Regular Season and Chase Dreams will come to an end at Richmond

Richmond International Raceway marks the 26th race of the season, and the final race of the regular season. Next week, only 16 drivers will be eligible for the championship, and the Chase, or the playoffs, begin. 13 drivers are virtually locked into the Chase. But with one race to go, anything can and will happen as the bubble drivers look to lock themselves in.

The Federated Auto Parts 400 will take place Saturday night with the green flag flying around 7:45 p.m. ET (7:43 p.m. approximate start time) on NBCSN from the 3/4-mile d-shaped oval located in Richmond, Va. Matt Kenseth is the defending winner of this race, and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Carl Edwards won this race earlier in 2015, moving JGR teammate Kyle Busch in the final corner to win. Get the sense that JGR an Toyota’s are good here?

Well, they are. The four JGR cars of Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth were the four fastest cars in practice on Friday. The fifth? The No. 78 of Martin Truex Jr., whose Furniture Row Racing team is a satellite team of JGR. Oh, and by the way, he won last weekend. I think it’s safe to say that Toyota’s will be the favorites to win the race.

However, this race will be defined by who makes it in, and who makes it out when it comes to the Chase. Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon and Jamie McMurray currently hold the final three spots based on points. If those three drivers run their race, and finish somewhere inside the top 15/top 20, I believe they will qualify for the postseason.

McMurray, 16th, has a 22-point lead over 17th-place Ryan Newman, who was penalized 15 points earlier this week after his No. 31 car failed post-race inspection after the race at Darlington. Any chances he had to get in strictly on points is now pretty much gone as he needs a win to guarantee his spot. Any driver who is inside the top 30 without a win will qualify for the playoffs if they win this race. Yes, even drivers like Brian Scott, Danica Patrick, etc. can technically qualify for the playoffs with a win. Likely? No. Possible? You bet.

The aforementioned Hamlin will start on the pole for the race at his home track. The Chesterfield, Va. native laid down a lap of 122.334 seconds to grab the first starting position. Rounding out the top ten when the green flag flies will be Kyle Larson, Kenseth, McMurray, Kurt Busch, Truex Jr., Kasey Kahne, Dillon, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson. Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano, Edwards, Tony Stewart and Newman will start 11th-15th as well.

Some other notable starters for the Federated Auto Parts 400 at RIR include Brad Keselowski (17th), Kevin Harvick (19th), Danica Patrick (29th) and Chase Elliott (34th). Harvick wasn’t happy with his pit crew after last weekend. I ranted about it in this week’s podcast.

Stewart-Haas Racing made some changes, as the front tire changer and carrier, Tim Sheets and Todd Drakulich, were moved to the No. 10 car, and Eric Maycroft and Matt Holzbaur were moved from Patrick’s to Harvick’s team. Will the changes work? Time will tell.

My pick to win is Harvick. I think he wants revenge, and he will drive his way through the field to win his third race of the season, and gain some momentum heading into the playoffs. But it will be extremely hard to beat those Toyota’s. Enjoy the race, everybody!