This weekend, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Richmond Raceway for the 2017 Federated Auto Parts 400; the crucial final race before the ten-race championship playoffs begin. After this weekend’s race, the sixteen drivers that will advance into the playoffs will be set in stone, so this race is the last chance for anyone below the cutline to force their way in.
As it stands, thirteen drivers are currently locked into the playoffs having won at least one race this season. This leaves three spots that are currently held by drivers without wins, but their spots are vulnerable, as a new winner or a poor finish for themselves could see them drop out of the top sixteen.
With this race potentially critical for the rest of the championship, let’s have a look at who could be in victory lane on Saturday. Here are my five picks for the win at Richmond.
Fresh off of taking a fantastic victory last weekend in Darlington, Denny Hamlin not only enters Richmond full of confidence but also with the knowledge that his home-track is a good hunting ground for him. Hamlin is the defending race winner of the second Richmond race of the year, having won from pole position a year ago. He’s also won two further times at Richmond back in 2009 and 2010, with six further top five finishes throughout the rest of his NASCAR Cup Series career. What’s more, his team, Joe Gibbs Racing, have a combined twelve previous race wins. Without outside issues, Hamlin will likely be in contention for both the pole and for the win; a win that would be his third of the season and his second in a row.
Joe Gibbs Racing drivers seem to be in good stead for this weekend, given the team’s aforementioned twelve former wins at Richmond. Their #18 Camry driver, Kyle Busch, is responsible for four of them after he swept the Spring race for four consecutive years between 2009 and 2012. So far, throughout his NASCAR Cup Series career, the Richmond night race has eluded Busch – but he’s come close with seven top ten finishes and a best finish of second on three occasions.
Kyle is currently on a good run of results. Two races ago he took victory at Bristol; with his first win of the season have come at Pocono a few weeks prior to that. Last weekend he took second at Darlington too. The #18 team already have good momentum built for the start of the playoffs next week, but another victory this weekend at Richmond wouldn’t go amiss, of course.
Matt Kenseth is my third pick for the victory this weekend. Yes, he’s also the third Joe Gibbs Racing driver on the list. That shows the great form that the team and their drivers have had in previous seasons. Kenseth has had two wins at Richmond in his career but his tally could have been higher after he got pole position and led the most laps earlier this year in the Spring race and also back in 2013.
A win on Saturday night would be a massive weight off of the #20 team. As it stands, Kenseth is fifteenth out of sixteen drivers currently qualifying for the playoffs. He has yet to get a win this year, however, which means if he has a bad race he could still be eliminated from the hunt. However, if he can get to victory lane himself, he’d be assured of a spot in the championship sixteen in what will be his last year driving for Joe Gibbs Racing.
My last two picks are also drivers who have yet to get a playoff-qualifying win in 2017, but these two are drivers currently on the outside of the playoffs and looking for a last gasp victory to bag themselves a place. The first of these two is Joey Logano.
Logano is in a unique position this year. He has already had a race win this year, which would normally have earned him a spot in the playoffs. That win came at Richmond Raceway earlier this season in the spring race. However, during post-race inspection, it was found that the rear suspension of Logano’s #22 Team Penske Ford Fusion didn’t comply with the rules and regulations of the series. Therefore, Logano was able to keep the victory, but it would not make him eligible for the playoffs; meaning that he would have to get another to qualify.
Logano had a decent start to the season, with eight top ten finishes in the first nine races up to and including the race at Richmond. However, after his race win was encumbered that weekend, Logano has only broken into the top ten on a mere three occasions. It’s been a dismal slump for himself and the team, as the chances of him making it into the playoffs get bleaker and bleaker. However, if the team can run as well as they did in the Spring at Richmond, but this time doing it with a legal car, then they could cause a late upset and steal a spot in the playoffs for the fifth year in a row.
My final pick for a potential race winner this weekend is also in a must-win scenario if he wants to qualify for the playoffs. Clint Bowyer has had an average first year driving the #14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Fusion, but his flashes of great pace have been overwritten by a number of unlucky finishes that have left him currently outside the top sixteen on the provisional playoff grid.
Clint is a former winner at Richmond Raceway. He has won both the Spring and the night race during his career. The first of the two came in 2008 whilst driving for Richard Childress Racing in the #07 Chevrolet, with his second following in 2012 whilst driving for Michael Waltrip Racing in the #15 Toyota. A win on Saturday night
A win on Saturday night for Clint would be momentous for many reasons. Not only would he bag himself a spot in the playoffs, it would be his first win for Stewart-Haas Racing and it would also snap an agonizing 174-race winless streak that stretches back to the 2012 Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
So those are my picks for potential race winners this weekend at Richmond Raceway. Of course, anything can happen in racing and none of my picks could get the job done on Saturday Night. Either way, it looks as though we’re in for a great race as the championship contending sixteen for 2017 finally get set in stone. Track action for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series begins with practice and qualifying on Friday night, with the Federated Auto Parts 400 following on Saturday.