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Air Guard 400 preview

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This Saturday night at Richmond will not feature the mad dash to finish in the race to the Chase like we seen over the last few years because the field is basically set. Two spots are mathematically open in the 12-driver field with five drivers eligible, but it would take some serious craziness to happen for the two that are currently in, Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer, to miss out. All Biffle has to do is finish 42nd or better while Bowyer has to finish 28th or better. No driver in the short "Race to the Chase" history has overcome such a deficit coming to the final race to make it.

For whatever it’s worth, just because they are still mathematically alive, Ryan Newman is 117 points out, Jamie McMurray 128 points out and Mark Martin is 147 points out.

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This week's race give the Chase drivers one last chance to gain bonus points for the 10-race Chase for the Championship. Every driver in the Chase will be set at 5,000 points and will have 10 bonus points added on for each of their wins during the first 26 races of the season. Currently, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin would be given 50 bonus points for their five wins on the season followed by Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch with three wins each.

We get kind of a head start on handicapping this race because we have already seen races run on the similar tracks of Richmond, Phoenix and New Hampshire this season. The three tracks, while all different in configuration, usually mirror each other in set-ups because of the relatively flat banking. A driver that usually does well at one will do the same on the others.

The driver that stands out the most from his first go-around on the three tracks is Jeff Gordon who managed to finish within the top-four of them all. In fact Gordon probably should have won at Phoenix and Richmond, but got out drag raced at the start of the green-white-checker finish. He hasn’t won since the spring Texas race last year, but could be in line to break the winless streak Saturday night. He’ll be using his fourth-place New Hampshire chassis from late June, a car that also led 92 laps and finished third at Martinsville.

Kyle Busch has been absolutely insane at Richmond over his short career while driving the old car, the car of tomorrow, Hendrick Motorsports or Joe Gibbs Racing. It doesn’t matter, Busch is going to finish well and he’s got the tenacity down the stretch of races that gets him wins in the crunch as was the case when he played Gordon for the win in May’s Richmond race. In 11 starts at Richmond, Busch has two wins, three runner-ups, four other top fives to go along with his worst of 15th and 20th.

Busch’s teammate Denny Hamlin has been almost as good with five top-six finishes in nine starts, including a win in the race last season. Hamlin’s edge comes from being very familiar with his home track and having all the Richmond rowdies cheering for him. Despite being in a prolonged slump, Hamlin is still someone you don’t want to bet against on this track.

Jimmie Johnson won the race on this type of track at New Hampshire, his last win of the season, a stretch of eight races. He also finished third at Phoenix and 10th in the first Richmond race. He’ll be using the same car from that first Richmond race this week. Overall, Johnson has three wins at Richmond with the last coming in this race two seasons ago.

All three of the Childress drivers figure to fare prominently in this race just because of how well they have done on the three similar tracks. In the May race, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton finished third and fourth respectively with Clint Bowyer finishing 12th. All three are past winners at Richmond with Burton having some home state love on his side as well. Harvick finished fifth at New Hampshire and 13th at Phoenix and will be using the same car he raced in all three races this week. Burton has opted to use his runner-up Dover chassis this week.

Look for all three cars to compete with Bowyer taking things easy to not hurt his chances of finishing worse than 28th. Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart are also drivers to take notice of. Stewart is getting really hot right now following his first win of the season last week at Atlanta while Newman has been hot ion these tracks all season. Newman took his turn at beating Gordon off the line at Phoenix and won the checkers and also had a strong sixth-place finish at Loudon. Newman has one Richmond win over his career and Stewart has three.

I’ll be looking for Gordon to stand strong this week and not be bullied around. It’s amazing that he has only won twice at Richmond in 35 starts with the last coming in 2000. He’s currently on a seven race streak of finishing no worse than ninth at Richmond and I like the trend to keep going. Look for Gordon to match Stewart’s win last week and give himself 10 bonus points to start the Chase.

Top-5 Finish prediction:

1) #24 Jeff Gordon (10/1)
2) #11 Denny Hamlin (7/1)
3) #48 Jimmie Johnson (6/1)
4) #18 Kyle Busch (5/1)
5) #31 Jeff Burton (15/1)

  
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