NASCAR at Richmond: Complete Preview and Prediction for Federated Auto Parts 400

Bob MargolisContributor IISeptember 3, 2014

NASCAR at Richmond: Complete Preview and Prediction for Federated Auto Parts 400

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    It doesn’t get much better than this.

    Saturday night Sprint Cup Series racing on a short track. And what an amazing short track it is. 

    There just might not be a better place to hold the 2014 Sprint Cup Series regular-season finale than at Richmond International Raceway. 

    Why?

    Its long and wide front stretch offers opportunities for three- and four-wide, speedway-like racing. But it’s connected to a short and fast backstretch by two tight corners. It’s easy to make a mistake here, and it’s even easier to get caught up in someone’s else’s.

    All eyes will be on Tony Stewart again as the veteran driver makes his second start since returning to competition. But far more important will be the success or failure of the handful of drivers on the Chase bubble. 

    Carl Edwards is the defending race winner, and Joey Logano won here in the spring. That might have you thinking this is a Ford track with back-to-back wins. But Chevrolet has the most wins at 36. Ford has 30.

    Kyle Busch has four wins at RIR, the most of any active driver, followed by fellow Chase drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson with three apiece.

    RIR is nicknamed “The Action Track,” and it will live up to that name this Saturday night.

     

     

Qualifying Report

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    Brad Keselowski
    Brad KeselowskiPatrick Smith/Getty Images

    Brad Keselowski won the pole for the 57th Annual Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway, the final race of the 2014 Sprint Cup regular season.

    Keselowski went out early in the second and final round of knockout qualifying and peeled off a blistering lap of 21.324 seconds, 126.618 mph.

    This will be his seventh career Sprint Cup Series pole start. It also is a career high fourth pole this season. 

    “I feel we have a really strong shot of winning this weekend,” said Keselowski in the post qualifying press conference. “I am very excited about that. Everyone says they are excited but when you sit on the pole and have a fast practice you have real reason to be excited.”

    It was his first pole in 11 tries at RIR.

    Points leader Jeff Gordon starts alongside Keselowski on the front row. Gordon’s lap of 21.422 seconds, 126.039 mph was two-hundredths of a second faster (21.441) than his session leading lap from the first round of qualifying, yet Gordon wasn't satisfied.

    “I just don't feel like I did the best job,” said Gordon in a post-qualifying television interview. “I never made (turns) one and two the whole session. I nailed three and four. My car is awesome down there. I can overdrive it; I can do a lot of things down there.”

    Jimmie Johnson starts third, Kevin Harvick fourth and rounding out the top five is Keselowski’s Penske teammate Joey Logano.

    Kyle Larson, the highest qualifying rookie, starts eighth.

    Notable starts: Kurt Busch (9th), Carl Edwards (10th), Denny Hamlin (11th), Ryan Newman (12th), Danica Patrick (13th), Matt Kenseth (16th), Tony Stewart (19th) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (24th).

Richmond International Raceway: The Action Track

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    Action from 1998: Jeff Gordon (24) battles eventual race winner Jeff Burton (99).
    Action from 1998: Jeff Gordon (24) battles eventual race winner Jeff Burton (99).Craig Jones/Getty Images

    One of the original NASCAR tracks, Richmond International Raceway is built on the site of what was originally called the Atlantic Rural Exposition Fairgrounds. It was a half-mile dirt track that held its first race just after the World War II in 1946.

    The circuit hosted its first NASCAR event in 1953, won by Lee Petty. In the 1950s and early ‘60s, the track was moderately successful hosting NASCAR Grand National events. Given its proximity to the city of Richmond, it was easy for fans to gain access and most events were sold out. 

    The track pioneered the use of lights for night racing in March 1964, using temporary lighting.       

    The track was paved in 1968, and by this time it was hosting two NASCAR events—one in the spring and one in the fall. In 1988 the track was enlarged to its current three-quarter-mile length after the front stretch was lengthened to make the track into a D-shape.

    In 1991 night racing had become a fixture when the facility installed permanent lighting, and by 1999 both NASCAR events were run under the lights.

     

    Some historical information courtesy of RacingCircuits.info

Key Storylines

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    Ryan Newman (left) with Greg Biffle
    Ryan Newman (left) with Greg BiffleGregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Living on the Bubble

    Four drivers sit on the Chase bubble for the final race of the regular season. Ryan Newman and Greg Biffle (in photo) are in the field on points, but a very bad night and a better one by either Clint Bowyer or Kyle Larson could spell disaster for either one of them. 

    Of course, any of these drivers could solidify his spot in the Chase field with a win. But only Larson has had the kind of season that suggests he could win.

    In his one previous Cup start in the spring race at RIR, Larson started the race on the pole after qualifying was rained out and lap times from the first practice session were used to set the field. He was involved in an incident going into Turn 1 of the first lap and fell to the back of field.  He finished 16th.

    “For this weekend, it’s pretty simple for us, we need to win," said Larson in a pre-race media release.

     

    Under Pressure; Setup Success and the Keys to Winning at Richmond

    The winning car at Richmond will be the car with the best balance of rear grip with forward bite off the corners. For the best setup, a crew chief will use radical front- and rear-end setups like excessive amounts of camber to tilt the tires for the ultimate grip both front and back. This will test the limits of the Goodyear tires, so expect to see a number for right front and right rear tire failures.

    Being able to dive deeper into the corner before braking means brakes will be put to the ultimate test. They develop tremendous amounts of heat and unless properly vented away from the tire and wheel, the heat can cause tires to separate from the wheel, resulting in failure and contact with the outside wall.

