So much for Carl Edwards or Greg Biffle making a run at the Nextel Cup Chase for the Championship. Neither could get close to the lead in California last weekend, so neither will be part of the 10-driver Chase, a fact you'd never have convinced me to believe back in February. After all, weren't the Roushketeers the best drivers in the business? Apparently not.
Don't get me wrong; Matt Kenseth is still a cut above. But Mark Martin is hanging on by his fingernails, and could be bumped by Kasey Kahne this weekend, while Edwards, Biffle and Jamie McMurray are officially on the outside looking in. I'll have a preview of the Chase next weekend, when all 10 slots are iron-clad, but I suppose I ought to offer up a prediction before we get to calling a winner in the Richmond race. Last weekend I said I still thought Kahne would make the Chase, and that he'd supplant Martin, and I'll stand by that pick. Kahne was the class of the field winning Fontana last Sunday, and Martin isn't actually in 10th place any longer; Jeff Burton holds that dubious distinction. But when the dust settles late Saturday night, I think Martin will have had enough problems to cause him to miss the Chase. It's just that kind of year for Roush.
Meanwhile, there's the race itself. The Evernham team has been strong here the last few years; Jeremy Mayfield (remember way back when he was an Evernham guy?) basically needed a win here in ‘04 to make the Chase, and he got one, and last season Kahne posted his first career win at this track. They call Richmond the short track that drives like a superspeedway, because the front straightaway is much longer than the back, so even though it's a .75-mile course, cars get up to surprisingly fast speeds heading into Turn 1. Loose is fast at this joint, and traditionally guys who have sprint-track experience tend to excel here. Then again, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won two of the last five events at this place (including a come-from-behind win here in the spring), and no one's going to mistake him for a sprint-car guy, so every such rule should be taken with a grain of salt. The track I consider closest to Richmond for comparison purposes is Phoenix; while Phoenix is longer (one mile) and more shallowly banked, setups tend to verge on similarity, and good performers in the desert tend to overlap with good ones in Richmond. All that said, let's take a look at the best bets in the last “regular-season" race of the 2006 Nextel Cup season.
Last Week: Sweet victory. Sort of. I didn't win the straight-up bet, as Kahne beat the field handily at around 7-1, but I picked Kyle Busch in an upset head-to-head matchup against Burton, and that worked out just fine. So for the week, I finished up 0.61 units (on 1.5 units wagered), which isn't great, but is officially better than a sharp oil gauge in the eye. For the season that puts me at a profit of 16.62 units, and also gives me my fourth consecutive winning week.
Note: The following odds are very preliminary, and the online books haven't posted their head-to-head wagers as of Friday evening (ET). I'll update this article on Saturday morning or afternoon with current odds, and make a H2H pick as well, so please check back.
Take Kevin Harvick (12-1), 1/6th unit. My tendency would be to take a Roush car here, as they were simply awesome at this track in 2005, but I'm through thinking that the Roushketeers’ dominance anywhere last year has much effect in ‘06. Instead, I really like Harvick this weekend. He won Phoenix this spring in fine and dominating fashion, and then probably should've won the Richmond race that Dale Earnhardt Jr. (10-1) won this spring, but for some questionable pit strategy. Harvick also dominated this fall Richmond event in ‘05 for the race's first half, before falling off. Put it all together, and the short-track-trained Harvick goes into the Chase in style, winning his third race of the season.
Take Kyle Busch (8-1), 1/6th unit. The younger Busch's record in three Richmond starts? Fourth, fourth and fifth. Yeah, I think it's safe to say he likes this joint. Busch led Happy Hour on Friday afternoon, and considering he won New Hampshire, placed fifth at Martinsville, and has posted a Phoenix win in his short career, the relatively flat tracks are his friend. Like Harvick, Busch isn't mathematically locked into the Chase, but he's darn close, and it would take a catastrophic scenario for him to miss the playoffs. As such, I think both he and Harvick will know they're locked in midway through this race, and will be able to go for a win when it comes down to the wire.
Take Denny Hamlin (15-1), 1/6th unit. Let's have one for the hometown boy. Hamlin is from Richmond, and cut his teeth on this exact speedway in lesser circuits. He finished second here in the spring, in his first Nextel Cup race at this place, and he, like the two drivers before him on this list, seems like pretty much a mathematical lock for the Chase. This is a slot I had reserved and ready for Earnhardt Jr. , but this is a very tough venue to win from the rear, and Junior simply didn't practice or qualify well (he'll start 33rd). The last seven Richmond winners, and 10 of the last 11, have started inside the top-10, and that's what scared me away from Little-E. Hamlin has no such worries; he went out on Friday evening and qualified on the pole. It would be an amazing story, but I do think Hamlin can contend for his first win at home.
Christopher Harris is a featured writer for the Professional Handicappers League. Read all of his articles at http://www.procappers.com