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Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Richmond.
1. NASCAR's regular season ends at Richmond
Twenty-five races ago, Danica Patrick was the story across the sport. She won the pole for the Daytona 500 and was kicking off a season bundled with optimism and overhype of NASCAR's new Gen-6 platform. Naturally, Jimmie Johnson won the first race.
Since then, we've seen the kindling of feud between old teammates in Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano. We've seen Hamlin get hurt thanks to an inexcusably designed wall at Auto Club Speedway. Kevin Harvick has shredded predictions that a season in which he was the lame duck — tired of that term yet? — would only be doomed for poor finishes and failure.
NASCAR's iron fist lorded over teams like Penske Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing when technical violations were found, though that strength was neutered considerably when nearly all of the potentially title-wrecking penalties levied against JGR and Matt Kenseth after a Kansas Speedway engine violation were dropped by an appeal process.
Kenseth won several races, as did Kyle Busch, Johnson and more. Silly season began in earnest, the stands were again empty at the Brickyard and Tony Stewart suffered a gruesome season-ending leg injury in a sprint car crash.
And so now here we are. After 25 of the first 26 events that comprise the "regular season" of the NASCAR schedule, it's still that Johnson character in front of everyone else — and he’ll start in the back on Saturday, having missed Friday’s festivities due to the birth of his second daughter. Richmond International Raceway, in its second date of 2013, hosts the final scheduled 300 miles before the postseason field is set. It begs to be regular season finale of teeth-grinding and cardiac pressure for many, including three former series champions.
Who gets in? Who stays out? Soon, we'll find out.
2. Winless Bowyer thinks Richmond is his best shot
Michael Waltrip Racing's Clint Bowyer had a pretty perfect summation of his 2013 season last Sunday night after he lost an engine while leading the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. "I'm getting a beer," he declared to end his television interview, all at once showing the not-too-heavy-but-still-there frustration of suffering yet another problem that kept him winless in 2013.
It's certainly not been a tough season for the raw-edged Kansas driver — as it stands, his No. 15 lines up second in the point standings behind that five-time series champion on the success of eight top-5 finishes and 22 lead lap finishes — but Bowyer still hasn't won a race this season after taking three a year ago. Perhaps it will prove fitting, then, that Bowyer can rally for a victory in the regular season finale race in which he's the defending champion.
"If I had one track to pick to try and get bonus points before the Chase this would be it," Bowyer said of Richmond. "I’ve won here before, including at this race last year, so we are pretty confident going in and we are going to throw everything we have at it so we can get some bonus points."
His confidence should be brimming at Richmond. Bowyer's 2012 win was his second trip to Victory Lane at the track, and he has a total of three top 5 and nine top 10s at the Virginia venue. Making things better? Bowyer's primary car on Saturday night is MWR's No. 743 that started fifth and finished second at Richmond in the spring.
3. Slumping Hamlin: “We can win when we go to Richmond”
It's gut-wrenching for any driver to miss races due to injury. For Denny Hamlin, that feeling had to excruciating as he sat sidelined from Sprint Cup Series racing at the hometown track where domination had at times seemed easy.
Now Hamlin, on perhaps the worst slide of his career and knocked from the Chase by the early-season injury, will finally get back behind the wheel in a Richmond race bent on salvaging something from a season that opened so many months ago with the No. 11 being considered a title favorite.
"We can win when we go to Richmond, and this weekend is no different," Hamlin said. "It’s been a difficult year, for sure, so Richmond will be a good time to go out there with nothing to lose and try for the win. I am ready to get there and on track since it’s one of my favorites and I wasn’t able to compete in the spring race.”
Hamlin has led nearly 25 percent of every lap he's turned at Richmond in 14 starts. That's contributed to many moments of heartbreak, though — in three specific races in 2008, 2009 and 2012 Hamlin led 731 of 1,210 laps and didn't win — and his final tally shows two wins and seven top-5 finishes.
4. Richmond may be brick wall for Truex's Chase ambitions
Gritty may not be a strong enough word to explain the impressive nature of Martin Truex Jr.'s third-place finish last Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway. With a broken right wrist, Truex managed a third-place finish after 500 miles of sawing on a steering wheel with a cast that kept softening as the race wore on.
The finish kept him solidly in Chase for the Sprint Cup contention just a week after suffering the injury. Unfortunately for Truex, Richmond may be the spot where the No. 56 team loses what they've gained.
Truex has simply been unreliable at best and poor at worst in locating good finishes at the three-quarter mile track. In 15 starts, Truex has a lone top-5 finish (2008) and just a pair of top-10 finishes. Since the 2009 fall Richmond race, Truex has led a total of 13 laps at RIR en route to a career average finish of 23.7. He's finished on the lead lap in just six of his 15 Richmond starts.
That average finish ranks Richmond as his worst track overall. More than likely, a 23rd-place finish Saturday night would mean Truex would drop outside of the Chase.
"We need to get all we can. We cannot make a mistake," Truex said this week. "No matter what kind of night we are having, we will keep our heads down and focus on where we are heading towards lap 400. Depending on cautions, Richmond has a tendency to swap the field around at times. We just have to do the best job we can do at getting track position and keeping it. The goal for us is to be ready for the end."
5. Trends to look for at Richmond
Plenty has been written about the oh-so-wonky nature of NASCAR's Chase clinch scenarios — Paul Menard is in with a win, a last-place finish by Truex and about four other factors! — but I'll admit that trying to keep that tangled mess of "what-ifs" straight is nearing the complexity of Kurt Busch's many personalities.
Fortunately for those watching at home, Saturday night's race broadcast will again feature the luxury that is "points as they run" so that we can, in fact, know the point standings as they run. Inevitably, however, those points will be wildly skewed after a varying dose of track position strategy during the race and will show some wild result that likely won't stand up as yellow flags fall and leaders pit.
Because of that, it'll be important to know a few trends in recent Richmond races — and whether or not we can expect a green-white-checker finish as the ultimate potential Chase-mangling wrench. Here they are:
Going back six seasons of fall Richmond races — the track has played host to the regular season finale since the Chase inception in 2004 — Richmond has averaged a total of 15.1 lead changes per race. It's an average not too far outside of the range either. The lowest was 11 lead changes in the 2011 race while the 2008 race featured 22.
The range is much more pronounced when looking at the count of caution flags at Richmond's fall race. Since 2007, the track has averaged 10 caution flags per race, but had just three in 2010. The 2011 fall race watched the yellow flag fly 15 times. Such a difference could be a huge factor in terms of drivers recovering from being lapped or having ample opportunities to fix handling issues.
Just as huge in race-changing elements of the past six seasons is when the final caution flag will fly. Surprisingly for a short track, the latest a caution flag has waved at Richmond in the last six fall races was Lap 385 of 400. The average lap of the final caution flag is Lap 331, with the earliest final caution flag waving on Lap 227 in 2010.
In fact, two of the last three races at Richmond haven't gone yellow for the final time due to on-track incident. Instead, it was rain that precipitated the pace car moving on the track. As for G-W-C finishes, the April race was just the second time in the history of RIR that a race was extended beyond the scheduled 400 laps.
Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller