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Cup Series playoff battle intensifying

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick certainly earned one of the most dramatic victories of the 2022 season last weekend at Michigan International Speedway. The 2014 NASCAR Cup Series champion‘s win, his first in the last 65 races, catapulted him from 17th place in the standings into playoff contention with only three races remaining to set the 16-driver field.

The clutch performance only increases the drama expected for the rest of the month which will feature races at the Richmond Raceway short track, the Watkins Glen International road course and the regular-season finale at the always unpredictable Daytona International Speedway‘s 2.5-mile superspeedway high banks.

Sunday’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway (3 p.m. ET on USA Network, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) has typically lived up to its “Action Track” nickname and with the current playoff intensity, the moniker is certainly well-deserved.

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Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin, a two-race winner already in 2022, won the spring Richmond race and his teammate Martin Truex Jr. is the defending winner of this summer/fall event — a good sign for the driver of the No. 19 JGR Toyota who dropped to 17th place in the standings with Harvick‘s win last week. He trails Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney by 19 points for that 16th and last automatic playoff transfer position.

Truex is one of seven multi-time winners at Richmond, sweeping the 2019 season races and last hoisting a trophy in this race last year. He‘s had top-10 finishes in three of the last four races leading into Richmond, tying a season-best fourth-place finish after leading 172 laps at New Hampshire four weeks ago. The three top-five finishes and 10 top-10 finishes through the first 23 races is well off the Truex-pace the sport has come to expect, however. He‘s had at least 20 top-10 marks in the five previous seasons.

Prior to the season‘s first green flag, most would have absolutely assumed both Truex and Blaney would have a victory by now. Blaney has nearly as many top-five finishes (eight) this year as he did all of last year (10), but third-place is his best result — earning it at Nashville earlier this summer. Twice he‘s led at least 100 laps in a race (at Phoenix and at Richmond) so maybe this return trip to Richmond will result in his first win at the track. His only two top-10 finishes in 12 starts there came in the last two races and his 128 laps led this Spring are the only laps he‘s ever led there.

MORE: Blaney v. Truex — who has the advantage?

Even if Truex doesn‘t win the race, a good finish could possibly move him ahead of Blaney‘s tenuous 19-point advantage only intensifying the dramatic run to playoff eligibility.

Seven of the nine active Richmond winners — Kyle Busch, who has a series-best six victories, Hamlin (4), Harvick (3), Truex (3), Brad Keselowski (2), Joey Logano (2), Kurt Busch (2), Alex Bowman (1) and reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Larson (1) — have already secured playoff positions with a win this season. Truex and Keselowski are the two still searching for their first victory of 2022.

Interestingly, nine of the 15 drivers still hoping to earn a Playoff position have wins at one of the three remaining tracks. Seven of the drivers currently ranked outside the top-10 in the series driver standings have hoisted a trophy at Daytona International Speedway, site of the regular season finale on Aug. 27.

Of note, current NASCAR Cup Series championship leader Chase Elliott stands to officially clinch the NASCAR Cup Series Regular Season Championship presented by Coca-Cola if he earns 58 points at Richmond. The 2020 series champion would become the fifth different driver to win the award since it was created in 2017.

Kyle Busch is the only driver to have earned it twice (2018 and 2019). Larson (2021), Busch (2019) and Truex (2017) are the only drivers to win both the regular season championship and go on to claim the season title in the same year.

Practice and Busch Light Pole Qualifying will be aired on the USA Network this Saturday from 5-7 p.m. ET.