Race 26 of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season takes us to Richmond International Raceway’s three-quarter mile track, the final "Race to the Chase" before NASCAR’s equivalence of the playoffs starts. To get a head start on who might do well this week we can look at the first race run at Richmond in late April as well as the races held at Phoenix and New Hampshire.
Although all three tracks are much different in configuration, they are relatively similar in the way teams set their cars up because of the similar short distances and relatively flat banking. The three tracks have been common denominators throughout the years with a few drivers clearly establishing themselves as the ones to beat on all three during a given season.
Between the three races this year we have had three different winners which fall in line with the season trend of 14 different winners through 24 races. Kyle Busch won at Richmond for the third time in his career and finished runner-up to Jeff Gordon at Phoenix in March. Ryan Newman won at New Hampshire in July and finished fifth at Phoenix.
Denny Hamlin is a two-time winner on his home state track and finished runner-up to Busch in April. In six of his 11 career starts, Hamlin has finished third of better at Richmond. Despite running poorly as he tries to close the deal on the Chase, Richmond should have him beaming with confidence. These types of tracks have been his most consistent of the season; he finished third at New Hampshire and 11th at Phoenix. Look for a strong run out of Hamlin Saturday night.
Tony Stewart is in the same boat with Hamlin as he tries to hang on and Richmond should bring out his best. He’s one of only three drivers to finish in the top-10 on all three tracks this season. He had one of his best runs of the year at New Hampshire when he was runner-up to his teammate. He also finished ninth at Richmond and seventh at Phoenix. Stewart is a three-time Richmond winner with the last coming in 2002. All he has to do is finish 20th or better and he'll make the Chase, but we all know he's not the type of driver that will lay down for a good finish, or was that the old Stewart before he became a car owner. Something tells me he'll get his competitive juices flowing again and take the owners cap off for this one.
Three-time Richmond winner Jimmie Johnson may not come as a surprise that he’s one of the three to finish in the top-10 of all three tracks this season, but Kasey Kahne might. Kahne has finished sixth or better on all three runs this season. It’s been the only type of track that he’s shown some consistency on this season. Kahne was a winner in this race in 2005 and has little chance of making the Chase, but is a good candidate to become the 15th different winner this season.
Clint Bowyer won at Richmond in 2008 and has to make something happen this week with his Chase hopes needing a lot of help. He’s finished sixth at Richmond in three of the last four races there and will have to go all out this week which is a great thing when holding a ticket on him.
Look for another battle between teammates Kyle Busch and Hamlin with Stewart the driver, not the owner, looking to crash their party.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #11 Denny Hamlin (7/1)
2) #14 Tony Stewart (11/1)
3) #18 Kyle Busch (5/1)
4) #48 Jimmie Johnson (7/1)
5) #33 Clint Bowyer (15/1)
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt is currently 25 points ahead of 11th place. Regardless of any other driver’s finish, Earnhardt will clinch if he finishes: 20th or better
21st or better and leads at least one lap
22nd or better and leads the most laps
Stewart is currently 23 points ahead of 11th place. Regardless of any other driver’s finish, Stewart will clinch if he finishes:
18th or better
19th or better and leads at least one lap
20th or better and leads the most laps
A number of different finishes affect the Wild Card scenario.
- With a victory, Denny Hamlin will earn at least a Wild Card spot.
- With a victory, Paul Menard will earn a Wild Card spot.
- With a victory AND entry into the top 20, Marcos Ambrose or David Ragan will earn a Wild Card spot. Both drivers are currently outside the top 20. Ambrose is seven points outside the top 20; Ragan is 20 points outside the top 20.
All drivers through 23rd place in the series standings remain eligible for a spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Aside from the scenarios listed above, those without an already-clinched Chase spot need a win, a top 20 spot and various finishes from other drivers to earn a Chase spot.