Richmond Story Lines

NASCAR

Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski will race to make the Chase tonight at Richmond International Raceway.

RICHMOND, Va. - It is moments like tonight’s race at Richmond International Raceway that makes sports so special.

Champions and underdogs alike with one chance, under intense pressure, to prove themselves. Who excels and who fails? 

Can Jeff Gordon race his way into the Chase as he did last year? Can Kurt Busch, once an underdog, make the Chase with a single-car team? Can defending series champion Brad Keselowski, now an underdog, make the Chase?

Gordon, Busch and Keselowski qualified 1-2-3 Friday. Gordon said it’s simple to explain how all three succeeded in qualifying while facing so much pressure this weekend.

“I’m going to just draw the parallel that all three of us have that Sprint Cup trophy that is sitting in our trophy room,’’ he said after his first pole of the season. “It also comes down to great teams making the adjustments to know how the track speed is going to pick up and then the driver has to drive with that increased speed.’’

Each will be tested tonight. So will others. Ten drivers are vying for the final five spots in the Chase. 

One moment can mean so much. Last year, a decision not to pit cost Kyle Busch the chance to make the Chase and helped Gordon slip in. Kyle Busch already has clinched a Chase spot this year, so he doesn’t have to worry about that happening again. Others know one mistake can keep them from the Chase.

“I'm thinking it will come down to the last pit stop, how well the pit crew gets you out, whether you get the right lane on the restart, how willing you are to gouge in front of you,’’ Keselowski said. “That’s probably what this race will come to.’’

Kurt Busch said it might be more than that last pit stop that could prove key.

“There’s a large amount of variables here,’’ he said. “With the tire drop-off, when you pit, when you don’t pit. There’s a lot of times when you’re running top five you don’t pit because you want to protect that track position.’’

They aren’t the only ones racing to make the Chase. Martin Truex Jr. enter this race holding one of the two Wild Card spots - Kasey Kahne has clinched at least a Wild Card spot - but there are scenarios where he could miss the Chase.

That creates plenty of story lines for tonight’s Federated Auto Parts 400. Here are some others:

GROOVIN’ - The bottom lane is the preferred line through the corners and on restarts. Watch those late-race restarts. Drivers on the outside will be more aggressive to get to the bottom as quickly as possible. Those on the bottom will be more aggressive to defend their position. That could lead to contact among Chase contenders or cause an accident that collects Chase contenders.

“I really hate to harp on it over and over, but this racetrack has so much potential that's just not realized because of the way the surface of the racetrack has been utilized over the past several years,’’ said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who clinches a Chase spot by finishing 32nd or better tonight.

“We used to see multi‑groove racing here. They haven't sealed the racetrack in a really long time. Really, the only place to run is right on the bottom. You almost have to hook the left front on the apron a little bit all the way around the track. There's no second groove. It's there if they want it, if they want to seal the racetrack and create that kind of racing again. You don't have to pave the place or nothing, just throw some sealer down and everything. Be so much better.’’

RACING INTO THE CHASE - Only five times in the previous nine years has a driver raced their way into a Chase spot at Richmond.

Jeremy Mayfield did it in 2004 by winning Richmond. Ryan Newman made it in 2005. Kasey Kahne did it in 2006. Brian Vickers rallied in 2009, and Jeff Gordon did it last year.

Drivers who are not in a Chase spot entering tonight’s race but still have a chance of making it are: Gordon, Newman, Brad Keselowski, Jamie McMurray and Paul Menard.

JIMMIE JOHNSON - The points leader has finished no better than 28th in the past three races. Not the type of momentum a team would want entering the Chase. 

“It’s been tough but the thing is our cars have actually been very fast,’’ crew chief Chad Knaus said. “At Atlanta we were running well and everything was going to be fine. At Michigan, we were clearly very, very fast in both race cars. It’s unfortunate that we’ve had these situations, but quite honestly, it’s actually helped us, because our team was a little rusty on fixing crashes and repairs. And it’s given our guys an opportunity to get back in the swing of things. So, if it were ever to happen, it was a great time for it to have happened.’’

Making Johnson’s challenge greater tonight is that he’ll start at the rear of the field. Regan Smith qualified the car as Johnson remained with his wife in Charlotte, N.C., on Friday after the birth of their second daughter. He’ll be back in the car tonight.

DENNY HAMLIN - Remember him? He’s not finished better than 18th in the last 11 races, but he’s at Richmond where he runs so well. He won’t make the Chase, but a win could help him forget some of the struggles of this season. Keep an eye on him. He starts sixth.

Motor Racing Network – “The Voice of NASCAR” – will have live coverage of tonight’s Federated Auto Parts 400 from Richmond International Raceway at 6:30 p.m. (ET), with live streaming at MotorRacingNetwork.com.

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