Five things to look out for in Richmond's Cup race

All eyes will be on the final Chase grid on Saturday night – but what else should we be looking out for?

Five things to look out for in Richmond's Cup race
Ryan Newman, Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
Ryan Newman, Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
Ryan Newman, Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
Ryan Newman, Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
Ryan Newman's smoky celebration
Jamie McMurray, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Jamie McMurray, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Jamie McMurray, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Jamie McMurray, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Jamie McMurray, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Jamie McMurray, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Austin Dillon, Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
Austin Dillon, Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Chris Buescher, Front Row Motorsports Ford
Chris Buescher, Front Row Motorsports Ford
David Ragan, Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota
Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Clint Bowyer, Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota takes the win
Race winner Brad Keselowski, Team Penske Ford
Joey Logano, Team Penske Ford
Start: Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet leads
Kurt Busch, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Carl Edwards, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota race winner
Carl Edwards, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota race winner
Race winner Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Race winner Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Race winner Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

1. Costly penalty

For NASCAR's leading teams, the regular-season penalties for failing post-race tech are rendered basically meaningless by the current season format. Fine? Not a problem. Crew chief suspension? Tolerable. Points? If you've got a win under your belt, they do not matter in the least.

For Ryan Newman and his #31 crew, those penalties are devastating. Having given up 10 points for illegal brackets at Atlanta, he left Darlington seven points off the Chase. On Wednesday, seven turned 22, and that might have just wrecked his season.

At this point, the case for Newman's Chase chances (putting Chris Buescher's whole situation aside for now) would hinge on his reasonably strong Richmond record. RIR was the site of one of Newman's eight 2003 wins and it's paid good points for the Indiana native since – his best track by average finish on the Cup schedule.

But since he joined RCR, Newman hasn't had much in the way of spectacular runs at RIR. His five finishes at Richmond since 2014 are between eighth and 20th and he's led no laps.

That's not a bad record at all – it's the kind of record that helped Newman book Chase spots in 2014 and 2015. But it doesn't exactly suggest he's likely to make up 22 points on Saturday.

2. Newman's targets

That 22-point target for Newman is Chip Ganassi Racing's Jamie McMurray. If Newman beats the #1 by more than 22 spots, it'll be almost certainly enough for a Chase ticket.

But McMurray finishing that far behind Newman would require a very bad race for the #1 team, which has not had many of those in 2016.

McMurray, Newman and the drivers closest to them in the standings are all on a very similar average finish this year, because that's how NASCAR's points system works. But they arrived to those numbers very differently.

For instanc, the likes of Chase Elliott, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth have blown hot and cold, often featuring at the front but just also often featuring behind the wall.

2016 result metrics

Driver
(14.3 - 16.3 avg. finish)

Avg.

finish

Std.

dev.

10th

percentile

90th

percentile

Jamie McMurray 15.3 7.0 7.4 22.2
Ryan Newman 15.5 8.6 7.4 28.0
Austin Dillon 14.8 9.5 4.4 29.0
Matt Kenseth 14.5 10.8 2.8 32.8
Kyle Larson 16.0 12.1 3.0 34.6
Chase Elliott 15.0 12.1 3.4 33.6
Jimmie Johnson 15.4 12.2 3.0 34.2
Tony Stewart 16.3 12.3 3.8 34.0
Dale Earnhardt Jr. 15.6 12.9 2.0 36.9

It is instinctively obvious that McMurray has run differently and the stats support it. The standard deviation for his results – a measure of how much a data point deviates from the mean in a given dataset – is very low compared to those around.

Only once has McMurray ended up lower than 30th all season, and it was because of a Daytona wreck – admittedly, one that his car acted as the catalyst for.

But that's superspeedway racing. As for Richmond, McMurray has had some erratic results in the past, but has been reliable since re-joining Ganassi in 2010. Among the 13 results from that timeframe are a 26th-place finish, a 22nd-place finish and 11 top-20s.

Austin Dillon's track record is a little more uneven, but he's also further ahead – 31 points clear of Newman. If he doesn't produce a career-worst run at Richmond, he's fine.

As for Elliott, Newman would need him to finish last (something that has not happened in 2016), while himself bagging runner-up and most laps led (likewise, neither has happened in 2016).

3. The Buescher situation

Getting into the play-offs might require an absolutely gargantuan effort from Newman. At the same time, it may also require no special effort at all – as, the possibility of a new winner aside, Buescher falling out of the top 30 would more likely than not do the trick.

For Buescher himself, only Landon Cassill, David Ragan and Regan Smith will matter at RIR.

