The Frontstretch: One and Done: Last Race Before Chase Shapes Fantasy Picks by Jeff Wolfe -- Thursday September 5, 2013

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One and Done: Last Race Before Chase Shapes Fantasy Picks

Jeff Wolfe · Thursday September 5, 2013

 

Saturday night at Richmond marks NASCAR’s final regular season race before beginning its version of the playoffs next weekend at Chicagoland Speedway. While there are seven drivers that have clinched a spot in the Chase, ten others are fighting for the final five spots. They’ll make it one of two ways: through points (the top 10 qualify) or as a “wild card” entry, given to those with the most wins, inside the top 20 in points who have not already qualified for the postseason.

How does the jostle for the Chase influence who you choose for Saturday night? Where many of these drivers are at in the standings will definitely influence how they compete, so we’ll need to keep that in mind with this week’s advice for your roster.

LOOKING FOR SOME ACES

Jeff Gordon is on the outside looking in at the moment, six points out of the Chase and without a win this year. Faced with a similar scenario in 2012, the four-time champion delivered, running second at Richmond to earn the final spot over Kyle Busch. The question is whether or not he can do it again.

Here’s what to keep in mind when deciding on Gordon this week. While he would like to win, guaranteeing him a Chase spot, he also can’t have an all-or-nothing mindset. A top-5 finish is likely good enough to get him the Chase, a long-range goal Gordon and his team are not going to jeopardize. I tend to think he’ll arrive at Richmond fast right off the truck; remember, the other three HMS cars are safely in the Chase, so all the attention will be on the No. 24. That means Gordon should pull off the comeback again, although I don’t think that means he will win the race. Gordon hasn’t been too shabby at Richmond recently, with two top-5 finishes in his last five races there. You know he’ll be doing everything possible to make it three out of six.

The Drive To End the Hunger for Five will make a cameo appearance at RIR on Saturday night, as Jeff Gordon and the No. 24 team are once again in a must-win situation. And by must win… we mean beat Kurt Busch by six spots.

Unlike Gordon, Clint Bowyer is locked into the Chase and sits second in points. Like Gordon, however, what Bowyer does not have this year is a victory. That’s important, especially considering the first ten spots in the Chase will be reset based on number of wins. So can the Michael Waltrip Racing driver cash in after leading large chunks of the last two races?

What does bode well for Bowyer, heading into Saturday night is his record at RIR. He has a win and three other top 10s in his last five races at Richmond, so it would be no surprise to see him near the front in crunch time. Leading 113 laps in the Spring, before finishing second chances are high we’ll see a repeat performance.

Other top drivers who fall into that go-for-the-win category include Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., still searching for his first victory. Crew chief Steve Letarte said this week their plan will be to race conservatively until halfway (the No. 88 must run 32nd or better to clinch a Chase spot). However, once a few cars fall out of the race, making them feel more comfortable the team will unleash their driver to head to the front.

MIDDLE OF THE ROAD

This type of mid-level pick could be real interesting.

First, you’ve got Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards who are locked into the Chase. Each have the freedom to simply go for the win; they don’t have to risk falling out. And for those of you snoring at home, Busch and Edwards have been very good recently at Richmond. Busch has two wins and another top-10 finish in his last five races there; meanwhile, Edwards nearly doubled that output (four top-10 results).

But it’s not so simple for many others.

Greg Biffle is ninth in the standings, just 14 points ahead of 11th place Jeff Gordon. Biffle does have a win to fall back on, but if he has a horrendous day, it’s not impossible for him to fall behind Kasey Kahne or Martin Truex, Jr. who each have wins and can make the Chase as wild cards. Biffle will have to be a bit careful, but he can’t be too careful and just ride it out either. He has an average finish of 18.2 in his last five races at Richmond, so it’s not been the best place for him.

Greg Biffle doesn’t exactly have the best record at Richmond, but his one win this year at Michigan might just be what keeps the No. 16 in the title fight.

The guy walking the tight rope for the moment is Kurt Busch. He’s 10th in the standings and does not have a win this year. Certainly, the team is not in a go-for-it situation, but somebody there will have to keep track of what’s going on with other Chase contenders because that may influence decisions on when to pit or stay out and get track position. Busch being on a single-car team has been an underdog since the start of the season, but now he’s just one race from making the Chase. The team will have to play its cards right, but the biggest card will be having a fast car. Busch doesn’t have a sterling record at Richmond with eight top 10 finishes in 25 races there, but one of those was a win.

A driver just on the wrong side of the tight rope going into Saturday is Ryan Newman. He does have a win this year, but is 14th in points, five behind Truex and 20 behind 10th-place Busch. In his last five races, Newman has two top 10 finishes at Richmond. Much of Newman’s fate and how the No. 39 team approaches the race, will depend on Truex and vice versa, so you know they’ll both be keeping track of each other. Truex has not only not finished in the top 10 in the last five races at Richmond, his best finish in those races is 17th. That may have to change for him and his broken wrist to make the Chase.

DARK HORSES

All right, this time it’s not so easy to find a bargain option.

First, you do have Ryan Truex driving the No. 51 car, which means it won’t be a start and park situation, which does make him an option here. The real question for the young and talented driver will be if he is ready to hang around and get a top 20 finish. It’s just too soon in his career to predict that, but if you’re desperate for a cheap option, then he might be your guy.

Another option here is rookie Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. He showed some life by winning the pole last week at Atlanta, but Richmond is much different track. And we’re really just worried about where people finish here, not where they start. Stenhouse did finish 16th at Richmond earlier this year, so he is a legitimate option.

Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. won the pole in Atlanta this weekend, and has been showing more speed the second time around at many tracks this year. Might Richmond result in his first top 10 of the season?

The other option here is Danica Patrick. She finished 29th at Richmond in the first race, so it’s hard to say what she will do this time, though it’s not impossible for her to pull off a top 20 finish.

A driver who did finish 20th in the spring race at Richmond and may fit into this category is David Ragan. He also has had some past success at Richmond with two top five finishes, so he does know what it takes to finish strong there.

REARVIEW MIRROR

The overall leader for the season in the two Frontstretch Fantasy Leagues on Yahoo! is Mark Martin MotorSports with 6,469 points followed by SiLo Sounds Racing at 6,386, team cdakost at 6,354 and Underbird at 6,347.

The top picks of the week went to Bill’s Team at 332 points with Martin Truex Jr.in third, Kurt Busch in fourth, Jeff Gordon in sixth and AJ Allmendinger in 14th.

Richmond is the final race of the Summer segment and the leaders are Mark Martin MotorSports with 3,191 points, Tony’s Guys at 3,125 and L&M at 3,123.

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