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Federated Auto Parts 400

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For the second time this season NASCAR will visit Richmond International Raceway, but Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 will have quite a bit more importance than the Apr. 26 race because it signifies the end of the regular season before NASCAR’s version of the playoffs start next week at Chicagoland.

This is the last chance for drivers outside the Top-16 in points to try and get the automatic Chase birth by winning a race which is going to to put immense pressure on several drivers to take all levels of their game up a notch. They will be forced to make daring moves they might not try in other races, and since there is no tomorrow, they’ll lay it all on the line.

Of the drivers that need to win to make the Chase, I think you can only make a case for three drivers -- Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson and Tony Stewart. Larson probably has the best possibilities of all, but Kahne has the experience in these spots and I like Stewart to run well just because his practice sessions last week at Darlington raised an eyebrow. This isn’t the same set-up as Darlington, but knowing Stewart’s crew found some speed has me intrigued about him this week, and he should be able to be found at odds of 75/1 or higher.

Stewart has three Richmond wins to his credit, the last coming in 2002, but more than just a solid 12th-place average finish there appears to be a spark within the team, and it’s about time. For goodness sakes, this is Tony Stewart, the owner of the team which happens to include last year's champion Kevin Harvick and the Richmond winner from April, Kurt Busch. While the No. 4 and No. 41 have been winning races and looking like possible candidates to win this year's Chase, Stewart has run more than Danica Patrick, who has been a major disappointment to Stewart-Haas Racing.

Patrick is another driver needing to win, but if she hasn’t won during her first three years in the Series there is no reason to think she can win, unless you believe that association with the No. 4 and No. 41 cars are to her benefit. The sports books will tempt you with 500/1 odds to win at Richmond, but I wouldn’t even thinking of laying $5 on her unless there was another zero attached to the price. Because she gets sponsorship dollars, we will see another year of Patrick, who -- let’s be kind -- hasn’t been as spectacular as expected in stock cars.

The first thing you should do when handicapping Saturday’s race is look at what happened at Phoenix in March, Richmond in April and New Hampshire in July. Those three tracks require similar set-ups because of size and being relatively flat. If a driver did well on one, it’ll carry over to the next one. Harvick won at Phoenix, was second at Richmond and third at New Hampshire. He led 278 laps between the three races. Kurt Busch was fourth at Phoenix, won at Richmond -- led 291 laps -- and 10th at New Hampshire. Joey Logano also has similar consistency with all of them, as does Jamie McMurray.

Kahne, who is in major desperation mode right now, finished fourth at Phoenix and sixth at Richmond, but the finished 19th at New Hampshire. Clearly a disappointing season for Kahne, but a win could completely change the mood and complexion. Kahne won at Richmond in 2005 and has averaged a 17th-place finish in 23 starts. There are worse things to throw $5 on than Kahne at 30/1 odds. At least you know you got a hungry horse with Hendrick Motorsports backing.

While Kahne and Stewart are shots in the dark because of their situation, the drivers that have always fared well at Richmond are Kyle Busch with a 7.3 average finish, Harvick with a 10.7 average and Denny Hamlin with a 11th-place average. Kyle Busch has won four times on the three-quarter mile track and Harvick has won three times. Hamlin is a two-time winner, but the native Virginian has finished 21st or worse in his past four starts there.

While I think Harvick and Kurt Busch are going to be extremely tough this week, I kind of like the roll Brad Keselowski is on. He’s had eight straight top-10 finishes coming into Saturday and he won this race last season. He finished second to Kyle Busch on the similar New Hampshire layout in July. The younger Busch is also a threat, especially now considering he can relax after finally clinching a Chase spot last week. He may have been point racing the past few weeks.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #2 Brad Keselowski (8/1)
2) #4 Kevin Harvick (5/1)
3) #41 Kurt Busch (10/1)
4) #22 Joey Logano (8/1)
5) #18 Kyle Busch (6/1)

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