|Richmond under the lights is always intense|
Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick, three drivers that have clinched their Chase positions for some time, are considered the drivers to beat this week. This is not only based on their prowess at Richmond, but also their success at similar flat-tracks such as Phoenix and New Hampshire.
They have also been three of the most dominating and consistent drivers on the circuit this season, something that can't be said for Jimmie Johnson, who comes in at 8-to-1 odds. Johnson won three-of-four races during a stretch that ended June 15 at Michigan, but hasn't won in 10 races since. He's a three-time winner at Richmond with the last coming in 2008. He's finished 32nd and 40th in his last two Richmond starts.
While Keselowski has never won at Richmond and Gordon has been winless at the track since 2000 (his second win at the track), both have been very strong on this type of track this season. Gordon was fifth at Phoenix in March and then runner-up at Richmond in late April, leading a race-high 173 laps.
Keselowski has been the most dominant on the three tracks. He won at New Hampshire in July, led 114 laps at Richmond before settling for fourth and finished third at Phoenix. He's tied with four other drivers at three wins each (Gordon, Johnson, Joey Logano, and Dale Earnhardt Jr.) on the season to lead the series.
Harvick is the other 6-to-1 favorite just because he's fast every week and loves racing at Richmond and tracks similar to it. He's a three-time winner (2013, 2011, 2006) on the three-quarter-mile track and also dominated at Phoenix in March, leading a race-high 224 laps. He hasn't won since Darlington in April, but has had the best car on the track on multiple occasions since then -- including last week at Atlanta where he finished 19th.
Harvick's 2006 season is the perfect example of a driver and team doing well collectively on this type of track during a season. He swept Phoenix and also won at Richmond and New Hampshire. There have multiple instances over the years of a driver winning at least two between the six dates, including last season when Harvick and Carl Edwards each won at Richmond and Phoenix.
Most of the time that correlation is just because the crew and car chief have hit upon a winning set-up with proper balance for one that carries over into the other. And usually, if they do well, they'll bring the same exact chassis to run on the others.
Coming in at 8-to-1 odds, along with Johnson, is Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and spring race winner Logano. After Denny Hamlin and Earnhardt Jr at 12-to-1, every other driver is 15-to-1 or higher, showing just how top heavy this race is expected to be.
Kyle Busch is an interesting look this week because he's been getting better on this type of track each time out. He was ninth at Phoenix, third at Richmond and second at New Hampshire. If there was one track to predict Busch to get his first win since Fontana in March, Richmond would be it. His four wins there are the most among all active drivers, as is his seventh-place average finish over his 19 career Cup starts.
Kenseth and Hamlin both showed some fight last week with top-five finishes that gave an indication things are turning around for the Joe Gibbs Racing squad. Kenseth has been good on these tracks this season with a fifth at Richmond and fourth at New Hampshire and will be looking for his first Richmond win since 2002, and first win of the season.
Hamlin has won twice on the track that is 30 minutes from where he grew up in Chesterfield, VA. He and Kyle Busch are the only active drivers to average better than 10th-place at Richmond. The home cooking hasn't worked well for him in his past three starts -- he's finished 18th or worse -- but things appear to be on the upswing. His next win will be the 25th of his Cup career and will tie him with Joe Weatherly for the most among Virginians, which includes big names like Ricky Rudd and Jeff Burton.
As for the drivers with a slim chance of making the Chase by winning, two-time Richmond winner Clint Bowyer (20-to-1) would be the driver to focus on. He's 23 points behind Greg Biffle for the 16th and final position, but based on what we've seen out of him all season on this type of track -- a layout he likes more than any other -- there isn't much to suggest his team can give him a car to win. A top-10 is likely, but to make the Chase by points, he'll need some help from Biffle, who has never won a Richmond race and hasn't had a top-five there since 2006.
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