Richmond last shot for drivers not in the Chase

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The final race of NASCAR’s 26-race regular season happens Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway. At its conclusion we’ll know all 16 drivers that participate in the Chase for the Championship, which is NASCAR’s version of the playoffs.

Any driver within the top-30 in points can win this race and automatically qualify for the Chase, so you better believe we’re going to see some daring moves all race by middle-of-the-pack drivers.

Because of super-aggressive restarts by these drivers that have to win to get in, it makes things a little more volatile in the odds to win market. Kevin Harvick might have the best car, but he also might get tangled with an eager Greg Biffle fighting for the playoffs.

Of the drivers that need to win to make the Chase, I think you can only make a case for three drivers – Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson and Tony Stewart. Larson probably has the best possibilities of all, but Kahne has the experience in these spots and I like Stewart to run well just because his practice sessions last week at Darlington raised an eyebrow.

This isn’t the same set-up as Darlington, but knowing Stewart’s crew found some speed has me intrigued about him this week, and he should be able to be found at odds of 75-to-1 or higher.

Stewart has three Richmond wins to his credit, the last coming in 2002, but more than just a solid 12th-place average finish there appears to be a spark within the team, and it’s about time. For goodness sakes, this is Tony Stewart, the owner of the team which happens to include last year’s champion Kevin Harvick and the Richmond winner from April, Kurt Busch. While the No. 4 and No. 41 have been winning races and looking like possible candidates to win this year’s Chase, Stewart has run more Danica Patrick, who has been a major disappointment to Stewart-Haas Racing.

Patrick is another driver needing to win, but if she hasn’t won during her first three years in the Series there is no reason to think she can win, unless you believe that association with the No. 4 and No. 41 cars are to her benefit.

The sports books will tempt you with 500-to-1 odds to win at Richmond, but I wouldn’t even thinking of laying $5 on her unless there was another zero attached to the price. Because she gets sponsorship dollars, we will see another year of Patrick, who – let’s be kind – hasn’t been as spectacular as expected in stock cars.

The first thing you should when handicapping Saturday’s race is look at what happened at Phoenix in March, Richmond in April and New Hampshire in July. Those three tracks require similar set-ups because of size and being relatively flat. If a driver did well on one, it’ll carry over to the next one.

Harvick won at Phoenix, was second at Richmond and third at New Hampshire. He led 278 laps between the three races. Kurt Busch was fourth at Phoenix, won at Richmond – led 291 laps – and 10th at New Hampshire. Joey Logano also has similar consistency with all of them, as does Jamie McMurray.

Kahne, who is in major desperation mode right now, finished fourth at Phoenix and sixth at Richmond, but the finished 19th at New Hampshire. Clearly a disappointing season for Kahne, but a win could completely change the mood and complexion. Kahne won at Richmond in 2005 and has averaged a 17th-place finish in 23 starts.

There are worse things to throw $5 on than Kahne at 30-to-1 odds. At least you know you got a hungry horse with Hendrick Motorsports backing.

While I think Harvick and Kurt Busch are going to be extremely tough this week, I kind of like the roll Brad Keselowski is on. He’s had eight straight top-10 finishes coming into Saturday and he won this race last season. He finished second to Kyle Busch on the similar New Hampshire layout.

Micah Roberts is a former Las Vegas race and sports book director, one of The Linemakers on SportingNews.com , and longtime motorsports columnist and sports analyst at GamingToday. Follow Micah on Twitter @MicahRoberts7 Contact Micah at [email protected].

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