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NASCAR playoff stakes to rise at Richmond

By Pete Pistone  () 

The second race of the NASCAR Cup Series’ opening playoff round is set Saturday night at Richmond Raceway. The Federated Auto Parts 400 will have 15 drivers battling to get into the round of 12 after Kevin Harvick automatically advanced with his Darlington win Sunday.

The .75-mile Richmond Raceway is one of only three short tracks on the NASCAR schedule, which by definition are less than a mile around. The tight quarters bring the cars closer together, and aggressiveness already enhanced by the playoff implications is usually high. The four drivers at the bottom of the playoff grid will be eliminated after next week’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway, so the stakes have increased for the group hovering around the cut line at Richmond.

Saturday is just the first race of the season at Richmond after the track’s annual spring date was canceled due to the sport’s COVID-19 hiatus. The race will feature a different rules package than was used a year ago at Richmond, which proved a difficult task for drivers to pass under long green-flag conditions because of the cars’ aerodynamics. This higher-horsepower, lower-downforce configuration should make the cars a lot looser and put the outcome more in the drivers’ hands, something they have asked for all season.

But it might also increase emphasis on maintaining track position and starting the race near the front of the field. In fact, drivers who started in the first four spots have won 67 of the 126 races previously run at Richmond.

Here’s a look at the favorites for the Federated Auto Parts 400:

KEVIN HARVICK

He’s already a force to be reckoned with after scoring a series-high eighth win last week at Darlington. But Harvick has absolutely no pressure Saturday night at Richmond, having already earned a berth in the next round of the playoffs. It could make Harvick even tougher to beat as he has absolutely nothing to lose. He has finished in the top 10 in seven of the last eight Richmond races and has top-five runs in four of the previous five starts at the track.

DENNY HAMLIN

A three-time Richmond winner, Hamlin’s last victory at the track was in 2016. The Virginia native has a lot of laps around Richmond dating to his late-model racing days before graduating up the NASCAR ranks. Hamlin has six top-five finishes in his last seven Richmond starts.

KYLE BUSCH

He’s still winless in 2020 but comes to Richmond with an impeccable track record. Busch is a six-time winner at the track, including sweeping both races in 2018. He has the best average finish in the series over the last 10 races at 5.6 and has finished first or second five times in his last nine Richmond starts.

MARTIN TRUEX JR.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver dominated last week at Darlington before getting involved in a late crash trying to wrestle the lead from Chase Elliott. It ended his string of eight consecutive top-four finishes. He comes to Richmond on a two-race winning streak at the track, with a third-place run the start before.

 

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