`Richmond presents opportunity for some drivers in dire need of win

By Jeff Cogliandro  (Point Spread Weekly) 

Following a true wild west race last weekend in Las Vegas to open the playoffs, the NASCAR series heads to the relatively stable confines of Richmond Raceway (Saturday 7:30 PM ET) for the Federated Auto Parts 400. After day-ending trouble found several of the playoff drivers last weekend at Las Vegas, the pressure for a top-10 finish at Richmond is weighing heavily on many of the title contenders. None of the drivers racing for a championship want to be face-to-face with the Roval at Charlotte next weekend. Being in such a precarious spot does not bode well, as the bottom-4 point contenders will be eliminated following this untapped road configuration.

Brad Keselowski is the hottest driver on the circuit with three straight wins. As Martin Truex Jr. said in his post race interview last weekend at Las Vegas “Brad has found a horseshoe.” While there are portions of this statement that are correct, there is no doubt that Keselowski has created his own luck with spectacular pit stops and hard charging restarts. Additionally being able to accurately “read” the track late in the race last week which helped push him to the win.

Keselowski was one of the only leaders to choose the bottom line on restarts which he later said offered more control of the car. When considering all the moves in the right direction that have been made by the #2 Penske Team it provides clarity as to how a second thru fifth place car could go on such a winning streak. While we have seen both Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch have similar streaks this season, there is little doubt that Keselowski has hit his mark at a fantastic time in the season. With his win at Las Vegas he will automatically advance to the next round and therefore the Roval will not likely be the source of team angst. Keselowski along with many bettors who placed their money on #2 car last week are rightfully proud of themselves.

The series will return to Richmond this week in what should be a familiar setting for many of the series top drivers. One thing I would like to recommend is taking the starting lineup and simplifying it by identifying the top cars. There is a large proportion of field fillers this season and it makes picking winners much more manageable if you plot the finish for each of the main contenders. This process can be aided by looking at how a driver can move up through the field often with several non contenders in their path. Below are some of the analytics that are specific to the races held at Richmond.

* 65 of 123 (52.8%) races won from top 4 starting spot at Richmond

* 89 of 123 (72.3%) races won from top 7 starting spot at Richmond

* Only 5 of 123 (4%) races won from 25th or deeper at Richmond. This is when evaluating the starting lineup indicates if this stat will hold. If so you have eliminated 15 drivers from contention.

* 7 of the last 8 races at Richmond have been won from a top 5 starting spot. Kyle Busch being the outlier in April of this year, started 32nd.

* The last 8 races at Richmond have produced 8 different winners. Joe Gibbs Racing has been responsible for 4 of those wins.

Below are some of the main contenders and their associated odds heading into the race.

Kyle Busch (plus 200) Starting in the 12th position, Busch will have to climb past several very good cars if he is going to repeat as the winner at Richmond. He leads all active drivers with 5 wins at Richmond but he has never won the Fall race there. Although starting outside the top 10, he was near the top of all the race defining metrics going into the race.

Kevin Harvick (4-1): Lined up on the pole, Harvick will attempt to recover from his early exit last week at Las Vegas. He will need to run well to keep himself from feeling the elimination squeez of the Roval. Harvick has a career average finish of just over tenth at Richmond, and he certainly needs to at least meet that expectation this weekend.

Martin Truex Jr. (4-1): Racing from the 3rd position, Truex came on very strong in happy hour which is the same path he took last weekend approaching the race. Much has been made of the fact that Truex is winless in 76 starts on a short track. However, it should be noted that he led 121 laps in the April race at Richmond on his way to a disappointing 14th-place finish.

Brad Keselowski (6-1): “Blazing Brad” will attempt to win his fourth consecutive race starting from the 8th position at Richmond. He has bounced around the top 5 in several of the metrics leading into the race but his low odds are based more on his total team effort. Interestingly, Keselowski at plus 9, has the best plus/minus of any driver over the past five races at Richmond.

