Federated Auto Parts 400: Drivers to Watch at Richmond

Rick Weiner@RickWeinerNYFeatured ColumnistSeptember 7, 2012

RICHMOND, VA - SEPTEMBER 07:  Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M's Toyota, drives during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway on September 7, 2012 in Richmond, Virginia.  (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)
Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

It's now or never for the field in the final race of the regular season, the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday night.

The top 10 drivers in the Sprint Cup standings are assured a spot in the 12-driver field in the Chase for the Cup, but getting the checkered flag means three bonus points towards a possible higher Chase seeding, so nobody's going to take a night off.

With two wild-card spots still technically up for grabs and potential movement in the standings among the top 10, let's take a look at who we need to keep an eye on when things get underway.

Kyle Busch

Busch holds a slim 12-point lead over Jeff Gordon for the 12th and final spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. And four others drivers still have a shot to overtake him in the standings.

Fortunately for Busch, Richmond has been very good to both him and Joe Gibbs Racing of late. He's won four times in his last seven starts in Richmond, including this past April, and he has not finished outside of the top 10 since 2007.

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Busch won the April Richmond race and has not finished outside the top 10 since 2007, with four wins in his last seven starts.

With so much on the line, you'd better believe that the 27-year-old will go all out in an effort to cement his place in the Chase.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

With the season that he's having, can we really count Junior out of any race at this point?

He has never won at Richmond in September, but he does have three April wins under his belt. So success here is not a foreign concept to him as he goes for his 18th top-10 finish of 2012.

He sits only eight points behind Greg Biffle for the Sprint Cup points lead, and it would be a fitting close to his remarkable regular season if he were able to take the checkered flag and pass Biffle in the standings.

Jeff Gordon

Gordon seems to be hitting his stride heading into Richmond. He's finished third and second in his last two races and has landed in the top six in eight of his past 11.

Sitting only 12 points behind Kyle Busch for the final wild-card spot and 17 points behind Kasey Kahne for the 11th place spot, Gordon has a chance to get back into the Chase.

He's got his work cut out for him, but he still has a fighting chance.

Denny Hamlin

A win Saturday night could vault Hamlin from seventh place to the top of the standings with his fifth win of the season.

With four consecutive top-five finishes on his hometown track, Hamlin simply cannot be overlooked as a legitimate contender to take home the checkered flag.

Tony Stewart

Things haven't quite gone Stewart's way recently, but a trip to Richmond may be exactly what gets him moving back in the right direction.

The defending series champion, Stewart finished third at Richmond in April and has 10 consecutive top-10 finishes on the Virginia asphalt.

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