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Auto Parts 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.

We head to Richmond, Va., and Richmond International Raceway this weekend for the all-important 26th race of the 2012 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. With the two new "wild card" spots that NASCAR introduced to the Chase field this season, we have several drivers hoping to win at Richmond and get one of those two wildcard spots. 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 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 nine is pretty much locked up. The final spot in the Top 10 and one of the two wild card berths are still up for grabs. Tony Stewart is looking to sew up the last of the Top 10 berths with a decent, Top 20 performances at Richmond. That is all it will take for the reigning champion to claim a spot at the Chase table. As far as the wild cards go, Kasey Kahne currently holds one of those spots with two wins and Kyle Busch would get the other wild card by virtue of his one victory and points position. The guys that are on life support and would require a Hail Mary to pass Busch and get in would be: Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Paul Menard, Marcos Ambrose, Ryan Newman and Joey Logano. These drivers would need to win the Federated Auto Parts 400 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 15 races at Richmond International Raceway.

Denny Hamlin7.33735211,1884,836117.2
Kyle Busch4.74535038915,292116.1
Kevin Harvick9.04884218955,525111.6
Tony Stewart8.44042653144,27297.4
Clint Bowyer10.241195753,96896.4
Jeff Gordon17.03553026593,87996.2
Ryan Newman11.746474834,77792.4
Mark Martin11.7268158353,72291.7
Kurt Busch16.33712992313,53290.8
Jimmie Johnson15.93452152913,36189.6
Carl Edwards15.43442414423,63489.1
Kasey Kahne17.33452792783,39686.6
Dale Earnhardt Jr.17.73252801522,94884.2
Jeff Burton16.734279683,57084.1
Greg Biffle15.7261137632,96381.9
Juan Pablo Montoya20.634162282,49581.7
Matt Kenseth18.730979802,95279.5
Martin Truex Jr.24.428195412,62777.8
Brad Keselowski20.71225401,05675.0
Marcos Ambrose16.114425095572.3

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 has been the only victory this season for Kyle Busch. The Joe Gibbs Racing star took the lead after the final caution flag and led the last 13 laps to win the Capital City 400 and took the sixth win in the last seven Richmond races for owner Joe Gibbs. Busch's teammate Denny Hamlin has two career Richmond wins to his credit, 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, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne all cracked the Top 6 in the spring at RIR and all three have shown the ability to win throughout this season. It could be a night for the No. 88 Chevy team to shine, or for five-time 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 he has led well over 400 laps at Richmond in the last four events at the Virginia short track. The follow 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 was mired in a terrible slump just a couple weeks ago, but after convincing victories at Bristol and Atlanta the last two weeks the Joe Gibbs Racing star is the top contender this week at Richmond. Hamlin has great career statistics on the short tracks and RIR is no exception. He's a two-time winner at Richmond International Raceway. 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 5,210 laps raced, Hamlin has led 23percent of the Richmond laps the last seven seasons.

Kyle Busch -
Richmond International Raceway is statistically Busch's best oval on the circuit. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has won four of the last seven races at the Virginia short track, including this spring's Capital City 400. Busch clearly knows how to run up front at Richmond, and the numbers bear this out. He boasts an amazing 12 Top 5s in 15 career starts at RIR. In addition, Busch has led close to 900 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 24 Top 10s at Richmond International Speedway, to go along with his two career victories. Gordon comes to Richmond's small oval this week in a must-win situation in order to make the Chase. After his runner-up finish at Atlanta, we believe he can deliver under pressure. With over 1,400 career laps led at RIR and an impressive 39 percent Top-5 rate at the small oval, Gordon has the stats to back up this claim. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet needs to win to stay alive in the championship chase, so he'll race with that urgency this Saturday night.

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 performance from the Penske Racing driver the last 6 races. Keselowksi has proven to be a Top 3 threat almost every weekend, and an outside contender for race victories. He has four Top 5s and five Top 10s in the six races leading up to Richmond weekend. Keselowski's performance at this small oval has been underwhelming to this point, but given his momentum and short track prowess we're willing to bet that changes dramatically in the Federated Auto Parts 400.

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

Kevin Harvick -
The RCR star finally showed some potential at Atlanta this past weekend. The recent crew chief change looks to have had the desired affect. Harvick is locked into the Chase field, but looking to go into the playoff with some momentum. The Richard Childress Racing veteran is just too good at Richmond International Raceway to ignore. He is a two-time winner at the small oval, including this event one year ago. Harvick also sports an incredible 61 percent Top 10 rate at this facility, so we wouldn't rule out a surprise run for the checkers this Saturday night.

Jimmie Johnson -
Strangely enough, Richmond is one of Johnson's worst tracks on the circuit from an average finish standpoint (16.7 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 collected Top-10 finishes in four of his last five trips to the Virginia short track. The five-time series champion raced to a workmanlike sixth-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 been pretty consistent on the banks of RIR. The scramble to make the Chase field will be a big motivating factor for this driver and team this weekend. Edwards has one pole, 427 laps led, three Top 5s and five Top 10s in his last five trips to the central Virginia bull ring. His most recent outing at Richmond yielded an outside-pole qualifying effort, 206 laps led and a 10th-place finish. Edwards might get the Top 5 he deserved in the spring in this Saturday night's Federated Auto Parts 400.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Earnhardt is a three-time Richmond winner, and top performer at this historic short track. The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet is looking to assert himself prior to the Chase starting, so we're convinced he'll be in top form this weekend. Earnhardt suffered a bit of a Richmond slump from 2009 to 2011, but signs are pointing high for this weekend. He qualified 10th and finished runner-up in April's Capital City 400, so the Hendrick team has this oval pegged. If you're looking for a very safe fantasy racing play at Richmond, Earnhardt is your guy.

