The Race to the Chase concludes this weekend, with a Saturday night short-track special under the lights at Richmond setting the field for NASCAR’s made-for-TV “playoffs.” And while ESPN will be up to their usual tricks, trying to create rivalries between Chase contenders or hyping a hypothetical “tie” scenario that could put 13 drivers in the postseason, race fans out there should nonetheless be excited… because if the spring was any indication, Richmond will be the site of another 400 laps of side-by-side racing and paint trading. It doesn’t get better, or more challenging, than short-tracking under the lights, and the Frontstretch Fantasy Insider will have you enjoying your fantasy team’s performance as much as the racing on-track.
By the Numbers
Best Average Finish At Richmond International Raceway (since 2005, active drivers)
Tony Stewart, 9 starts, 5.7
Kyle Busch, 9 starts, 6.1
Kevin Harvick, 9 starts, 9.1
Denny Hamlin, 7 starts, 9.6
Mark Martin, 9 starts, 10.6
Kyle Busch is probably under more pressure than any driver at any level of NASCAR this weekend, but there is no better track than Richmond for him to step up and perform. A win and seven top fives in nine starts speaks volumes as to how well Busch has run at RIR, and let’s not forget that at the last short-track race the Cup Series ran, the No. 18 won. And as for Busch’s biggest foe – his attitude – expect it to play no role this weekend. Because, let’s face it, he’s going to have nothing to complain about if running well. – Bryan
Hamlin is on as much of a roll as any driver in the series right now, scoring a win and five top-10 finishes in the last 10 races. That’s allowed him to become one of four drivers to clinch a spot in the Chase, giving him the added relief of going for the win on Saturday night instead of racing for points. And with the track record this driver has at RIR, he’s capable of doing just that. Hamlin has the second-best average finish among active drivers over the last 10 years with a 9.6 average finish at Richmond, leading a career-best 600 laps in the process. A Virginia native, he wants very badly to win at one of the tracks in his home state that denied him with a memorable flat tire with 18 laps to go last May. A victory would continue his momentum movement coming into the Chase, where he just may finally be pulling it together for a championship run. Virginia may be for Lovers, but Hamlin hopes it is for native sons this Saturday night. – Mike
Ryan Newman has yet to win in 2009, but he’s one race away from qualifying for his first Chase since 2005. And fortunately for the No. 39 team, they got through Atlanta without a disastrous finish. Now, they’re back to the comfort offered by the bullrings they’ve had figured out all year. Newman has scored top-10 finishes in all four short-track races this season, and was a threat for the win the last time the Cup circuit visited Virginia’s capital. Look for this bunch to clinch a Chase berth with authority. – Bryan
Stewart clinched a spot in the playoffs roughly a month ago. While the points leader certainly hasn’t been coasting since then, he hasn’t exactly seemed at the zenith of his game, either. Over the last three races, he’s scored a best finish of just 11th, with a 33rd at Bristol his worst run of the year. Conspiracy theorists would say that’s a result of Hendrick giving Stewart crappy equipment with the playoffs just one week away. But whatever the case may be, points and horsepower don’t matter at this short track, letting him get back up on the wheel and gain the momentum to make a serious championship run. It also doesn’t hurt that Stewart has finished second, fourth, second and second over the last four races at Richmond. His average finish is 9.8, which is third-highest among active drivers. When the “Smoke” clears after 400 laps of short-tracking, Stewart will have something to say about who wins Saturday night. – Mike
Though Marcos Ambrose entered 2009 known as a road-course specialist, he’s proven throughout his first full-time season that’s he no slouch on the short tracks, either. The No. 47 car was a legitimate top-five piece at Bristol a few weeks back, and Ambrose’s 11th-place finish at RIR this spring bodes nothing but well for this upcoming weekend. Another top 10 could very well be in the cards for the Aussie. – Bryan
Bobby Labonte wasn’t out of a ride very long last week once he was released from his full-time job with Hall of Fame Racing. That’s because he can still get the job done, and Labonte proved it by bringing his car home in 18th place last weekend with single-car, underfunded TRG Motorsports. Now, he’s back with the No. 96 at one of the better race tracks for him to keep that momentum going. The 2000 champ’s got an average finish of 16.1 at Richmond, and he’s had two top 15s in his last five starts there to go along with a 16th and a 21st. Expect to see Labonte give a boost to his old team, scoring another solid finish this weekend for some quality points at little cost. – Mike
The Last Word
Richmond is generally regarded as the favorite track of most of the drivers on the circuit. It offers two distinct racing lines and will afford tons of side-by-side racing all night long. There are three drivers outside of the Chase with a chance to make it, and eight drivers currently in that technically could ultimately miss the playoffs. Be aware of the risks as well as the rewards of starting any of these men on your roster. The four drivers already locked in, as well as the other 11, all want to bring home the checkered flag for either the bonus points, the Chase-securing ability, or both. That can lead to outstanding results from those normally not good at this short track… or a wrecked racecar after drivers get a little too aggressive to earn their playoff spot. Either way, expect to see plenty of fireworks and more than enough drama that could result in cars being caught up in other people’s messes. The bottom line is Richmond is a short track on steroids, and drivers who excel on the little circuits should excel again Saturday night… if they can stay out of trouble.
Results of our Experts in the Frontstretch Fantasy Games
Game of Tomorrow
Bryan – 6664
Mike – 6306
Bryan – 4986
Mike – 4934
Bryan – 12689
Mike – 11823
To help the readers track how well our experts are doing, we’ll keep track of the cumulative points scored by their three drivers every week, as well as the total for the season.
Bryan – 293 8654
Mike – 267 8501
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