Providing Hurricane Hanna doesn’t interfere with the proceedings in Richmond, the “regular season” comes to an end in the Cup Series this Saturday night. The Chase picture will be completely in focus after the checkered flag falls, but one thing fantasy owners should know is that it’s already set for the majority of the field already. The challenge this weekend is for those gamers who have a borderline driver on their roster. Do they run a driver who is under intense pressure and may make a mistake, or do they run someone who is already out of contention, knowing they have nothing to be conservative about? Even for those drivers who are “locked-in,” the danger is that they are looking for bonus points and have nothing to lose – so they may be involved in something because of over exuberance that ends up hurting their fantasy owners.
Will this weekend cause a repeat of the Dale Earnhardt Jr. vs. Kyle Busch confrontation from this spring? Will the Joe Gibbs cars in general be strong at Richmond again? Can Carl Edwards knock another 10 points off Busch’s bonus point lead for the Chase? Can Jimmie Johnson continue his strong push to the postseason? And which of these men will drive a bid into the fantasy racing playoffs of your own? Read on for this week’s Picks ‘N’ Pans to see which drivers should be on your roster and which ones should be at Home Depot shopping for generators and plywood.
Bryan’s Race Rewind
One year ago marked a stellar performance for the old guard at Hendrick Motorsports. While Jeff Gordon led much of the earlier portions of the race, it was his teammate Johnson that dominated the last 100 laps while scoring a season sweep at Richmond International Raceway. Hendrick’s strong performance was matched only by Joe Gibbs Racing, which saw all three of its teams score top-10 finishes. The race involved no shuffling of the Chase field despite being the final race in the Race to the Chase, as all drivers who entered the weekend in the top 12 finished there. Earnhardt Jr.’s bid to qualify for the Chase was still going with a top-five run, but ended when his engine expired. Roush Fenway Racing was the headlining team that struggled at RIR, with only David Ragan scoring a top-10 finish.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
Richmond is one of the most popular tracks on the circuit for both drivers and fans. It has the characteristics of a short track with the speed of a speedway, and offers some of the most competitive racing year in and year out. The key this weekend is going to be making the car handle in multiple grooves, because passing needs to take place on the top and the bottom. Some cars will handle well in the high groove while others will corner better on the bottom. The team who can make their car handle in both lanes – and easiest to pass with – will be the one to make the most noise Saturday night.
As for teams to watch out for, JGR and Richard Childress Racing have shown for years that they can get around Richmond very well. On the other end of the spectrum, in contrast to other tracks, Roush Fenway’s success at Richmond has been subpar. The other key this weekend is drivers who are locked into the Chase are going to be pushing all out for the win because bonus points are all that matters to them, while drivers on the bubble will most likely have to run conservative.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Busch added greatly to his image as a bad boy during the spring race at Richmond, when he hit Earnhardt Jr. as he was trying to go for the lead late in the race and ultimately lost out to Clint Bowyer because of that maneuver. This weekend, Busch has nothing to lose because he is locked into the Chase with the most bonus points and would like nothing more than to extend that lead as the drive for the championship begins. His team obviously has a good setup for the track, and he’s been running well enough lately to put one more win in the books before the final 10 races begin.
Earnhardt Jr. was well on the way to breaking his losing streak at the spring race at Richmond this year when he was spun out by Busch and eventually finished 15th, the next to last car on the lead lap. Richmond has always been a strong track for Earnhardt; he’s won there three times and his average finish at the track is 11.5, sixth best among active drivers. Earnhardt has had good cars the last few weeks but has been undone by driver mistakes or bad pit strategy. This weekend could go a long way toward pushing the team to the front of the pack when the Chase kicks in.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Brian Vickers has had some great runs this year, but they have all come on big tracks. On tracks less than a mile and a half in length, his best finish is 13th at Dover, and that is his only top 15 on a short track. Vickers is basically eliminated from Chase contention barring a complete fluke of circumstances, so he’s going to be pushing extra hard to try for wins in the last 11 races. While it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see him in victory lane this year, it won’t be on Saturday night.