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

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 Michael Waltrip Racing star. Aside from the win he has seven career Top 10s at the Virginia short track. Bowyer finished seventh at RIR in April during his MWR debut at the Virginia short track. We expect a similar performance this Saturday night. The No. 15 Toyota team will be racing to improve their spot in the Chase, and we expect the team to give 100 percent effort at Richmond.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The No. 56 Toyota team narrowly missed victory lane this past weekend at Atlanta, so the team is running in top form. 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 been one of the hottest drivers in the series the last six races. He has two Top 5s and five Top 10s leading into Richmond weekend. There's a very good chance that Truex could challenge for the win and collect a career-best finish in the Federated Auto Parts 400.

Paul Menard -
Despite being a very slim hope for Chase contention, the Richard Childress Racing driver should be very competitive this Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway. Menard has been very competitive the last few weeks with Top-10 finishes in the last three straight races. Coming off a Top-10 finish at Atlanta, the No. 27 team is looking to gather momentum for next season. Menard has never cracked the Top 10 at the Richmond oval, but he did record a career-best 13th at the short track in the spring. Chances are good for another Top 15 effort this Saturday night.

Sam Hornish Jr. -
Hornish had one his best oval track efforts to-date in this past weekend's AdvoCare 500 at AMS. He piloted the No. 22 Dodge to a very respectable 11th-place finish after racing parts of the night in the Top 10. Hornish is auditioning for this ride in 2013, so he's focused on the best performance every time out right now. His Richmond resume is pretty decent with two Top-10 finishes in six career starts at the raceway. Hornish should easily keep his Atlanta momentum rolling into central Virginia this weekend, and post another Top-15 finish for owner Roger Penske.

Marcos Ambrose -
He's been living up to his potential most of the summer, with the victory at Watkins Glen and Top 10s in four of the last five races. Ambrose should surely look forward to Saturday night's Federated Auto Parts 400. The driver of the No. 9 Ford has forged some solid runs at the three-quarter-mile oval in recent seasons. Two of his last five trips to RIR have resulted in Top-10 finishes. Over that five-race span Ambrose has a respectable average finish of 16.0. He has the potential to best that mark in this 400-mile short track brawl.

Regan Smith -
The veteran driver is looking to keep his current momentum rolling, and the next stop is Richmond International Raceway. Smith has two Top 10s and three Top 15s in the last five races. That includes a steady performance of 16th at Bristol two weeks ago and a respectable 14th-place at Atlanta Motor Speedway this past Sunday night. Smith has eight career starts at the Richmond oval with two Top 20s to his credit. For whatever reason the results have yet to come at this facility for the Furniture Row Racing driver, but we believe the current trends indicate a career-best Richmond performance is on tap for this weekend.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

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, and one of the reasons to downgrade the No. 17 Ford team this weekend. Kenseth has a lowly 36 percent career Top 10 rate at Richmond, and he hasn't visited the Top 10 there since 2007. It's a good weekend to keep the championship contender on the bench.

Tony Stewart -
Three-time Richmond winner Stewart is looking forward to this season's Chase for the Cup. Stewart's struggles of late have him ready to move past Richmond and into the playoff format. He enters this event in a deep slump with no Top 15s in the last four races and one costly DNF at Bristol. The No. 14 team and crew chief Steve Addington have had problems giving Stewart good cars of late, and that fact is very troubling heading into the Federated Auto Parts 400. The fast car that the team had at Atlanta this past weekend ended up finishing a disappointing 22nd. It's best to stay clear until Smoke heats up.

Greg Biffle -
It's probably a major shock to see our championship standings leader in the flops list this week, but there's good reason why. Biffle has cooled heading into the Richmond race and the Chase. Sub-par finishes of 19th- and 15th-place the last two weeks at Bristol and Atlanta are very troubling considering how well the veteran has raced this season. Richmond has been a real puzzle for the driver of the No. 16 Ford over the years. Biffle owns a lowly 25 percent Top 10 rate at RIR and hasn't visited the Top 10 there since the 2006 season. In its simplest fantasy racing terms, we don't start Biffle to collect Top 20s and that's why you bench him for the Federated Auto Parts 400.

Joey Logano -
The Joe Gibbs Racing youngster has cooled considerably since his mid-summer hot streak and win at Pocono. Logano enters the Richmond weekend with slim to impossible odds of making the Chase, and a poor recent record to boot. He has only one Top-10 finish in the last six races, and Logano has historically struggled at the Richmond oval. In seven career starts at the three-quarter-mile oval, Logano has only one Top-10 finish to his credit. His poor 24th-place finish here in April of this year is likely a good barometer of what to expect this Saturday night.