Denny Hamlin (8-1): Looking to get himself out of the bottom of the playoff race, Hamlin will start in the 2nd position. Hamlin has six straight finishes of 6th or better at Richmond and he leads all active drivers with over 1600 laps led in his career. His trouble has been getting on and off pit road in a clean manner and will no doubt play a significant role in his ability to win the race.

Kyle Larson (8-1): Following a great recovery last week after a tire issue, Larson will line up in the 10th position at Richmond. He has not been one of the top cars heading into the race, but Larson has the ability to race a marginal car into deep contention. Larson has 6 second place finishes this season without a win. Breaking through this weekend with a win would vault him past the Roval where he could begin to focus on the next round.

Clint Bowyer (12-1): Bowyer will have a lot to overcome in order to be in the mix for the win as he failed to reach the second round of qualifying, and will start the race from the 25th position. In the last five races at Richmond, Bowyer has an average finish of 20th. However, although he had a poor qualifying effort he was in the top two of several combined metrics in happy hour.

Joey Logano (12-1): Perhaps the biggest surprise by his absence in the top 5 during practice is Logano. Starting 13th, he was only present in the top 10 of one happy hour metric entering the race. In the last 10 races at Richmond, Logano has 9 top 10s and two wins. I expect that he will be able to make significant improvements over the course of the race and be very close to the top 5 as the laps wind down.

Aric Almirola (15-1): Nestled well within the top 10, starting 7th is Almirola. Almirola has been very sneaky quiet while being just a few spots above the cut line going into the middle race of this first elimination set of tracks. Almirola was the top overall car during the first practice session, however he fell off dramatically outside the top 20 during happy hour.

Chase Elliott (15-1): Qualifying in the 19th position, Elliott has dug himself a hole. He is currently 9 points below the cut line and will need a fast rebound if he is to avoid going into the Roval under significant pressure. While Elliott did win at Watkins Glen this season it is a long stretch to figure he will have the same success at the Roval. He was outside the top 10 for most of the practice metrics leading going into Richmond and will need significant improvement to be amongst the top cars late in the race.

Kurt Busch (25-1): Starting in the 6th position, Busch will try to have a solid run and protect his point cushion. Winning at Richmond in 2015, Busch has had decent success but has not run in the top 5 on a consistent basis with only one such finish in the last 5 races there. He hovered in the top 10 during happy hour but will need to improve if he is to challenge his younger brother.

Ryan Blaney (35-1): Starting 4th and in prime contention for the win is Blaney. While he is not amongst the top cars entering the race he is in a starting position that promotes clean entry and exit from pit road. If he can avoid damage which derailed his bid to win in April, there is no reason to think that Blaney far from the top. At current odds Blaney provides value.

Erik Jones (35-1): After a last place finish last week at Las Vegas, Jones is looking to bounce back quickly. He will start in 9th place at Richmond and was amongst the top 5 fastest cars during happy hour over the long run. Like Blaney, at current odds there is value to be had on Jones. Either of them is worth 22-1 or better odds entering the race.

Below are the matchups that have made the cut for the race at Richmond. Last week we went 2-1 with two underdog wins. This brings our season win record to 52-30 in driver matchups.

Kevin Harvick ( 120): over Kyle Busch (-140):

Harvick has less to do and will likely bounce back strong after last week’s poor performance. Also Kyle Busch has not had the raw speed that we are accustomed to seeing at Richmond. Harvick is far more desperate than Busch which is a spot that few were expecting to see him in.

Joey Logano (-110): over Clint Bowyer (-110):

Although Bowyer was faster entering the race, I expect the creme to rise to the top and Logano to have a strong run. He has much better career numbers at Richmond when compared to Bowyer and he is coming off a very good run last weekend at Las Vegas.

Erik Jones (plus 120): over Chase Elliott (-140):

Jones has been stronger recently than Elliott and there is little reason to think that Elliott deserves to be favored in this matchup. Jones has limited experience at Richmond but seems to adapt rather quickly as he looks to be sharper than Elliott entering the race.

Please be aware that qualifying has not been confirmed and the chance for drivers to get sent to the rear is a real possibility. Please check the latest news before wagering.

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