Casey Mears has been struggling mightily all year to live up to the expectations of the Hendrick organization; and since announcing his plans to leave the team, the results of the No. 5 team have just not worked. In addition to that, his history at Richmond is far from exemplary. His best finish is 11th and his average finish is 26.0. This weekend will be yet another disappointing finish for the fourth Hendrick car.
Roll the Dice:
Kasey Kahne is in need of a very strong run this weekend. A couple of months ago he looked like a lock for the Chase, but now he is on the outside looking in and needs to finish well ahead of Bowyer and Ragan to get back into the top 12. It isn’t the first time that a Gillett Evernham driver has needed to have a great finish in the last race to make the Chase. Kahne’s first victory came at Richmond, and a second victory there would be all he could do to try and make it into the Chase.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Denny Hamlin has owned RIR since he first tackled the Cup circuit. Hamlin scored a runner-up finish in his first start at the track, following that up with a pole and two more top fives. Then came this spring’s race, which saw the FedEx car take the pole again and promptly lay waste to the field. He led 381 laps, only to have an engine failure less than 20 laps from the finish keep him from a certain victory. After that, RIR owes Hamlin big: plus, the way this team has been running of late; he’d be a threat whether the track owed him one or not. Sans another engine problem at MIS, Hamlin would be riding a stretch of four consecutive top 10s right now. Most importantly though, Hamlin considers Richmond his home track, and he considers his Nationwide Series victory there to be the highlight of his racing career. There isn’t a race on the schedule Hamlin wants to win more than one at Richmond, and it may well happen this weekend if the spring was any indication.
Kevin Harvick has quite the record on short tracks throughout his career, but his latest stretch of races at Richmond is even more impressive. Harvick has scored seven consecutive top-10 finishes at RIR, including a pole and a win, and has not finished outside the top 15 at the Virginia bullring since 2004. Plus, Harvick and his No. 29 team are heading into the Chase on a high note… the team has seemingly solved its problems on longer ovals, and has posted five consecutive top-10 finishes. Momentum never hurts, especially when you’re heading to one of your better racetracks. Harvick’s chances for a visit to victory lane are as good this weekend as they’ve been in 2008.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Jamie McMurray and his No. 26 team have run far better in the later parts of the summer than they had for the rest of the season, but their run of five consecutive top 20s ended with a struggle-filled 24th-place finish at Fontana despite the successes of his Roush Fenway teammates. Having lost what little momentum they had, RIR is not what the doctor ordered for the No. 26 this weekend. Since joining RFR in 2006, McMurray has scored only one top-20 finish at the track, with three consecutive finishes outside the top 30 and an average finish of 31.6. Plus, with RFR’s focus this weekend being on getting Edwards closer to Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth and Ragan into the Chase field, McMurray’s No. 26 likely isn’t going to be the best recipient of Roush’s equipment. There are far better Fords to start this weekend than him.
While Hamlin has turned his Virginia roots into success at Richmond, the same can’t be said for fellow Virginian Elliott Sadler. Sadler and his No. 19 team are coming into the weekend cold, with finishes of 32nd and 34th in the last two races. Plus, struggling at Richmond is something that Sadler has done throughout his entire Cup career. In 19 career starts at RIR, Sadler has only one top-10 finish and an average finish of 23.5. Sadler has also cracked the top 20 only once at RIR during his tenure with Gillett Evernham Motorsports. Sadler also faces the same problem as McMurray in that his team’s focus will be on getting Kahne into the Chase, not the No. 19 into victory lane.
Roll the Dice:
Ryan Newman and his No. 12 team used to be among the most formidable in the Cup series on the circuit’s short tracks. 2008, on the other hand, has been hit or miss for the team – Newman wrecked at Bristol in the spring and struggled royally at Martinsville while managing to score top 10s at Richmond and the Bristol night race. Newman’s resume at Richmond points to a solid finish being in the cards this weekend, though. He boasts an average finish of 10.7 at RIR, with a pole and a win to his credit. In addition, since the adoption of the CoT, Newman has not finished outside the top 15 at RIR. Penske Racing is out of Chase contention, so wins are the only thing on the minds of Newman, Busch and Hornish from here on out. Look for the No. 12 team to gamble on pit road and do everything they can to steal one this weekend.
