NASCAR has finally returned to Richmond. And the two wild-card positions and updated points system did precisely what NASCAR intended by keeping the final Chase spots in question until the very end of the regular season and Brad Keselowski and Clint Bowyer did their best to add their own measure of drama before Tuesday’s AdvoCare 500.
But the final regular season race at Richmond has always been intense. And why should this one be any different? Richmond may well be the perfect venue for the final regular season race. It’s a short track that behaves like a superspeedway, combining the best of both worlds. Drivers are never out of traffic for long, so they have to set their cars up to run in multiple grooves to maneuver through traffic. That ability to run in multiple grooves is part of what makes this track behave like a speedway. Drivers can set the car up to run the high groove and sustain their momentum, or they can run low and take the short way around the track. Richmond might not only be the perfect venue for this race, it may be the perfect racetrack in that regard.
The weekend at Richmond will be wild, but most of that rowdiness will happen under the surface. Think of this race like a duck swimming across a lake: on the surface, the teams and drivers will appear cool and collected, but underneath the water, their feet will be frantically kicking. Sometimes, that extra effort causes one of them to make a catastrophic mistake that ends behind the wall, but on other occasions, it is the boost needed to get them into Victory Lane. So who are the favorites?
This short, flat track has become the domain of Joe Gibbs Racing in recent years — at least where Victory Lane is concerned. So of course my favorite picks of the weekend would come out of the JGR camp.
Kyle Busch aka Rowdy has proven throughout the year that he will drive the wheels off of any race car you give him and he has been to victory lane the last 2 times at Richmond. And with losing the points lead on Tuesday don’t count out the #18 car with their special paint scheme for the 9/11 remembrance.
Denny Hamlin comes into Richmond knowing that the Chase is theirs to lose. Knowing that it is nearly impossible to make up the ground he needs to get into the top 10 in points, but a victory is nevertheless important to the No. 11. The team languished through the end of the summer, which put their playoff hopes in jeopardy, but if he could win this week he regains some of his momentum even though he won’t get a chance to carry the bonus into the playoffs.
Between them, Busch and Hamlin have been the only winners on this track since the start of the 2009 season. Hamlin has two of those victories, both of which came during this final race of the regular season. Busch won in the spring, but the contest was between these two with Hamlin finishing second. In fact, these drivers have been one another’s toughest competitors in the past two events with Busch finishing second to Hamlin last fall.
Clint Bowyer has stirred the pot. How so? He’s verbally taken on Juan Pablo Montoya for the actions that happened on the track Tuesday at Atlanta. Clint has a lot riding on Richmond and needs the win. He has the mind set going into the weekend has he could care less and RCR better get through to the soon-to-be free agent driver. If not, Clint may have a run in with Juan Pablo.
In the one season during the history of the playoffs in which Jeff Gordon did not qualify for the Chase, his Achilles Heel was Richmond. In 2005, he finished 39th in the spring, but he was still in contention for one of the coveted berths when the Series rolled back into the track for the final regular season race. He finished 30th in that event and the next year, he failed to crack the top 30 in either race. His next seven attempts were much better with a streak of top-10s and an average finish of 5.4. Unfortunately, his past two attempts on the three-quarter mile oval have been disappointing with a 12th last fall and a 39th this spring. But don’t count him out! He just won at Atlanta on Tuesday and he has proved that he is the man on a mission!
Well, I consider Dale Jr. an underdog just because he really is in the hot seat. He sits 9th in the points and desperately needs the win he has been searching for and never found this season. The guy continues to have the rollercoaster year where he’s running good in segments and then is running laps down and finishes terrible. Dale Jr. needs the win.
Other Underdogs this weekend would include Tony Stewart, AJ Allmendinger, and all the other Wild Card bubble drivers.
After Saturday night, the Chase will be finalized and we will be gearing up for what is to be the best NASCAR Chase yet.