And then there were five. With 11 of the Chase spots already locked up, Saturday night’s race at Richmond will serve as the final opportunity to clinch that coveted 12th position in the Sprint Cup playoff. And it’s going to take a win to do it. Kyle Busch currently holds the second wild-card spot, but if Jeff Gordon, Marcos Ambrose, Ryan Newman or Joey Logano are able to find their way into victory lane then they will leapfrog Rowdy for the final spot. Here’s a look at the 10 hottest drivers heading to Richmond:
1. Brad Keselowski (Last week: 4) – Bristol (where he finished 30th) proved to be a mere hiccup for Keselowski, who secured his fourth top-five in his last five races. This could be an interesting weekend for Mr. Twitter, who has just one top-10 in his last five starts at RIR. Fast fact: Keselowski leads all Cup drivers with 1,463 quality passes this season.
2. Martin Truex Jr. (Last week: 6) – He looked well on his way to his second-career Cup win on Saturday night in Atlanta, but a late caution allowed Denny Hamlin to beat him off the restart. That’s a tough break for one of the series’ most consistent drivers this season. Like Bad Brad, Truex has just one top-10 in his last five races at Richmond, but this hasn’t exactly been a typical season for the No. 56. Fast fact: Truex has more top-fives this season (six) than he had in the last three seasons combined (five).
3. Denny Hamlin (Last week: 10) – Tenth to third might be a big leap, but back-to-back victories tends to skew the numbers a bit. While some may argue that Truex or Kevin Harvick deserved to win on Saturday night, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone that didn’t think Hamlin had the car to beat for much of the night. Richmond is one of Hamlin’s best tracks, especially of late as he has four top-10s, including three top-fives and a victory in his last five starts. Fast fact: Hamlin currently owns a career-best 11.2 average starting position.
4. Jeff Gordon (Last week: 8) – With so much on the line in Atlanta, I don’t think there’s a race fan on the planet – whether you like Gordon or not – that would have blamed him for making an aggressive move on Hamlin to take the checkers and all but secure a spot in the Chase. Instead, Gordon is on the outside looking in, and only a victory at Richmond, where he has two-career wins, will guarantee a spot in the postseason. Fast fact: Gordon has finished outside the top 10 in the standings only twice in his 20-year career.
5. Greg Biffle (Last week: 2) – Since taking over the points lead, The Biff has finished 15th and 19th. With two wins already this season there’s no denying he will have the ability to contend once the playoff starts, but he’s going to need to hit his stride now or it might be too late. Richmond has not been a favorable track for Biffle, though, with no top-10s and an average finishing position of 20. Fast fact: Biffle leads all Cup drivers with an average finishing position of 8.702 this season.
6. Clint Bowyer (Last week: 4) – Atlanta (27th) is likely to be an aberration rather than a recurrence. Bowyer has quietly gone about his business over the last month and a half and will be a very legitimate contender once the Chase begins next weekend in Chicago. Richmond could provide a perfect springboard with three top-10s in his last five starts. Fast fact: Bowyer ranks tied for ninth (0.7) in positions improved in the last 10 percent of each race – tops of any driver currently locked into the Chase.
7. Kyle Busch (Last week: NR) – Truth be told, the fact Rowdy is seventh is a lot less surprising than the fact that this is his first week on the list. And the fact that he’s been so quietly good over the last month is probably a big reason why he’s gone so largely unnoticed on this register. Busch is in with a win this week at Richmond, a track where he has a ridiculous 13 top-10s and four victories in 15-career starts. Fast fact: Despite this being one of the worst seasons, statistically, in Busch’s career, he is averaging a career-best 11.4 starting position through the first 25 races.
8. Jimmie Johnson (Last week: 1) – It might be a bit unfair to drop Mr. Five Time all the way to eighth, but it was his second finish outside the top 25 in the last three weeks. He does, however, have seven top-fives since June 3, and with the Chase less than two weeks away it’s likely the No. 48 team will be the odds-on favorite when they roll into Chicagoland. But first, Richmond, where JJ has four top-fives in his last five starts. Fast fact: Johnson leads all Cup drivers with 1,357.81 miles led this season.
9. Marcos Ambrose (Last week: 7) – Still hanging around. It’s going to take a win for the Aussie to get into the Chase, but he’s proven (of late, anyway) that he can hang with the big boys. He took a small step back last week at Atlanta, finishing 15th, ending a solid streak of four straight top-10s, including three top-fives, one of those a victory. If he gets in he’ll certainly have earned it, as he only has two top-10s, one a top-five in his last five starts at this short track. Fast fact: Ambrose entered the season with zero poles in his career – he has two this season.
10. Kasey Kahne (Last week: 6) – This was a toss-up between Hendrick teammates. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been running better of late, but Kahne has been a bit more consistent for a longer stretch, so the edge goes to July’s New Hampshire Motor Speedway race winner. Richmond has been feast or famine for Kahne, who has two top-fives and three finishes outside the top 20 in his last five starts at the short track. Fast fact: Kahne ranks third in averaging starting position this season (8.7), behind only points leader Greg Biffle and part-timer Mark Martin.
Off the pace: Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Last week: 10)
Bump-drafting: Kevin Harvick – Sometimes the best car doesn’t win.
Rankings and opinions are expressed solely of the writer.