Mike: Well Bryan, I hope our loyal readers were rather pleased with us last week. Between the two of us, we picked four drivers in the top seven for our four Crank ‘Em Up drivers. That’s the first time since we started working together that we had all four in the top 10. We’ll have to see if we can do it two weeks in a row.
Bryan: I’d certainly like to help fellow fantasy racers that way, but the tight bullring of Richmond is a far cry from Fontana’s parade route masquerading as a racetrack. Still, short track or not, it’s a Cup race, so Busch is a money pick this weekend as always. Dale Jr. is, for lack of a better word, in a slump. He ran well at RIR in the spring, but why is this the track he’ll snap out of his rut at?
Mike: I’m sure we all remember the contact between Busch and Earnhardt that allowed Bowyer to win the spring race. Earnhardt has always run well at Richmond and he’s actually had a pretty decent car for most of the recent races – they’ve just been doing stupid things. I think he’s going to get the momentum going for the Chase this weekend. I see you think Hamlin is going to be able to continue his recent string of good luck rather than being un-Chaseworthy as he was at Michigan.
Bryan: Well Mike, like Dale Jr., Hamlin had a halfway competitive racecar at MIS; his team just stupidly chose to experiment with their motor. Hamlin has been performing on all types of tracks in recent weeks, and there won’t be a driver in the field more amped about being at Richmond. Another team that has run well in recent weeks has been Team Red Bull… but you’re benching Vickers this weekend. Are you worried more about driver or pit crew?
Mike: I don’t know that I’m worried about the driver; I’ve just looked at his performance this year, and all of Vickers’s top-10 finishes have been on tracks that are 1.5 miles or bigger. His history at Richmond isn’t stellar, either, so I’m thinking that he may well grace victory lane this year… just not at that track. Speaking of drivers who are running pretty well these days that you’re looking down on for Richmond, what makes you think that Jamie MAC is going to be at the back again this week?
Bryan: Ever since McMurray joined RFR, he’s had poor results, a short burst of good runs, and then a return to mediocrity. After a solid August, McMurray struggled at Fontana. His stretch of good runs is over for 2008. Plus, all of McMurray’s career good finishes at RIR came way back when he was still driving for Ganassi. And McMurray’s definitely going to have the worst of the Roush cars rolled out this weekend… the No. 26 will be an afterthought Kahne is, as always, a hit or miss pick for sure. With all of the pressure he has on him this weekend to make the Chase, why start him on a stormy bullring?
Mike: As always, the Roll the Dice pick is a gamble. I harkened back to Jeremy Mayfield having to win the race to make the Chase when he was driving for Evernham. I’m sure most everyone remembers that Mayfield pulled off that victory and made the Chase. Kahne is in a similar situation and I’m thinking the gods will smile on him. I may very well rue the decision but it is a gamble. I see you are thinking that Newman can overcome his team’s poor performances of the year and get back to his old ways at Richmond.
Bryan: Newman and Co. stole their sixth-place finish at RIR in the spring with tire strategy, but they were a legitimate top-10 car at Bristol two weeks ago. They ran as well at Fontana as they have all year on long ovals, and with absolutely no pressure or expectations on them at all. I think Newman’s short-track prowess will shine Saturday night.
Mike: I hope you’re right, knowing how much you like the driver of the No. 12. I bet the fans are going to think we’re wrong for not picking Tony Stewart or Bowyer this weekend. They’re both good at Richmond, and very easily could be the first to the checkered flag Saturday night.
Bryan: They could visit victory lane… or both could add yet another disappointing showing to their disappointing seasons. We’ll just have to see how it pans out.
The following are the guidelines that Bryan and Mike follow in making their picks each week: Crank ‘Em Up drivers can be in any position in the driver standings, Sit ‘Em Down drivers must be in the current top 25 of the driver standings and Roll the Dice drivers can not be in the top 12 of the current week’s driver standings.
Crank – 14.3
Sit – 20.2
Roll – 21.5
Crank – 10.2
Sit – 20.9
Roll – 17.8