Regular season concludes at Richmond

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One more shot.

After 25 races, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Richmond Raceway for the Federated Auto Parts 400, the final race of the regular season before the playoffs begin. With three spots still up for grabs, drivers will be willing to do anything to get in.

WHAT: Federated Auto Parts 400 (300 miles, 400 laps, stages of 100, 100 and 200 laps)

WHEN: Saturday September 9. Green flag scheduled to fly at approximately 7:43 p.m. ET

WHERE: Richmond Raceway, 0.75-mile D-shaped oval located in Richmond, Va.

FAVORITES: Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. (9/2) and Kevin Harvick (6/1)


LAST YEAR’S WINNER

Denny Hamlin won his third career race at Richmond and for the second time in the 2016 season one year ago in this very event. Hamlin led 189 of the 400 laps at his home track en route to the victory, which solidified himself as the No. 2 seed in last year’s playoffs.


THE LINEUP

Matt Kenseth will roll off P1 when the green flag flies for the Federated Auto Parts 400 from Richmond. He won the pole in his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota by laying down a fast lap of 122.421 mph (22.055 seconds). The pole was Kenseth’s third pole at Richmond in his career, his 20th overall and second of the season. Ironically, his other came at Richmond in the spring.

Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. round out the top five starters with Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Chase Elliott and Erik Jones rounding out the top 10. Some other notable starters include Joey Logano in 12th, Clint Bowyer in 14th, Brad Keselowski in 15th, Jimmie Johnson in 20th and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 21st.


NOW OR NEVER

If Clint Bowyer, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Joey Logano and everybody else inside the top 30 wins, they’re in the playoffs. But if none of them do, the playoff field stays put.

Chase Elliott, Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray are the drivers that currently occupy the final three spots in the standings. It would take a miracle and a half for anybody currently out–in other words, a victory. But two of those bubble drivers have done exactly that at Richmond before.

Most recently, Logano won earlier this season at “The Action Track.” But of course, that win doesn’t count towards his playoff eligibility because the No. 22 Team Penske Ford failed post-race inspection, meaning his win was labeled as encumbered. Ever since that race weekend, Logano and the No. 22 team has been off. It’s almost like they can’t get a top five if their lives depended on it. But after a solid qualifying effort, Logano could be on the track to another win.


CUCUMBERS ARE BACK

Well now that we’re on the topic of cucumbered—I mean encumbered—victories, we might as well address the elephant in the room, and it’s about Denny Hamlin’s Southern 500 victory.

On Wednesday afternoon, NASCAR announced Hamlin’s victory was encumbered due to the No. 11 Toyota failing post-race inspection (rear suspension). Hamlin’s XFINITY victory was also encumbered, and so was Logano’s second-place finish in the NXS event.

I know what you’re thinking, “why are we here again?” Well, I WISH I KNEW.

It’s time for NASCAR to start taking wins away from teams that have encumbered wins. I can’t stand my friends asking me, “wait, so he cheated but he still wins? Oh, so he still won but he doesn’t get the points? Oh, only the playoff points? What’s the difference? Why don’t they just take the win away?” Apparently, that’s too simple for NASCAR to do. Frankly, I’m tired of it.

But on Friday, NASCAR announced they would be stiffening the penalties for rear suspension violations that have been making themselves more prevalent. Effective immediately, any penalty like the one this past week will be elevated to the L1 variety. Translation: don’t do it.

The penalty will include an encumbered finish, a $75,000 fine to the crew chief, 40 driver and owner points lost and a suspension of three races to the car and crew chief of the team. At least the sanctioning body is taking a step, but they need to take a leap this offseason.

You cheat, you get punished. Period. I don’t know if second-place should wind up with the trophy, money and points, but I know that first-place shouldn’t. Don’t @ me.


HARVICK HITS MILESTONE

When he takes the green flag on Saturday night, 2014 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick will be making his 600th career start, spanning more than 16 years.

His first start came at the now-defunct Rockingham Speedway in 2001, taking over for the late Dale Earnhardt. Fast forward 16 years later to Richmond Raceway, and here we are.

Harvick has amassed 36 wins and 50 runner-up finishes in his career. Imagine if he would have turned half of those second-place finishes into victories. If only, if only. He also has recorded 300 top 10 finishes, which is exactly half of his starts (including Saturday night).

Harvick is already safely in the playoffs, as he clinched a spot a few weeks back. But he’d love nothing more than to get win No. 37 at a track he’s won at three times in 33 starts.


PREDICTION

As stated on this week’s episode of Victory Lane (before I found out about the encumbered win and got pretty mad), this feels like one of those weekends Kyle Busch will take the bull by the horns and show everybody he and the No. 18 team he really means business.

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