The Biggest NASCAR Storylines to Watch Ahead of the Federated Auto Parts 400

Brendan O'Meara@@BrendanOMearaFeatured ColumnistSeptember 10, 2015

The Biggest NASCAR Storylines to Watch Ahead of the Federated Auto Parts 400

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    Terry Renna/Associated Press

    Twenty-five races are, as they say, in the books, and there’s just one remaining in the regular season when the Sprint Cup Series heads to Richmond International Speedway for the Federated Auto Parts 400.

    The word of the week is “bubble,” and Clint Bowyer is jumping on that bubble like a trampoline in 16th place. He’s the one in greatest danger of slinking off of the Chase Grid in lieu of either Aric Almirola or a new winner not already within the boundaries of Chaseton Abbey.

    It’s Richmond, the final race of the regular season, and anything can happen. No, seriously, anything can happen, like Bowyer “accidentally” crashing in 2013 to allow a teammate admittance into the Chase.

    Read on for some regular-season finale storylines.

Hendrick Motorsports on the Ropes

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    You get the sense that Rick Hendrick wants to quote Mark Twain by saying the reports of his team’s death are greatly exaggerated. The results of the Southern 500 suggest that HMS needs some life support. Gel up the defibrillators.

    At Darlington, HMS didn’t appear in the results until the eighth spot when Dale Earnhardt Jr. broke the tape. The much-maligned Kasey Kahne (maligned due to his un-Chase-iness) was the next-best HMS driver, finishing in 12th. Jeff Gordon took 16th, and Jimmie Johnson, the four-time race winner, finished in 19th.

    "People catch up; people work hard," Hendrick said in Kenny Bruce’s NASCAR.com story. "Rule package, rule changes, usually we're on top of it and we come out in front. To think that you can be in this sport every single year and be the dominant guy that wins them all, that isn't going to happen. NASCAR isn't going to let that happen."

    So it appears Hendrick is implying that NASCAR is trying to neuter the powerful HMS garage.

    An HMS driver hasn’t won a race since July 5 when Earnhardt won the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona.

    Looking at the best drivers right now, the favorites for the Sprint Cup hail from Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing. Then, in fourth place, is Hendrick.

    “I don’t like it when we're behind, but it motivates me,” Hendrick said, per Bruce. “We've just got to work hard, work smart and we'll be back.”

No ACL, No Problem for Denny Hamlin?

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    Terry Renna/Associated Press

    Denny Hamlin technically still has his right anterior cruciate ligament; it’s just ripped up. That’s his gas pedal foot.

    A cruciate ligament divided against itself…can stand?

    Hamlin was doing what some men in their mid-30s who think they’re 18-years-old are wont to do: play pick-up basketball. What move was he doing that subsequently nuked his ACL? Was it a killer crossover or did he land wrong going up for a Dennis Rodman-esque rebound?

    Hamlin, despite being down a crucial cruciate, has medical clearance to drive for the remainder of the season.

    Putting on my doctor’s cap and summoning my latent pre-med knowledge from the turn of the millennium, the ACL’s sole purpose is to keep the tibia (shin bone) from moving anteriorly (forward). Doctors will perform an “anterior drawer,” whereby if said ACL has lost its integrity, the tibia will dislocate forward upon “pulling.” The patient will scream.

    That said, you can walk without an ACL. The knee will lack stability, naturally, so this shouldn’t affect Hamlin too much in the Chase.

    Maybe a shorter track where there’s far more motion in the cockpit will be demanding. Think Dover, the third and final race of the Challenger Round. The Monster Mile could be physically taxing on Hamlin.

Clint Bowyer Bouncing on the Bubble

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    Bob Brodbeck/Associated Press

    Clint Bowyer returns to Richmond, the site of his infamous wreck in 2013, and he’s in control of destiny, sort of.

    Here are his Chase qualifying scenarios: Finish 28th or better, finish 29th with at least one lap led* or place 30th with the most laps led. That latter is laughable. He could lead a couple of laps depending on pit strategies, but the first one is the most likely.

    Bowyer can finish 28th or better at Richmond where he’s won before.**

    “Richmond is one of those tracks that I've always had a lot of confidence in. She's been good to me," Bowyer said in Dan Gelston’s Associated Press story (h/t BND.com). "It's a fun race track, challenging. The second time around when the money's on the line, if you are on that bubble in the Chase, it's a pressure cooker for sure and pretty intense."

    With an average finish of 16.9 in 2015, he should clinch, assuming, of course, someone off of the Chase Grid—Kahne, Greg Biffle, Tony Stewart, Aric Almirola—doesn’t win.

    *: He’s led just eight laps this year.

    **: It’s been three years.

Brad Keselowski Coming on Strong Late

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    Terry Renna/Associated Press

    Brad Keselowski, who finished second in the Southern 500, led a race-high 196 laps en route. Frustrating, yes, especially when you consider that Kes hasn’t won since he overtook the lead at Fontana on the final lap back in the fifth race of the season.

    Then he went through a mid-season funk where he bottomed out at Bristol (35th), Talladega (22nd) and Daytona’s summer race (29th). But watch out for the No. 2 car. Ever since finishing 29th back on July 5, BK hasn’t finished outside the top 10 and has three runner-ups for an average finish of 5.5 since.

    “We were definitely right there,” Keselowski said during the NBC Sports post-Southern 500 broadcast. “Just one spot short in the end. Our game’s strong, lot of top 10s, seconds, thirds, fifths, sixths, just want to turn them into wins. We’ve got to find one more level to win these races and win this championship.”

    NASCAR, like professional and college football, changes tenor from week to week. Right now Joe Gibbs Racing is habanero hot.

    The way Kes has been driving makes him a sleeper pick to win his second Sprint Cup.

Wait, Paul Menard Will Make the Chase?

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Martin Truex Jr. was NASCAR’s Unassuming Driver before he rattled off top 10s with aplomb and even won a race in 2015. Who inherited that mantle? Who has been on the Chase Grid since Race 3? That’s Paul Menard.

    Like a lot of the winless drivers in 2015, he doesn’t feel threatening, like, at all. It’s hard to feel confident in a driver who has led all of one lap this season (Texas).

    His greatest asset may be his equanimity in the face of ups and downs.

    Joseph Shelton of Beyondtheflag.com wrote:

    That’s a trademark of Menard. He never gets excited, never loses his cool, never gets aggressive. He runs the laps the way they’re supposed to be run and doesn’t let his focus stray. He’s great with his equipment and doesn’t drive beyond his means. Those are very important when it comes to maintaining a strong points position as well as a spot on one of the most prolific NASCAR teams in history.

    He keeps his car in one piece most of the time, and depending how these races unfold, he could find himself creeping along deep into the Chase as Ryan Newman did a year ago.