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Federated Auto Parts 400

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Saturday night's Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway will be the last chance for a few drivers to dance as the race ends the 26-race regular season before the 10-race Chase, or playoffs start. Think of it in terms like the college basketball conference tournaments where lesser teams can play their way into the NCAA Tournament by simply winning out.

Four drivers are vying for the three open positions and up to 17 drivers are eligible to qualify if they win which is going to make for some intense racing on the flat 3/4-mile layout throughout the field.

"The second Richmond race each year is especially intense just because you know that there’s a lot on the line," said three-time Richmond winner Kevin Harvick, who leads the series in points and qualified for the Chase a long time ago. "There are a lot of people racing for different things. It’s the end of our regular season. If you’re not in the Chase, it’s your last chance to win a race. There are some guys who will probably be fighting for points spots as you go in there, but Richmond is kind of your perfect short track. It has good speed, a short-track feel to it, and the tires wear out. That’s kind of what we all grew up racing on. It’s got a little bit of everything and that makes it a fun place to race."

Some drivers like Chase Elliott, who sits comfortably in the 14th slot with a 25-point cushion on 17th-place Ryan Newman, will play it safe and just look to finish well and stay out of trouble. He would love to get his first career win this week, but making the playoffs is more important at this juncture.

Austin Dillon, sitting 15th, only has a 16-point lead over Newman and knows he could be in jeopardy of falling back just because of his track history where he's averaged a 24.2 finish in five career starts, including his career-best of 20th in the April race.
"Our mindset and our goal is to just do whatever it takes to make it into the Chase for the Sprint Cup," said Dillon. "It would be huge to make it. It’s a big boost of confidence and that’s what we all do it for."
Newman has a 2003 Richmond win to his credit along with 16 top-10s and an 11.7 average finish over 29 starts. That's some pretty strong stuff over time while driving for three different teams. He's currently 100/1 odds at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook to win the Sprint Cup and in 2014 he was a few laps from winning it all without even winning a race that season. His consistency makes him a candidate to do well in the Chase format.

Jamie McMurray currently has a seven-point lead in 16th over Newman, and like Dillon, Richmond hasn't been his best track with a 20th-place average in 27 starts. However, he's finished fourth there three times in his last six starts. He also got a solid sixth-place finish at New Hampshire in July, which is relevant because of it being a flat one-mile track. You can throw Phoenix into that grouping as well with the thought process being if a driver is good one one of those tracks, they'll be good on the other because the set-ups are similar.

McMurray can look at his New Hampshire result and feel good that last years sixth-place finisher at New Hampshire in July, Matt Kenseth, won at Richmond in the same situation. This year, Carl Edwards finished second at Phoenix in March and then won the April race at Richmond. They're all correlated, and it's not to say Mcmurray will win -- I wouldn't bet him, but he should have confidence of finishing well.

In the meantime while Elliott, Dillon and McMurray are all paying attention to where everyone is at in points as the laps wind down -- playing it conservative, Newman is going to be on a mission and he's very tenacious when he wants to be. You're also going to see all the others outside looking in trying to shock the NASCAR world with a win, and going all-out to do so. There aren't any friends, teammates or time to be Mr. Nice Guy. This is their last shot to make it.

Greg Biffle is going to do all he can to make himself eligible and for him it's win or nothing. Another driver that is going to have to win is Kasey Kahne, who hasn't led a lap this season, but did have his best finish of the season at Richmond in April finishing fourth. In 2014, Kahne raced himself into the Chase with an Atlanta win in the 25th race of the regular season. He also won at Richmond in 2005. His car was much better in 2005 and 2014 than it is now -- his car this year has been the poster child for Hendrick Motorsports' 2016 decline with only two top-five finishes. But desperation and creative engineering might make him a driver at 50/1 odds or higher to waste $5 on. In NASCAR, if you're not cheating, you're not trying, and the Hendrick garage knows how be to real sneaky, so you've got that possibly going for you with a Kahne wager.

As for the real contenders to win Saturday night, once again you begin with Joe Gibbs Racing with Kyle Busch being a four-time Richmond winner and producing an amazing 6.86 average finish -- runner-up in his last two starts.

What exactly makes the team so good?

"I think a lot of it comes from Denny (Hamlin), being that it’s his home track," said Kyle Busch, who last won there in 2012. "I’ve been good there in Hendrick and JGR cars. But Denny and I really feed off each other an awful lot at Richmond. We use each other a ton there, just to be sure we can beat the rest of the competition, of course. We do like similar setups there, unlike some other places we run. Richmond is one of those places where we both know what it takes to get around and we’re both similar to one another in that we both run well. Matt (Kenseth) has only added to our information there and now, with Carl (Edwards) on board the last couple of years, he’s a guy who’s been very good over the years there, as well."
Hamlin has two wins and a 10.5 average and is currently riding a career-best seven race streak of top-10 finishes. Think his team is ready for the playoffs? Kenseth grabbed his second career win there last fall and Edwards got his second win there this spring. Yeah, those guys are all pretty good at Richmond -- the best -- and it's where all handicapping roads should begin with.

Jimmie Johnson and Harvick each have three wins at Richmond, Kurt Busch has two wins and the Team Penske duo of Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski each have a win when the swept the 2014 season. Harvick is the only driver to have top-five finishes this season at Phoenix (won), Richmond (fifth) and New Hampshire (fourth).

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #20 Matt Kenseth (7/1)
2) #18 Kyle Busch (6/1)
3) #4 Kevin Harvick (6/1)
4) #19 Carl Edwards (7/1)
5) #11 Denny Hamlin (10/1) 

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