Matt Stallknecht · Friday September 6, 2013
Well, dearest readers, this is it. The regular season is one race away from being complete, and just two short days from now, the field for the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup will be set. It’s been an.…interesting regular season up to this point, to say the least, and considering the fact that as many as four Chase spots are still pretty much wide open heading into the weekend, things could get a whole lot more compelling on a night that will undoubtedly be filled with heartbreak and triumph altogether. Ten drivers enter the weekend looking to fill the five remaining spots in the Chase that haven’t realistically been locked up. Five teams will see their championship hopes live on, five will have to put such championship hopes on hold ‘til 2014.
High drama, high stakes, and high tempers figure to be the operative words to describe the weekend. Will the event live up to such lofty expectations? Well as you will see further down the page, there is reason to believe it just might.
1. Will the regular season finale be another sizzler?
The Fall Richmond event is one of only two races out of the year in which the battle in the points standings take precedence over what is actually going on in the race. Unless two Wild Card contenders are battling for the win throughout the race (which is certainly conceivable), the cameras will be primarily focused on each of the Wild Card/Chase hopefuls along with their plights throughout the race, plights which, frankly, ought to provide plenty of drama on their own throughout the night.
In essence, it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that this race is going to have “fireworks.” It’s short track racing on a night in which ten drivers will be doing everything in their humanly power to gain every last position they can in hopes of cracking the top 10. Desperate teams will be doing desperate things to get a win. Even if the race goes green for all 400 laps, something notable in regards to playoff implications will likely be happening at all times throughout the race.
Of course, we all know this race will not go green all the way. That simply will not happen. All of the Gen 6 short track races have been bona fide slugfests with ample caution periods. This one should be no different, and if anything, it should be even crazier.
Why is that, you ask? Well…not only do you have ten drivers who are desperate for Chase spots, you also have seven guys who are essentially locked into the Chase and have nothing to lose by racing hard all night long in hopes of getting another win before the Chase cutoff. Then on top of that, there are at least another six or seven drivers on competitive teams who are out of Chase contention who also have absolutely nothing to lose.
With nearly every driver in the field carrying an excuse to drive over his/her head, you end up with a recipe for a wild and contact-filled evening.
2. Who’s in? Who’s out?
You’re going to hear what I am about to say in this next sentence numerous times over the weekend, and you’ve probably already heard it said many times over the past few weeks as well. This is by far the deepest and most wide-open crop of potential Chasers to ever enter the regular season finale at Richmond. Seriously. Never, entering Richmond, have we ever had this many guys with a legitimate shot at clinching a Chase berth. For this reason, picking which five guys are “in” and which five are “out” becomes a task of Herculean proportions.
Looking at the current points standings, we know that the top six (48, 15, 99, 29, 18, and 20) are locked in. Kasey Kahne, sitting in 12th in the standings, has at least a Wild Card spot locked up on the strength of his two wins. That means a group that includes any combination of five of the cars listed in parentheses (88, 22, 16, 78, 24, 56, 39, 2, 1, and 27) will head to the playoffs.
Of that group, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Joey Logano figure to be in good shape to lock up Chase spots. Both drivers have been running well as of late and have performed well at Richmond in recent races at the facility. Barring a colossal disaster, both drivers should get in scot-free.
As for the other three spots, it’s going to come down to whoever can stay out of trouble. My personal prediction is that Jeff Gordon will race his way into the top 10, displacing Greg Biffle, a driver who has been notoriously slow as of late at Richmond. Gordon will join Kurt Busch as the final two drivers to “race” their way into the top 10. This leaves one Wild Card spot up for grabs to be fought between Martin Truex Jr., Greg Biffle, and Ryan Newman. Based on Biffle’s lack of momentum and poor history at Richmond, I predict he has a bad race, thus giving the final Chase spot to a guy who has been quietly strong as of late: Martin Truex Jr.
As we are all aware, however, the unpredictable nature of this sport means that even the most assured predictions can end up being turned on their head. Until the checkered flag drops, no Chase spot is truly safe.
3. Could this be an opportunity for an underfunded team to cash in?
One of the more underappreciated aspects of the Gen 6 car this season has been the manner by which some of the sport’s underfunded teams have adapted to the car. The improvement hasn’t been monumental, but mid-low level teams like Front Row Motorsports, Germain Racing, Phoenix Racing, and JTG-Daugherty Racing have all been noticeably more competitive this season with the Gen 6 race cars as opposed to the COTs of yesteryear.
Now granted, much of this could just as easily be attributed to each team’s own individual improvement rather than just the aspects of parity brought by a new race car. Whatever the case, the four teams I mentioned have been surprisingly competitive this season, much more so than they were in the late COT era. Take David Ragan, for instance. Ragan has climbed to 25th in the points standings, and has routinely outscored the likes of Denny Hamlin and Mark Martin over the past month or so, with the highlight being a 12th place finish at Bristol, the highest ever finish for a Front Row Motorsports car on a non-restrictor plate track (I’d be remiss if I forgot to mention that Ragan also won Talladega back in May.)
So what does any of this have to do with this weekend’s race in Richmond? Well, as we all know, short tracks, much like road courses and restrictor plate tracks, offer a much more even playing field for the teams as opposed to the engineering/aero-heavy intermediate tracks that populate the circuit. Much in the same way that the above-mentioned underfunded outfits were able to perform and compete well at Bristol, they should be able to do the same this weekend in Richmond.
Do not at all be shocked if a name like David Ragan or Casey Mears pops up in the top 15 after the finish on Saturday night. These teams are improving by the week, and Richmond offers them a great opportunity to deliver a solid top-15 finish once more.
4. Who will take the checkered flag on Saturday night?
Richmond is a driver’s track, no questions asked. Success at Richmond is predicated on how well a driver takes care of his tires and manages his car’s balance on Richmond’s tricky corner exits (both factors that are dependent on a driver’s ability to “finesse” his way through the corners). Denny Hamlin is well known around the garage for being something of a poster child for such a “finesse” style of short track racing, and as such his success at Richmond is not shocking. He would be a solid dark horse pick this weekend if you are looking for a driver to fill out the bottom of your lineup (kind of shocking that I’m saying that about Hamlin, no?).
If you are looking for a favorite, however, three names spring to mind, each for very similar reasons. Those three drivers are Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, and Kyle Busch. This trio has combined to win the last 4 races at Richmond, and considering the fact that each driver is locked into the Chase, they have absolutely nothing to lose by going all out for a win.
Out of that group, I think Bowyer is the one most likely to see Victory Lane on Saturday night. Winless throughout 2013 thus far, Bowyer is as hungry as anyone for a victory, especially after losing an engine while dominating the race at Atlanta last week. Couple that with Bowyer’s acumen for short track racing (and two Richmond victories), and it’s not hard to see why he is such a solid pick.
Look for the No. 15 to finally grab that elusive victory in the Federated Auto Parts 400.
Matt Stallknecht’s Pre-Race Predictions for the 2013 Federated Auto Parts 400:
1. 15-Clint Bowyer
2. 18-Kyle Busch
3. 48-Jimmie Johnson
4. 29-Kevin Harvick
5. 56-Martin Truex Jr.
6. 22-Joey Logano
7. 24-Jeff Gordon
8. 20-Matt Kenseth
9. 11-Denny Hamlin
10. 78-Kurt Busch
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