NASCAR’s regular season finale used to be a race filled with fireworks. The sport’s inaugural Chase, back in 2004 saw Kasey Kahne flame out while then-teammate Jeremy Mayfield won the race to make the field. In the closing laps, a small-time, single-car outfit owned by James Finch and supported by Chip Ganassi’s group was ordered to “slow down” so Jamie McMurray could pass for points (they didn’t). The chaos and drama of the finale revved up fans for the next few years.
But come 2016, the fall Richmond race has been living on that former reputation a touch too long. Recent memories conjure up the 2013 edition; NASCAR’s biggest postseason scandal to date in which Clint Bowyer’s intentional spin altered the outcome and caused the inclusion of an extra driver, Jeff Gordon, in the Chase field by “special order” of NASCAR CEO Brian France.
Since then, a larger field of 16 drivers has diluted some of the excitement that comes with clinching spots. Think a bunch of 8-8 NFL teams, for example battling over a chance at a wild card. While Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon, Jamie McMurray and Ryan Newman are solid drivers, none of them have won yet this season. In McMurray’s case, he hasn’t even led a lap. Rookie Chris Buescher, also sitting on the bubble is there purely because of his surprise Pocono victory; Tony Stewart is light years ahead in points despite running eight fewer races.
No wonder why Richmond has been hurting for an audience. But there’s hope Saturday night might bring some spark back into the regular-season finale. Kasey Kahne, a former Richmond winner, has been showing some speed in the last few weeks and is expected to contend (win and Kahne steals a spot in the field). Newman, despite a 15-point penalty, is close enough to the field he can make life difficult on drivers in front of him if they have trouble. And Buescher’s “bubble” standing provides an underdog to pull for. He’ll battle David Ragan for that 30th spot in points and his automatic spot in the field.
How does this drama impact your fantasy lineup? The answer is easy: avoid it. Drivers on the Chase bubble will have that “boom or bust” mentality while others already in the field, like Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski, will be on cruise control at one of their stronger tracks. Picking them will provide you with far less stress than counting the points of Dillon, McMurray, or Elliott – along with those on your team.
After two feel-good winners in the last two weeks (Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr.), NASCAR hopes that positive vibe comes in threes. Richmond, historically, is long overdue for that type of fan favorite event; can the glory days of finales past make their way to the present?
2016 Federated Auto Parts 400
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Track: Richmond International Raceway
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Kyle Larson
Last week’s Michigan winner was third at Darlington, leading 45 laps for the first back-to-back top-5 finishes of his Sprint Cup career. The 10-race Chase is all about peaking at the right time (just ask Jimmie Johnson) and Larson, now on his third season on tour, has nothing to lose entering his first postseason appearance. A former Richmond pole sitter, he should be a contender this weekend and has solid past results at both Chicagoland and Dover in the Chase’s first round. You can see Larson’s confidence up, a natural reaction from hitting Victory Lane after such a prolonged struggle, and I expect it’ll stay that way.
Who’s at the Back: Jimmie Johnson
Johnson is known for a summer slump just before a Chase he has dominated over the past decade. But this season, question marks surround a Hendrick Motorsports outfit that has been a step behind on speed for months. Johnson spun out at Darlington, posting a 33rd-place result and has just one top-5 finish over the second half of NASCAR’s regular season (third at Indianapolis).
Even in the worst of Johnson’s “down” years, we’ve never seen results quite like what he’s produced. Ten top-10 finishes have him on pace for a career low and the supporting cast, suffering without a sidelined Dale Earnhardt Jr., hasn’t provided its usual dose of support. Should Elliott stumble Saturday night Johnson would be the only Chase car out of four HMS runs, its lowest total in the field since 2005, the year before he won the first of six titles.
For Kevin Harvick, Richmond brings a pit crew shakeup after an awful Darlington performance caused the driver to single them out. Saying he’s done “playing cheerleader,” the driver sounded off on a series of poor performances that cost him 16 positions on pit road over the final five stops of the race. After leading 214 laps in the Southern 500, losing that race was the final straw and now two members of teammate Danica Patrick’s crew have been switched over for Saturday night’s race. We’ll see if front tire changer Eric Maycroft and front tire carrier Matt Holzbaur make a difference in this test run.
Ryan Newman and Kyle Larson are each a little lighter in the standings this week after NASCAR docked both drivers 15 points for failing post-race laser inspection. Newman’s crew chief, Luke Lambert, was assessed a $25,000 fine while Chad Johnston, Larson’s crew chief, was hit with a $22,500 bill. Both teams also were docked 15 owner points.
It was interesting, considering the impact such a penalty has on Newman’s Chase chances, that owner Richard Childress chose not to appeal. “The car made contact with the outside wall during the race and there was clear damage to the right rear fender and tire,” he said in a statement. “NASCAR has told us that the LIS standard is clear and the car must pass post-race inspection even if damage has been sustained.”
Greg Biffle and Jamie McMurray will both celebrate their 500th career Sprint Cup starts this weekend. Biffle’s comes with a special type of longevity, as he’s spent every one with his current team and owner, Jack Roush.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Caution for a drunk fan who climbed the fence during the last two fall races at Richmond.
Cautions for actual spins during the last two fall races at Richmond.
Average laps led, out of 400 for the last two fall Richmond winners. (Did we mention this track is due for a little more unpredictability?)
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Second place may be the first loser but this weekend, Kyle Busch should be first on your fantasy roster. The runner-up performer in the past two Richmond races will be motivated to come out and snatch the Chase’s top seed with a series-leading fifth victory. Busch should have won the spring race if not for a timely bump-and-run courtesy of teammate Carl Edwards. Overall, he’s one of the most consistent performers at this track with just one finish outside the top 20 since 2005.
Add a hungry Kevin Harvick to the list if you have the room. Last week’s second-place finisher also has a strong Richmond track record, posting a win as recently as 2013 and 14 consecutive top-20 results. Most of those have been ninth or better as Harvick looks to cruise into the title race as a top contender.
Kurt Busch has struggled lately, posting two wrecks in the last three events and seeks Richmond as a place to get on track. The winner of the 2015 spring race has an average finish of 8.3 in his last four starts at Richmond and is due for a turnaround in luck. He’s a good sleeper pick as people sometimes lose sight of his excellence across the board on short tracks.
It’s been an awful season for Aric Almirola, a driver who was a Chaser in 2014 but has struggled since as Richard Petty Motorsports went through major in-house transition. Richmond, however, is a track where he can still make an impact. Fourth last fall, Almirola has a career average finish of 16.9 and hasn’t run lower than 21st at the track since 2013. RPM is outside the Chase conversation so you can expect a solid, steady performance here.
The same goes for Danica Patrick (yes, that Danica). She’s got an average finish of 21st in the last four Richmond races overall and is well outside playoff contention. Short track races are often games of survivor and while Richmond hasn’t played that way lately she’s a rare, safe pick to bring it home in one piece.
What Vegas Thinks
Kevin Harvick has the best odds right now to win Richmond, posting at 5/1 courtesy vegasinsider.com. Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski are right behind at 6/1 as of Friday morning.
What I Think
Kyle Busch is hungry to make a statement as the reigning Cup champion. He’ll enter the 2016 Chase riding high after taking the Richmond win that was taken from him by teammate Edwards back in April.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)