It's a certainty there will be more Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans on hand at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday for the Sprint Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 than any of the "5 Drivers to Watch" listed below. And it's entirely possible there will be as many fans of Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart as for any of our highlighted drivers among the nearly 100,000 at RIR.
But those three – along with Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keslowski, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin – have qualified for NASCAR's 10-race Chase, while Kasey Kahne is nearly in. So, we invite you to keep your eyes on six drivers in the Cup race, along with Danica, who will be one of the draws for the Nationwide Series Virginia 529 College Savings 250 on Friday, when Elliott Sadler of Emporia and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. resume their duel for the series title.
5 DRIVERS TO WATCH AT RIR
Only 12 points ahead of Jeff Gordon for the final Chase spot, there's still probably little reason for Busch to sweat. He's won four of the past seven Cup races at RIR, where he has an incredible average career finish of 4.7. Here's another Busch advantage: 12 top-fives in 15 RIR starts to Gordon's 15 in 21 years. A good night, and a poor one by Tony Stewart, could put Busch in the Chase as a top 10 automatic (Stewart still gets in as a wild card). Regardless, a top 10 will put Busch in the Chase as long Gordon, Marcos Ambrose, Ryan Newman, and Joey Logano don't win. Any could leapfrog him for a wild card, two wins to one, if they do.
Gordon needs to win or finish 13 places ahead of Busch to make the Chase, assuming Ambrose, Newman and Logano don't win (and far-fetched scenarios involving Carl Edwards or Paul Menard reamain far-fetched). Leading late, Gordon should've won here last year, but got beat on a restart by Kevin Harvick, whose teammate, Menard, spun, perhaps intentionally, to bring out a caution. Gordon will pull out all the stops, something he failed to do Sunday by not punting Hamlin aside on the final restart at Atlanta.
On the one hand, Patrick is a selfless and enthusiastic ambassador for NASCAR, assenting to countless hours of print, radio and television interviews. On the other, it's hard to spin her average finishes of 20.4 in Nationwide and 31.4 in Cup as anything except less-than-stellar considering the money behind her. Either way her appeal is undeniable, and a lot of the folks in the stands for Friday's Nationwide race will be there for her.
It's hard to believe he came within one place of winning the Cup title a year ago and has almost no chance of making this year's Chase. Even with a win, he'd still basically need Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon to implode. But the ultra-competitive Edwards, who led more than 200 laps here in the spring, said after Atlanta he'll let it all hang out regardless, and that should be fun to watch.
Unless Kyle Busch overtakes Tony Stewart (who qualifies for the Chase automatically or as a wild card) in the top 10 as an automatic, Marcos Ambrose, Ryan Newman or Joey Logano can win the race and overtake Busch for the second wild card (Kahne would be assured the other wild card in this scenario) with two wins to Busch's one. The problem is that Ambrose and Logano are not good at RIR and Newman got his only win there in 2003.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun