Race Weekend Central

Four Burning Questions: Underdogs, Weather and Richmond Dominance

Twenty- five weeks of grueling competition across the tracks of the Sprint Cup Series all comes to a head Saturday night at the Richmond International Raceway in the Federated Auto Parts 400 as the field for the opening race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup will be set.

As always, there are numerous storylines headlining the fall race at one of NASCAR’s popular tracks, and with the new Chase format, the microscope and magnitude of tonight’s race is at an all-time high. From Tony Stewart trying to defy the odds and make the Chase after the hardest three weeks of his personal and professional life to Greg Biffle trying to overcome a roller coaster season to secure his place in the Chase. Don’t forget the much publicized rookies Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon each trying to gain a Chase spot. Will Danica Patrick silence her critics and score her first Cup win?

If you are into high stakes short track racing drama, then Saturday night at Richmond will definitely quench your thirst. With so many questions and two chase berths on the line this is shaping up to be one of the races of the year.

1. Can an underdog steal the win at Richmond?

Absolutely it’s possible. Case in point: Jeremy Mayfield back in 2004. There are three cars worth keeping an eye on come Saturday. The first  being Jamie McMurray in the No.1 Chevrolet. McMurray showed great speed in both practices on Friday, finishing third and fourth, respectively, while having the third best ten lap average in first practice. While McMurray has proven he can win in NASCAR’s premier series, can he avoid the bad breaks that seem to plague him every weekend? To say the least, McMurray’s future at Chip Ganassi Racing next year is uncertain, so a win and Chase berth could be his saving grace in keeping his ride for next season.

Credit: CIA Editorial Photography
Do you think Danica Patrick can snag a win and bury another driver’s Chase hopes? It’s certainly possible. Credit: CIA Editorial Photography

The next underdog worth watching is Danica Patrick. I know what you are thinking. I can’t be serious. Well she has to win sometime and what a story it would be to win at Richmond and crush someone’s chase dream of making it in on points. Patrick finished seventh in final practice and qualified her Go Daddy Chevrolet 13th for the race.  Granted she has had her issues at Richmond but she just finished sixth at another tough track in Atlanta.  Let’s see if momentum carries over.

It seems like Clint Bowyer is always in the conversation at Richmond whether it be for winning races or the controversy last season. However, Bowyer has been very successful on the 0.75-mile oval, winning two times and boasting an average finish of 12th in 17 career races at the track. Don’t be surprised to see Bowyer in contention when it comes time for the final 50 laps.

2. Will the weather cooperate?

For much of the season, rain as put a damper on several race weekends, and Richmond has a chance to be no different. To be honest if you would asked me this question Thursday, I would have said plan for a Sunday race, but as we all know the weather changes by the minute. And according to all forecast models we should be able to get the full race in.

However there is still a chance of a scattered shower or pop-up thunderstorm but the odds of racing are still at 75 percent.

3. Will Joe Gibbs Racing return to dominance at Richmond?

For a time, when the Sprint Cup Series rolled into Richmond everybody knew that the cars to beat come from the Joe Gibbs Racing stable. From 2009 to 2012, JGR scored six wins in seven races with Kyle Busch winning four of those six.

As for this weekend, it appears that Denny Hamlin is the best of the JGR group. Hamlin qualified 11th in his FedEx Toyota while Matt Kenseth qualified 15th, and Kyle Busch qualified 20th.  I will be really surprised if a JGR car wins Saturday night given their inconsistency this season to go along with tension in the organization.

4. Who wins Richmond?

Richmond is the type of track that requires patience, a car with great balance, and the right strategy at the end. Looking back at all the short track races this season one driver really sticks out as the favorite and that is Carl Edwards. Edwards has already won at Bristol this season, not to mention he is the defending winner of this very race. The driver of the No. 99 Ford was fast in both practices on Friday, and he backed that up with a tenth-place qualifying effort. After the burnout is done and the smoke clears, expect a patented Edwards back flip victory celebration.

Justin Tucker’s Pre-Race Predictions for the Federated Auto Parts 400

1. 99 – Carl Edwards

2. 4 – Kevin Harvick

3. 22 – Joey Logano

4. 48 – Jimmie Johnson

5. 2 – Brad Keselowski

6. 24 – Jeff Gordon

7. 15 – Clint Bowyer

8. 42 – Kyle Larson

9. 20 – Matt Kenseth

10. 10 – Danica Patrick

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