September 11, 2009

For each of the five previous years, Richmond International Raceway has hosted the last "regular season" race before the start of the 10-race, 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup. An appropriate venue for such a critical contest; the three-quarter mile track typically produces some of the most compelling side-by-side racing on the NASCAR circuit.

Technically a short track, Richmond's configuration -- a D-shaped oval -- is similar to the unrestricted intermediate speedways; so the handling characteristics more closely replicate those needed at the cookie-cutter tracks than at the other two short tracks. Despite this, drivers who excel at Thunder Valley and the .526 mile paper clip that is Martinsville also tend to have success at Richmond.

Exiting Atlanta, only four drivers are locked in to the Chase (Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin), with 11 drivers still mathematically in the hunt for the final eight spots.

Saturday night's vital race is a 300-mile, 400-lap affair; one of the shortest events, in terms of actual distance, on the 36-race calendar so as a result there is little to no room for error for those drivers hoping to lock up a Chase berth.

Denny Hamlin:

Richmond is Hamlin's home track; he grew up watching races from the stands; and while he has run extremely well at RIR, he's never managed to convert his fine form into a trip to Victory Lane. This isn't for lack of trying: In the 2008 spring race, Hamlin flirted with perfection leading an astonishing 381 of 382 laps (A.J. Allmendinger led the only other lap with the race under caution) but a late, late cut tire destroyed his hopes and eviscerated his dominance. With the pressure off and a Chase berth secured for a fourth straight year in four attempts, Hamlin can relax and go all out for the win he so desperately craves and, of course, those all important ten Chase bonus points.

By the numbers: Hamlin has twice taken pole position at Richmond and has an overall average starting position of 4.9.

Kyle Busch

Put simply: Richmond is Kyle Busch's best track where he has an incredible average finish of 6.1. He won the spring race, after getting around Jeff Gordon on the final restart and has finished runner-up on three occasions, plus a further three top five finishes in nine attempts. After cruising into the Chase in 2008 with eight wins in the first 26 races, Busch finds himself on the outside looking in, some 37 points and two places out of the final Chase spot.

After winning three of the first ten races in 2009, Busch was looking good but just two top tens in 11 races prior to Bristol where he won his fourth race of the year, saw the Las Vegas native slip out of the top 12. A ho-hum 13th place run at Atlanta didn't do much to aid his cause, either, but look for Busch to run strongly all night long at a track at which he excels. Whether it will be enough for a place in the top 12 remains to be seen but from a fantasy point of view, the younger brother of 2004 champion Kurt looks to be a top pick this week.

By the numbers: One note of caution: Busch finished 15th and 20th respectively in the two previous fall Richmond races; his worst two finishes in nine tries at the 0.75 mile oval.

Jeff Gordon

There aren't many weeks four-time is a bad choice for your Fantasy line-up and as you might expect his numbers at Richmond are excellent. With two wins, 21 top tens and 1161 laps led in 33 attempts; Gordon has a streak of five consecutive top tens going and has led laps in four of five of those races.

Locked into the Chase following a regular season of metronomic consistency, it should be a case of "checkers or bust" for the wheelman of the No. 24 Chevy Impala this weekend. Given his previous form at the Virginia circuit, Gordon's a solid option for this Saturday evening, as he looks to head into the Chase with that all important momentum on his side.

By the numbers: Gordon leads all active drivers with five poles at RIR.

Kevin Harvick

Fresh off a season best, second place finish at Atlanta; plus a dominating win in his own equipment in the Nationwide Race, driving a car he described as "freaky fast", Harvick will take the track at Richmond brimming with a level of confidence he's likely not had since he won the Bud Shootout at Daytona all the way back in February.

It doesn't hurt, either, that he has a history of success at the three-quarter mile oval, and he's accrued eight top ten efforts in the last nine Richmond races. The only blemish on this record came in the spring race this year when a cut tire brought his race to a premature conclusion. After an unexpectedly awful season, Harvick will be hoping his fine weekend in Georgia is the kick-start for better things in these final 11 races.

By the numbers: Harvick has led 10.6 percent (726 of 6803) of the laps he's run at Richmond.

David Reutimann

The longest of long shots to make the Chase, the stars could magically, mythically align for "The Franchise" and somehow conspire to land him the final spot in the elite field of 12. It's hugely unlikely but in many ways, it would be the most heart-warming story of the season if faint hope became reality. After a great start to the year and a rain-affected maiden win in the Coca-Cola 600, Reutimann's Chase chances evaporated like steam on a bathroom mirror in the past couple months with just five top tens in 13 attempts.

Some 132 points and three places out of 12th; his ninth place run in the spring race is an indicator he can run well at Richmond but even if he wins and leads every lap, he'll still likely find himself on the outside looking in. That being said, the improvement he's shown this year is indicative of the growth of MWR as an organization. Chase or not, the future is bright for the amiable Reutimann.

By the numbers: Reutimann has five top five finishes in the past 23 races after not managing a solitary top five effort in his first 63 Sprint Cup races

Brian Vickers

If Brian Vickers could pick one track to run for a spot in the Chase it's a no-brainer to say that Richmond would not be the venue. With just one solitary top ten run -- in his first ever attempt -- Vickers has eight finishes of 24 or worse. The one sliver of optimism for the seven year veteran is that he took the pole in the spring event and finished 15th. A similar finish at "America's Premier Short Track" won't be enough to vault him into the Chase field and even a win would be no guarantee he could make it but as with Reutimann, Vickers has shown Red Bull Racing are for real and that augurs well for the future for the fledgling outfit. Given his propensity for success at the cookie-cutter tracks (and their prevalence in the Chase) the irony is that should Vickers make the Chase, he could be a legitimate, outside threat for the title.

By the numbers: With 12 top ten finishes already this season and eleven races to go, Vickers already has two more than his previous season best (10 in 2005)

Loudon: It's race number one of the 2009 Chase for the Sprint Cup as the series returns to New Hampshire to get the big dance underway.

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