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Federated Auto Parts 400 Preview: Do or Die Time

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 2013 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 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 "wildcard" spots that NASCAR introduced to the Chase last year, 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 six are already clinched with their performances this past week at Atlanta. The final four spots of the Top 10 and one of the two wild card berths are still up for grabs. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Joey Logano, Greg Biffle and Kurt Busch currently occupy the final four spots in the Top 10 and have some work to do yet to clinch those spots going into the Chase. As far as the wild cards go, Kasey Kahne currently holds one of those spots with two wins and Martin Truex Jr. 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 Truex and get in would be: Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, and last year's champion Brad Keselowski. 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 17 races at Richmond International Raceway.

Denny Hamlin8.14005821,3905,221117.8
Kyle Busch6.55095199315,934113.0
Kevin Harvick8.65754458986,310111.1
Clint Bowyer9.14671592764,771100.4
Tony Stewart8.74622763294,75596.5
Jeff Gordon15.84003196614,22795.7
Mark Martin12.8331167354,43092.2
Ryan Newman11.651089965,16591.1
Jimmie Johnson15.53982522933,99090.9
Kurt Busch16.64053312673,93890.0
Carl Edwards14.93992684424,01088.9
Kasey Kahne17.23973362813,91087.3
Dale Earnhardt Jr.17.03803202193,47885.6
Jeff Burton15.442889754,27084.8
Juan Pablo Montoya19.337586952,97383.6
Matt Kenseth17.23791252203,69783.6
Greg Biffle16.5295163633,26580.4
Martin Truex Jr.23.7324130483,30680.3
Brad Keselowski20.51937201,55076.4
Joey Logano17.31473501,07473.5

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 two victories this season for veteran driver Kevin Harvick. The Richard Childress Racing star took the lead on the green-white-checkered restart and led the last two laps to win the Toyota Owners 400. Harvick out-battled short track aces like Clint Bowyer, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch to take the win. The biggest threat to Chevrolet dominance at Richmond will likely come from the Joe Gibbs Racing stable. Kyle Busch and Kenseth combined to lead 180 laps and both 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 Jimmie 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 six events at the Virginia short track. 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 the Federated Auto Parts 400. 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

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 nine races 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. He boasts an amazing 12 Top-5s in 17 career starts at RIR and that works out to an awe-inspiring 71 percent rate. In addition, Busch has led well over 900 laps in those 17 starts. With the Chase for the Cup just around the corner, no better time for a statement victory by the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team than now.

Kevin Harvick -
The RCR star showed his potential at Atlanta this past weekend. Harvick slugged out a Top-10 finish even with an ill-handling No. 29 Chevrolet. He is locked into the Chase field thanks to his Atlanta effort, but looking to go into the playoff with some momentum as we head to Richmond for the regular season finale. The Richard Childress Racing veteran is just too good at Richmond International Raceway to ignore. He is a three-time winner at the small oval, including this spring's Toyota Owners 400. Harvick also sports an incredible 64 percent Top 10 rate at this facility, so we wouldn't rule out a surprise run for the checkers this Saturday night.

Clint Bowyer -
This week we visit one of the tracks that Bowyer loves to call one of his favorites in the series. Richmond has been good to the Michael Waltrip Racing star. He has two career victories, including this event one year ago, and nine Top 10s at the Virginia short track. Bowyer led 113 laps and finished runner-up to Kevin Harvick at RIR in April of this year. 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.

Matt Kenseth -
This is shaping up to be a complete season for the Joe Gibbs 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 it's high time he visited victory lane here again. Kenseth recently won the short track race at Bristol and showed he can get it done in these bull rings. His start here in April netted the pole position and 140 laps led before finishing seventh. Kenseth has some unfinished Richmond business that he'll likely take care of this Saturday night.

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 (16.3 average finish). However, he has rallied later in his career to post great numbers at the -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 seven trips to the Virginia short track. The five-time series champion has stumbled of late, but with Richmond signaling the start of the Chase is near we expect the No. 48 Chevrolet team to step up their game accordingly.

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 shore up his Chase position will be a big motivating factor for this driver and team this weekend. Edwards has one pole, 427 laps led, three Top 5s and six Top 10s in his last seven trips to the central Virginia bull ring. His most recent outing at Richmond yielded a sixth-place finish in April's Toyota Owners 400. Edwards should challenge the Top 5 once again 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 19th and finished 10th in April's Toyota Owners 400, so the Hendrick team has this oval pegged. That was Earnhardt's second Top-10 finish in his last three trips to Richmond. If you're looking for a very safe fantasy racing play at Richmond International Raceway, Earnhardt is your guy.

Joey Logano -
The Penske Racing youngster has been absolutely on fire the second half of the summer. Logano enters the Richmond weekend with very good odds of making the Chase for the Cup field. He has a six-race Top-10 streak entering Richmond weekend, and he's looking for more in the Federated Auto Parts 400. In nine career starts at the -mile oval, Logano has only two Top-10 finishes to his credit. However, it's his RIR career-best third-place finish in April's Toyota Owner's 400 that grabs our attention the most. It's been a career-defining season for Logano and that shouldn't change this Saturday night under the lights.

