For those who doubted this year's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup is among the most exciting in recent memory, a look at the first five rows of the Federated Auto Parts 400 should convince them. Jeff Gordon needs to make up six points on Kurt Busch or 14 on Greg Biffle to climb into the top 10 and qualify for the Chase -- and all three of these drivers needed to get off to a strong start this weekend.
They did precisely that.
Before qualification began, it appeared Gordon would have a distinct advantage with a late draw that should have allowed him to qualify in cool air. But just as the session got underway a massive cloud covered the track, providing Busch with optimal conditions. As is so often the case in NASCAR, they wound up with side-by-side starting positions, and the drama continues into Saturday night.
Biffle qualified ninth, and these three drivers will feed off one another throughout the Federated Auto Parts 400 and provide great value for their owners.
$25 or greater
Biffle fits into the top tier of the salary cap range, but only barely. His value has remained steady at $25.00, and at the beginning of the week, it appeared he would have difficulty meriting the expense because his record on this track has not been particularly strong. He has only one Richmond top-10 in his last 13 attempts, but that came in this race last year. Better still, he will surprise the competition if he repeats.
Most of the drivers spent the first practice session working on long runs and 29 of them ran 10 or more laps. That adds significance to the fact that Kahne topped the 10-lap average chart with a speed of 123.036 mph. He expected more out of his qualification attempt, but starting 18th is a mixed blessing for fantasy owners because it gives him room to earn place differential points on Saturday night.
$15 to $24.99
Gordon and Busch have almost identical salary caps and both of them could compete for top honors where fantasy points are concerned. To ensure his spot in the Chase, Busch needs to finish second if Gordon wins the race and leads the most laps, but a victory would be just as beneficial for him as the driver of the No. 24. Both will push hard in the opening laps and that should translate into some points for fastest laps run and laps led, but they will need to be careful not to burn the rubber off their tires before they can make pit stops.
Brad Keselowski’s salary cap has steadily declined in recent weeks and that makes him a more affordable choice than he was at the beginning of the season. He posted the fifth-quickest 10-lap average speed in the morning session and backed it up with a third-place qualification run, suggesting he has speed in both the short and long runs. He has an outside chance to qualify for the Chase, but to do so he really needs to win this week. He may or may not claim the top spot, but if he stays out of trouble, he is going to be one of the top points earners this week.
Less than $15.00
AJ Allmendinger is probably the best value under $15.00. He continues to sub for the injured Bobby Labonte and is developing chemistry with the team for which he will drive in 2014. He stumbled in qualification and rolls off the grid deep in the pack in 34th, but he generally finds his way to the middle of the field on this track. In his last six Richmond races he has finished 17th or better while driving for three different teams, so he will adjust quickly. If an early caution keeps him from losing a lap, he is even capable of scoring a dramatic top-10.