There are two big storylines going into this weekend at Richmond: who will make the Chase and will Hanna spoil the party?
Let's tackle the second one first. Hanna, currently a tropical storm as of this writing, is heading toward the East coast and looks to put a serious damper on this week's festivities. People I've talked to think the chance of getting the race run on Saturday is a major longshot, but NASCAR is hopeful that the race can be run Sunday if the storm doesn't cause much damage. Hmm, maybe NASCAR needs to rethink not having an off week somewhere in the final stretch of the season. Enough of the weather reports and commentary, let's get down to fantasy business.
The other big story line is who will make the Chase once we finally get the race in. Only five drivers are locked into the Chase right now; but Greg Biffle and Kevin Harvick only need to start the race to get their tickets punched for the playoffs. That leaves seven drivers battling for the last five spots. Not only will we be watching which two drivers are left on the outside looking in, there are five drivers that are currently in the top 12 that have yet to win this year and are looking to grab the last ten bonus points for winning at Richmond.
Tropical storms, playoff spots on the line, and short track excitement -- Richmond has it all this weekend. So without further ado, let's take a look at the favorites, sleepers and longshots heading into Saturday night's (cross your fingers) Chevy Rock & Roll 400.
Denny Hamlin: In the spring race at Richmond, two words could sum up Hamlin's day: dominating and gut-wrenching. Looking for his first Cup victory at his home track, Hamlin led 381 laps before a cut tire dropped him out of the lead before ultimately finishing 24th; his first finish there outside the top 15. To make the Chase, he only needs a 21st place finish but don't look for him to settle, Richmond is the track he most wants to win at. Plus a victory would separate him from the one-win drivers once the standings are reset before Loudon.
Clint Bowyer: One man's misery is another man's victory; that was the case for Bowyer in Richmond earlier this year. He capitalized on Hamlin's misfortunes and scored his only victory of the year to date. Bowyer is one of the drivers on the bubble for one of the remaining Chase positions. No matter what Kasey Kahne or David Ragan do, he can secure a spot with a win. That might be a tall order, but it's not out of the question. The car he will be bringing has visited victory lane twice (Richmond and Loudon) and his average finish at Richmond (8.8) is one of the best. He's not exactly on fire right now, but this is a good track for him and there is a lot on the line; look for a top-10 finish or better for Bowyer.
Kevin Harvick: One driver that is on fire is Bowyer's RCR teammate Harvick. Five straight top 10s have Harvick poised for the Chase and a serious title bid considering the momentum he brings into the ten race finale. One thing missing though is 10 bonus points for a win this year. With his Chase position locked once he fires his engine, Harvick can go all out for those bonus points. He won this race in 2006 and it's been over three years since he has finished outside the top 10 at RIR. I don't see him bucking that trend this weekend.
Tony Stewart: Unless things go seriously wrong for the No. 20 Home Depot team, Stewart will make his way into the Chase this weekend. Needing only a 36th place finish, like Harvick, Stewart can focus on trying to erase that goose egg in the win column. He is a three-time Richmond winner and has finished in the top 10 in the last three races. After back-to-back runner up finishes at Watkins Glen and Pocono, Smoke has finished in the top 10 just once in the last three races, which begs the question has the distractions of being a car owner next year taken away from his performance this year? To me, that doesn't fit Stewart's personality. You know he wants to win each week. I doubt a third title at JGR is in the cards, but for fantasy purposes he is a good bet for this week's race.
Mark Martin: I thought I should mention at least one driver who isn't in the mix for the Chase, someone who could come out of seemingly nowhere to steal a bit of the limelight this weekend. That driver could be Martin. He's made it clear he would love to win for DEI before he leaves for Hendrick next year and Richmond gives him a good shot at making that wish come true. He has a pair of eighth place finishes in the last two races he's run and he's finished in the top-10 in nearly half of the 17 races he's run so far this year. He was third at Richmond in the spring and fifth at Phoenix, the only other short track he's run at this year. Look for the cagey ol' veteran to try and play the role of spoiler.
Jeff Gordon: If a team has a chance at making the Chase, you would think it was a successful season right? Yes and no in Gordon's case. At Richmond he needs to only finish 24th (how ironic) to make the Chase, yet there is a feeling about Gordon and his team that just isn't quite right. Yes they have 11 top-10 finishes and nine top 5s, but he also has five finishes outside the top 30. At Richmond, he has three straight top 10s and two wins, but he also had a streak of four straight races with finishes of 30th or worse. In the last five races, he has two top 10s but also has finishes of 42nd and 29th. It's hard to know week to week which Gordon you are going to get. Would I be surprised to see him win? No. But would I be surprised if he missed the Chase? Not really. So for those reasons he's one of my longshots, but maybe the term wild card is more fitting.
Kasey Kahne: Two finishes of 40th in the last three races has Kahne on the hot seat heading into Richmond. Currently 14th in the standings, he needs to best Bowyer by 48 points and David Ragan by 31 to clinch his spot in the Chase. Like Gordon, it's not that he doesn't have the record at Richmond to be able to pull it off but you wonder about his consistency. He won there in '05 and has a total of five top 10s there in nine starts, but he's had his share of troubles as well. After winning at Charlotte and Pocono midseason, Kahne has been on a roller coaster either scoring top 10s or finishes outside the top 25. He was 10th at Richmond earlier this year and other than a crash that wasn't his fault at Bristol he's been solid on the short tracks this season. I'd bet he's a solid play this weekend for your fantasy team, but I'm not sure it will be enough to put him back in the Chase.
It was another solid week for my picks, with a couple exceptions. Jamie McMurray's flat tire on lap two dropped him back early and his 24th place finish was my worst of the week. Jeff Burton's 17th place finish was the only other one outside the top 15; which included four in the top 10.
"This is hands-down my favorite place to race. In addition to being close to home and holding some great memories for me as a fan and as a driver, it's just a great racetrack and everyone who comes to watch sees a good, close race. The way the spring race here ended, after we ran so well, makes me want to come back here even more and get on the track. I know we may never have a car that dominating again but we are going to Richmond ready to compete for a win and make this Chase. I've been really luck to celebrate making the Chase here a couple of times before - would be fun to make it three years in a row." -- Denny Hamlin
The Chase kicks off with a return visit to the paper clip-shaped New Hampshire Motor Speedway.