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

Jeff Gordon -
The Hendrick Motorsports legend is second only to Mark Martin among active drivers with 25 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 do-or-die situation in order to make the Chase. After his Top-10 finish at Atlanta, we believe he can deliver under pressure. With over 1,400 career laps led at RIR and an impressive 61 percent Top-10 rate at the small oval, Gordon has the stats to back up this claim. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet needs to finish well ahead of Kurt Busch to stay alive in the championship chase, so he'll race with that urgency this Saturday night.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The No. 56 Toyota team posted a great Top 5 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 month. He has two Top 5s and two Top 10s in the last four races. Sitting a precarious 13th in the Chase standings there's little doubt we'll see urgency in Truex's performance this weekend. The MWR veteran should challenge the Top 10 in the Federated Auto Parts 400.

Kurt Busch -
Busch has high hopes for Chase contention, and the Furniture Row Racing driver should be very competitive this Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway. Busch enters Richmond weekend in the precarious 10th and final Chase spot. He has been very competitive the last few weeks with Top-10 finishes in four of the last five races. Coming off a Top-5 finish at Atlanta, the No. 78 team is looking to punch their ticket for the first time and make the Chase field. Busch finished ninth at RIR in April so chances are good for another Top 10 effort this Saturday night.

Juan Pablo Montoya -
Montoya had one his best oval track efforts to-date in this past weekend's AdvoCare 500 at AMS. He piloted the No. 42 Chevrolet to a very respectable seventh-place finish after racing most of the night in the Top 10. Montoya is auditioning for this ride in 2014, so he's focused on the best performance every time out right now. His Richmond resume is pretty decent with four Top-10 finishes in 13 career starts at the raceway. He led 67 laps and narrowly missed victory lane at RIR in April, but still finished with an impressive fourth-place finish in the Toyota Owners 400. Montoya should be strong from start to finish in this 400-mile affair.

Ryan Newman -
He's been living up to his potential most of the summer, with the victory at Indianapolis and Top 5s at Pocono and Atlanta. Newman should surely look forward to Saturday night's Federated Auto Parts 400. The driver of the No. 39 Chevrolet has forged some solid runs at the -mile oval in recent seasons, especially in the fall installment at this track. Two of his last four trips to RIR have resulted in Top-10 finishes. Over that four-race span Newman has a respectable average finish of 11.5. He has the potential to better that mark in this prime time racing event.

A.J. Allmendinger -
Allmendinger will be back behind the wheel of the No. 47 Toyota again this weekend at the Richmond short track. He's fresh off a Top-15 finish for this team at Atlanta this past week, and should keep the momentum rolling right into Virginia. His last five trips to the -mile oval have been very successful. Finishes of eighth-, seventh-, 11th-, 16th- and 14th-place are a great recent resume for the journeyman driver. That works out to a respectable 11.2 average finish at the short track since the 2010 season. There's no reason to use any other driver in the Yahoo! Fantasy Racing "C" group this week.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin is normally a must-start at Richmond International Raceway, but not this season. The ailing Joe Gibbs Racing driver hasn't cracked the Top 10 in the last 11 races, and many of those coming at some of his favorite tracks. Hamlin is a two-time Richmond winner, and he sports a whopping 50 percent Top-5 rate at the -mile oval. But we must set those numbers aside this weekend and realize that the driver of the No. 11 Toyota is not 100 percent and he's not performing up to his potential this season. Once again, he's a no-go for the weekly lineup leagues at Richmond.

Brad Keselowski -
The defending Sprint Cup champion may actually miss the opportunity to defend his title in the upcoming Chase. Keselowski comes to Richmond 15th in the championship standings and with virtually no hope of making the Chase field. The Penske Racing star has subpar numbers at the Richmond oval as well with only two career Top 10s in eight starts at the facility. Keselowski's 33rd-place finish here in April's Toyota Owners 400 is likely a foreshadow of what's to come this Saturday night.

Paul Menard -
Unfortunately for Menard, he's done nothing over his career to distinguish himself at Richmond International Raceway. In 13 career starts he's only posted two Top-15 finishes and no Top-10 finishes. That works out to a less-than-impressive 26.0 average finish for the driver of the No. 27 Chevrolet. While those numbers aren't scary-bad, they are just bland enough to discourage any fantasy racing expectations. There are better drivers in the field to select for this all-important 26th-race of the season.

Greg Biffle - The Roush Fenway Racing veteran has cooled later in his career at the Richmond oval. Biffle collected five Top-10 finishes in his first nine starts at the oval. Since then he's only broke into the Top 10 once in his last 13 trips to the middle Virginia oval. While he's had only one DNF for his career at Richmond, the subpar finishes are enough to cross the No. 16 Ford team off the list. Biffle's 36th-place finish in April's Toyota Owners 400 is likely a preview of what could go wrong for the veteran this Saturday night.