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Seven drivers have already punched an entry ticket to the Race for the Sprint Cup Championship, NASCAR’s 10-race version of the playoffs, with five more invites to be awarded at the conclusion of Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway.

Eight drivers are in contention for those final five spots, and the tension will be thick for each of them as they try to maintain their position, as is the case for Joey Logano, Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne and Martin Truex Jr., or for others like Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman and Brad Keselowski, who have to try and race themselves in.

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Logano and Biffle should get in based on each of them having a win and being at least 28 points ahead of Newman for one of the two wild card wins awarded to drivers with the most wins on the season. But the best race of the night will be between Gordon and Kurt Busch, who are separated by only six points. Busch holds the 10th position, and needs to maintain it in order to make the Chase because he doesn’t have a win this year. Gordon needs to have a run similar to last season when he raced race himself into the Chase at Richmond with a second-place finish.

It’s been a while since either Busch or Gordon won at Richmond, but both have been very competitive there in recent years. Busch last won in 2005 while driving for Roush Racing and Gordon last won there in 2000, which was the second win of his career on the three-quarter-mile flat track.

While Gordon hasn’t won in Richmond in a longer span than Busch has even been driving in the series, he has been very consistent at this venue. He’s finished 12th or better in 11 of his last 13 starts there, which includes six top-5 finishes. Over the same span, Busch has finished 12th or better seven times, including besting Gordon by two positions in the spring when Busch was ninth.

To get a better read on who might do well Saturday night, I like to look over at what happened at Phoenix in March, the first Richmond race in April and New Hampshire in July. Phoenix and New Hampshire are both mile tracks with completely different layouts than Richmond, but all three have relatively flat banking which makes the set-ups similar. Teams that do well on one track traditionally do well on the others.

This season we have seen Carl Edwards finish eighth or better on all three, including his only win of the season at Phoenix. Kevin Harvick finished 13th or better on all three, including a win in the first Richmond race. Gordon was 11th or better in all three, Matt Kenseth was ninth or better in all of them, and surprisingly, Jeff Burton had at least a top-10 in each with his best finish of the season coming at New Hampshire where he finished third.

The correlation between the three tracks is nothing new. It’s been going on since each of them have been existence together. Recent drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Burton, Harvick, Kurt Busch, and Jimmie Johnson have all compiled wins in season at two or more of these tracks. In the case of Harvick in 2006, he won on all three tracks, including a sweep of Phoenix.

Clint Bowyer is a driver that also shown his best on these type of tracks. He’s a two-time winner at Richmond, including winning this race last season.

The best overall driver at Richmond since he came onto the scene in 2005 has been Kyle Busch, who incidentally grabbed one of his two wins during his 2005 rookie campaign at Phoenix. He finished both Richmond races during his rookie season in the top-5 and he’s been running strong ever since with a 6.5 average finish that includes three wins, the last coming in April, 2012.

Busch notched his fourth win of the season last week at Atlanta, and of all the drivers headed to the Chase, he looks like the driver to beat because he has the most momentum going for him. We’ll see five races on 1.5-mile tracks during the 10-race Chase and Busch has captured two wins in the six races run on them already this season. The LVH Super Book currently has him listed as the co-second choice to win with Kenseth at 7/2 odds, just behind the favored Johnson at 3/2.

As for Johnson, he’s a three-time winner at Richmond, and has always raced well on these type of tracks, but his team is struggling big time. He’s finished 28th or worse in his last three starts, and all the wins and quality finishes throughout the season mean nothing right now as they limp into the Chase. I thought last week was the perfect place for them to get their act together, but the type of trouble the No. 48 has always eluded over his career has found him in bunches recently, as if making up for all his lost time of avoiding the inevitable in NASCAR.

Look for Kyle Busch to find his way to the front and battle with Gordon who will try to give it all he’s got to win and not have to worry about where Kurt Busch is.

Top-5 Finish Prediction

1) #18 Kyle Busch (6/1)
2) #24 Jeff Gordon (10/1)
3) #29 Kevin Harvick (10/1)
4) #99 Carl Edwards (15/1)
5) #48 Jimmie Johnson (6/1)

  
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