     

    Spotlight Remains on Stewart

    After a disappointing result on his return to competition, Tony Stewart will be in especially comfortable surroundings this weekend. Richmond is where Stewart won his first Cup race in 1999. He has three wins in a Cup car at Richmond and does well when the track is hot and slick. Stewart still could make the Chase with a win on Saturday night.

    It's likely that Stewart will avoid direct contact with the media again this weekend as the investigation into his racing accident last month in upstate New York continues. 

     

    Hendrick Domination Going into The Chase

    With Kasey Kahne’s win at Atlanta, all four of Hendrick Motorsports’ drivers are in the Chase. On the season, Hendrick drivers boast 10 wins: a series-leading three apiece from Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt and one by Kahne.

    Gordon and Earnhardt also sit 1-2 in driver points; Johnson is sixth and Kahne 11th. A championship win by any one of the four drivers would make it an even dozen titles for Rick Hendrick.

     

    Richmond Is Time to Relax for Teams Already in the Field

    With the pressure to get into the Chase gone, the drivers already in the field look forward to just enjoying themselves on Saturday night.

    “Our short track program has been great,” said two-time race winner Carl Edwards in a pre-race media release. “It's the last race before the Chase so it'll be an opportunity for us to go out and have some fun and work on fine tuning our team for the final ten races. A year ago we had a great race and a win there.”

    Points leader Jeff Gordon is part of the chorus of drivers that are just glad that there’s no pressure going into Saturday night.

    “You always look forward to visiting a track when you ran well there the previous race. I’m just glad this weekend isn’t going to be as stressful as years past when we had to race our way into the Chase at Richmond.”

    Gordon finished eighth in the spring race at Richmond.

     

Top Contenders

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    Dale Earnhardt Jr. with crew chief Steve Letarte
    Dale Earnhardt Jr. with crew chief Steve LetarteJerry Markland/Getty Images

    Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    Richmond is one of Junior’s best tracks. He has three wins here. He was 11th in the spring race, but that was before the National Guard team went on its hot streak. Earnhardt would like nothing more than to be the top seed going into the Chase. 

     

    Jeff Gordon

    The four-time champion is on track to become a five-time champion. His last two race weekends have been mediocre, but this team usually rebounds strong and a win at Richmond, where Gordon has two wins and six poles, isn’t out of the question.

     

    Carl Edwards

    The pressure is off as Edwards rolls into Richmond this weekend. What’s on the agenda for the Roush Fenway Racing driver is to enjoy himself and maybe leave on Saturday night with a season sweep. This team is capable of it.

     

    Kurt Busch

    The runner-up to Edwards in the spring race, this driver, with one career win at Richmond, could use a good race to springboard him into the Chase. This team has one good race followed by one mediocre one. This is the weekend for the good race.

     

    Kyle Larson

    This rookie has just one thing on his mind coming into Richmond, and that’s to win the race and become the second rookie to make the Chase field (besides Denny Hamlin in 2006). He started from the pole in the spring race when qualifying was rained out, and his inexperience at the start of the race caused him to wreck. He’s had a few laps since then; with a decent car on Saturday night, he can be the race winner.

     

    Kyle Busch

    The all-time race winner at Richmond among active drivers with four, Busch is having a miserable second half of the season. Already in the Chase, this Dave Rogers-led group is capable of winning, yet they seem to find trouble every weekend. Richmond is good medicine for Busch, and a turnaround in fortunes could be in the future for this driver.

Dark-Horse Pick: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

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    Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
    Ricky Stenhouse Jr.USA TODAY Sports

    While this Roush Fenway Racing driver hasn’t shown the kind of consistency you might expect from someone in his second full year in the Cup series, he has shown flashes of brilliance.

    Crew chief Mike Kelley has given Stenhouse a fast car on short tracks this year, where three of his driver’s four top-10 finishes have taken place. 

    "Even though Richmond is a short track it drives like a mile-and-a-half track," said crew chief Kelley, in a pre-race team media release. "We have to win this race to qualify for the Chase, so that’s our main goal. Track position is crucial so we need to qualify well on Friday. If we can execute on pit-road and stay out of trouble then I feel confident we can be a contender for the win.”

    Richmond was one of Stenhouse’s better tracks when he was racing full time in the Nationwide (soon to be XFINITY) Series. He had one pole and four top-fives at Richmond in the NNS.

    “It’s the last race for us to make the Chase so we have to go for the win," said Stenhouse Jr. in a pre-race media release. "Richmond is typical short track racing which is always a lot of fun. It is important to have a car that turns in the center with good drive off."

    He finished 10th last year in this race and while he’s a long shot to win, some smart pit strategy and a good RFR car could place this young man in position to take the checkers ahead of a tough field of competitors.

And the Winner Is...

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    Dale Earnhardt Jr.
    Dale Earnhardt Jr.USA TODAY Sports

    Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    This team and this driver have shown the kind of consistency that leads to championships in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing.

    Earnhardt has driven with the confidence of a winner all season. Crew chief Steve Letarte is determined to end his career on top, and he’s given Earnhardt not just good race cars, but at times, great race cars—as was witnessed at Pocono this season where Junior swept both races. Even the pit crew has delivered consistent top-notch pit stops.

    “I enjoy racing at Richmond,” said Earnhardt Jr. in a pre-race media release. “You can be aggressive and the racing is fun. We run at night and get a great crowd for the event. Richmond has put on a good show for years.”

    The No. 88 squad is arguably the best of the four Hendrick Motorsports teams. Look for them back in victory lane at the end of the night Saturday for a season-high fourth time.

     

    All quotes are taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.


    Bob Margolis is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association and has covered NASCAR, IndyCar, the NHRA and Sports Cars for more than two decades as a writer, television producer and on-air talent. 

    On Twitter: @BobMargolis