Three spots open, four races left to Chase

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The Chase field of 16 drivers will be finalized Saturday night on the 3/4-mile flat layout of Richmond International Raceway. Four drivers are vying for the three open positions and up to 17 drivers are eligible to qualify if they win which is going to make for some intense racing throughout the field.

Some drivers like Chase Elliott, who sits comfortably in the 14th slot with a 25-point cushion on 17th-place Ryan Newman, will play it safe and just look to finish well and stay out of trouble. He would love to get his first career win this week, but making the playoffs is more important at this juncture.

Austin Dillon, sitting 15th, only has a 16-point lead over Newman and knows he could be in jeopardy of falling back just because of his track history where he’s averaged a 24.2 finish in five career starts, including his career-best of 20th in the April race. Newman has a 2003 Richmond win to his credit along with 16 top-10s and an 11.7 average finish over 29 starts.

Jamie McMurray currently has a seven-point lead in 16th over Newman, and like Dillon, Richmond hasn’t been his best track with a 20th-place average in 27 starts. However, he’s finished fourth there three times in his last six starts. He also got a solid sixth-place finish at New Hampshire in July, which is relevant because of it being a flat one-mile track. You can throw Phoenix into that grouping as well with the thought process being if a driver is good on one of those tracks, they’ll be good on the other because the set-ups are similar.

McMurray can look at his New Hampshire result and feel good that last year’s sixth-place finisher at New Hampshire in July, Matt Kenseth, won at Richmond in the same situation. This year, Carl Edwards finished second at Phoenix in March and then won the April race at Richmond. They’re all correlated, and it’s not to say McMurray will win – I wouldn’t bet him, but there should be confidence of finishing well.

In the meantime while Elliott, Dillon and McMurray are all paying attention to where everyone is at in points as the laps wind down – playing it conservative, Newman is going to be on a mission and he’s very tenacious when he wants to be. You’re also going to see all the others outside looking in trying to shock the NASCAR world with a win, and going all-out to do so. There aren’t any friends, teammates or time to be Mr. Nice Guy. This is their last shot to make it.

Greg Biffle is going to do all he can to make himself eligible and for him it’s win or nothing. Another driver that is going to have to win is Kasey Kahne, who hasn’t led a lap this season, but did have his best finish of the season at Richmond in April finishing fourth.

In 2005, Kahne raced himself into the Chase with a Richmond win. His car was much better then and his car this year has been the poster child for Hendrick Motorsports’ 2016 decline with only two top-five finishes. But desperation and creative engineering might make him a driver at 50-to-1 or higher to waste $5 on.

In NASCAR, if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying, and the Hendrick garage knows how be to real sneaky, so you’ve got that possibly going for you with a Kahne wager.

As for the real contenders to win Saturday night, again you begin with Joe Gibbs Racing with Kyle Busch being a four-time Richmond winner and producing a 6.86 average finish – runner-up last two starts. Native Virginian Denny Hamlin has two wins and a 10.5 average, Kenseth grabbed his second career win there last fall and Edwards got his second win there this spring. Hamlin is currently on a career-best run of seven straight top-10 finishes, peaking at the right time.

Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick each have three wins at Richmond, Kurt Busch has two and the Team Penske duo of Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski each have a win when the swept the 2014 season. Harvick is the only driver to have top-five finishes this season at Phoenix (won), Richmond (fifth) and New Hampshire (fourth).

Twitter: @MicahRoberts7

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