Ragan is the big one, 11 points adrift of Buescher's coveted P30 spot. Over the season, Buescher has given up 12 points or more to Ragan on three occasions – at Martinsville, Daytona and Kentucky. Rather worryingly, he also dropped exactly 11 points to Ragan in the Richmond spring race.

Smith is a much lesser factor for Buescher as, if he somehow finds himself overhauled by the #7 driver, he will most likely have lost the spot to Ragan as well. To make up the 28-point deficit to Buescher, Smith would have to place in or around the top 10, which would constitute an outright spectacular run.

And then there's Buescher's teammate Landon Cassill, 10 points ahead. If Buescher gets Cassill, he's in the Chase with 99.99% certainty.

Amid all that, Buescher's quiet run to P34 in the sprint at RIR is a worry. “I myself have never been too stellar here,” he had admitted after that race.

But the #34 team has made serious strides since its Pocono win, and unless something goes seriously wrong, Buescher will have a better result this weekend - and with it should come a fairytale Chase berth.

4. Last-chance saloon

There's also the chance that a driver currently on the outside of the Chase will lock themselves in with a last-gasp win at Richmond.

Of the regulars who haven't won this season and are on the outside of the Chase, only Newman, Kasey Kahne and Clint Bowyer have prior wins at RIR, which, for all three, came with teams that they no longer race for.

Richmond's special for Kahne in that it was the site of his career-first Cup win back in 2005 – a dominant win at that. But, while he'd have a few strong runs since, he's led all of 33 laps at the venue in that time.

The #5 driver could also secure a spot if he were to make up a 22-point deficit on Newman, while Chris Buescher falls out of the top 30. But those two events are solidly below 50% probability, and the mindset has to be that Kahne cannot points-race his way in.

For the others, who are on the outside looking in, it would take a major stroke of luck, strategic genius or an unprecedented upswing in performance.

5. The top teams

As for the battle among the actual regular season frontrunners – which might very well be slightly overshadowed by the divvying up of the final Chase spots – be prepared for a rather conventional outcome.

On Penske's side, Brad Keselowski has proved extremely capable at Richmond, and Joey Logano is no slouch either – the duo giving Penske a Richmond sweep in 2014.

Among the Chevy teams, Hendrick has not won at RIR since 2008, although Jeff Gordon has looked close.

This weekend, however, HMS' main hope might very well lie with Chase Elliott, whose average finish at RIR in Xfinity in four starts is a spectacular 2.5. Jimmie Johnson, in all fairness, is not to be overlooked either, with two top-three finishes from the last three Cup races.

Stewart-Haas is better poised than HMS. Kurt Busch ran amok in the 2015 spring race for the team's first RIR win, while Kevin Harvick has three prior triumphs with Richard Childress Racing and has shown good form on short tracks this year.

But ultimately, Joe Gibbs Racing looks like the team to beat. Apart from Phoenix (Harvick territory) and the second Bristol race (JGR 1-2-3 at the start only for the race to get away from them), the Gibbs quartet have won every event at tracks a mile or shorter in 2016.

The spring race at Richmond was a 1-2 for Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch, making it that all four of JGR's current drivers have been to victory lane at RIR with the team.

Kenseth did it last year, winning at Richmond for the first time since 2010. Denny Hamlin won the fall race twice in 2009 and 2010. Kyle Busch had four consecutive spring race wins between 2009 and 2012.

Because of all that, it looks like it'll be pretty difficult to see off the four JGR cars and alliance driver Martin Truex, Jr. on Saturday.

Driver rating averages at Richmond

Driver '11-'15
Richmond
'11-'15
Richmond +/-
'16
Richmond
'16
Richmond
Kevin Harvick 107.6 +6.5 5th 121.3
Kyle Busch 105.9 +5.7 2nd 125.6
Brad Keselowski 101.5 +4.6 11th 93.1
Jeff Gordon 101.0 +3.3 N/A N/A
Matt Kenseth 100.1 -0.3 7th 94.7
Denny Hamlin 96.6 +5.1 6th 103.3
Carl Edwards 96.3 +5.8 1st 142.2
Kurt Busch 94.4 +5.2 10th 105.7
Jimmie Johnson 90.4 -13.8 3rd 116.5
Jamie McMurray 90.1 +10.9 16th 64.5
Joey Logano 88.6 -3.3 8th 84.4
Ryan Newman 88.4 +4.8 18th 76.7
Kasey Kahne 87.3 -3.4 4th 107.9
Kyle Larson 85.1 +1.0 15th 75.3
Tony Stewart 82.6 +2.1 19th 67.6
Martin Truex Jr. 79.4 -9.3 9th 88.6
Greg Biffle 75.2 -8.1 14th 81.6
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