive the last few weeks. Coming off a Top-15 finish at Atlanta, the No. 42 team is looking to gather momentum for next season. Montoya has raced well at Richmond over the years. He has three Top 10's and one pole in his last five trips to the central Virginia oval. Chances are good for another Top 15 effort this Saturday night.

Tony Stewart -
Three-time Richmond winner Stewart is looking to clinch a spot in this season's Chase for the Cup. Stewart's Top 5 at Atlanta this past week will go a long way towards helping stake that claim in the playoff format. He enters this event with a 64 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 spot in the Chase for the Cup will lead Stewart to yet another Top 10 at the three-quarter-mile oval.

A.J. Allmendinger -
Allmendinger is on target for his typical 8-10 Top-10 finishes this season. The driver of the No. 43 Ford has had some modest success at the small oval in Richmond. Allmendinger owns two career Top 10's at RIR and both have come in his last two trips to the central Virginia track. In this spring's Crown Royal 400, the Richard Petty Motorsports star looked particularly strong racing up front the entire event and finishing seventh.

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. 9 Ford has two career Top-10 finishes in four trips to Richmond International Raceway. That averages out to a very respectable 14.0 average finish at the three-quarter-mile oval. Ambrose recorded a 10th-place finish at the bullring in Bristol a couple weeks ago, so his short track skills are sharp right now.

Casey Mears -
The veteran driver has been a consistent Richmond performer over the years. Two seasons ago, Mears recorded his first career Top-10 finish at the Virginia short track. That effort goes along with several Top 20's that he's recorded at RIR during his NASCAR career. Mears is just two short races removed from a Top-25 finish at Bristol Motor Speedway. The No. 13 Germain Racing team is performing as well as they have all season long right now.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Greg Biffle -
With the Chase for the Cup now seemingly well out of reach, Biffle can focus on trying to gather some momentum for the 2012 season. Checking in at a mere 27 percent Top 10 rate at RIR, the momentum building may not start this weekend. The Virginia short track has proven very puzzling to the Roush Fenway Racing star. Only one of Biffle's last three trips to Richmond has resulted in Top-15 finishes. When we combine his historical record at this track with his sub-par finishes of late, you get the idea.

Clint Bowyer -
Only a miracle could propel Bowyer into the Chase after 400 laps at Richmond on Saturday night. It would take a Bowyer victory and some major help from other drivers to make it happen. In a season that started well, the No. 33 team has limped through the second half of the summer. An uncertain future at Richard Childress Racing, and ongoing contract negotiations have only served to distract Bowyer from his racing duties. Continue to stay clear of this slumping driver and team.

David Ragan -
Staying with the "what have you done for me lately" theme, we'll take a close look at Ragan and the No. 6 Ford team. In a season that started and went well for several months, the Roush Fenway Racing youngster has gone missing the last several races. With a Top 10 drought that has now reached seven races, Ragan has fallen all the way to 23rd-place in the series standings. Despite finishing fourth here in the spring of this year, it was only his second career Top 10 in nine starts at Richmond.

Kasey Kahne -
With the DNF at Atlanta this past week it appears that Kahne is ready to put the Red Bull Racing experience behind him and prepare to take over a Hendrick Chevrolet in 2012. We're not saying that Kahne is mailing it in, but his focus appears to have waned now that he's virtually eliminated from this season's Chase for the Cup. The driver of the No. 4 Toyota has only one Top-10 finish in his last six races. Kahne has a very unspectacular 40 percent Top 10 rate at the three-quarter-mile oval. Luck and momentum seem to be working against this veteran driver.