When the green flag went in the air at Daytona, the goal of every driver began. The quest for a championship could be seen in the eyes of the top stars in NASCAR. For 25 weeks, the battle raged on the track, as each checkered flag meant one race closer to the Chase.
Now, the 26th race in the season marks the end of the first part of the championship run. The top 10 drivers in the standings, along with the two "wild card" entries will be set after 400 more miles of action.
There is no better venue in many fans, drivers, and crews eyes to wage such a battle than what has been termed "Racing Perfection." The track isn't a big speedway, but has the speed of such a track. At only 0.75-miles in length, it has tight corners, and very little room for error. It's not a typical oval, like some short tracks. The 'D-shape" configuration increases speed, passing opportunities, and often takes the aggression up a few notches.
Finally, add in the night atmosphere as both the spring and fall events are held with the track lights shining down on the cars and the asphalt.
It is the Richmond International Raceway, a track that since it became the final race before the Chase has provided moments where drivers raced their way in, and some ended up losing out on the hunt for a title.
Knowing this is the case, the writers have one final chance to add a victory to their totals, as once the checkered flag waves, the standings are reset, and the rules are changed.
Picks are locked in, so here is a look at who they hope goes to victory in the Federated Auto Parts 400:
Misan Akuya: Kevin Harvick
Kevin Harvick has had a decent season. But u[ until last Sunday he hasn't really shown that he can win. But having Gil Martin back and admitting that the grass isn't always greener on the other side.
He was very strong at Atlanta. He loves Richmond and this was the last race that he won last year in dominating fashion. He also has another win at Richmond back in 2006.
Harvick will be Happy Harvick once again after Saturday night.
James Broomhead: Denny Hamlin
I might be a little late to his sudden run of form, but surely a Denny on a hot streak in Richmond is as near to a dead cert as you can possibly get.
Kelly Crandall: Denny Hamlin
He's back to looking like the Hamlin from 2010, just winning, winning, winning. This weekend he's at his home track, where's also won, won won, and after not picking him the last few weeks, he's an easy pick.
Besides, in 2010 when he was headed into the Chase as the hottest driver, he won this race.
Billy Fellin: Kyle Busch
I'm going to be there both nights for coverage w/the Richmond Times-Dispatch, so I can't WAIT to see this race. I think Kyle gets it done and will sweep at Richmond. He's just money at this track. Yes, Hamlin is on a hot streak and has won 2 of the last 3 fall races at Richmond.
But, when Kyle is motivated, especially at a track where he is THIS good, he is a hard guy to stop. I think it'll come down to either Kyle or Denny, but I'll take Kyle.
Michael Hirshbein: Kyle Busch
Christopher Leone: Joey Logano
I don't know why, impulse pick.
Kara Martin: Kyle Busch
Ryan O'Hara: NO PICK SENT
No pick chosen before the posted deadline.
Dustin Parks: Tony Stewart
It was an up and down week for Stewart-Haas. The negatives were more rampant than the positives, as first Office Depot announced they were not returning next season, meaning half the races for the No. 14 are unsponsored for next year. Then, Sunday's race went from sitting on pole to being lapped as if anchors were attached to his car.
The one positive that came out from the week was that teammate Ryan Newman decided to stay at SHR, signing just a one-year extension on his contract.
Stewart is on the brink of falling out of the top-10 in points, which would make his race wins useless as he'd fall into one of the wild card spots and give up bonus points. Stewart has three wins at RIR, including his first career win back in 1999. He loves this track, and wants to enter the Chase with some momentum.
When the dust settles, and Smoke clears, he'll be hoisting a trophy.
Patti Rodisch: Tony Stewart
I was a little bit back and forth on who I wanted to go with for this win. There are a few guys who could pull out a win on Saturday night but Stewart to me is a guy who needs to win and change momentum.
After a few weeks of barely being competitive RIR could be the perfect place to jumpstart his title defense. At RIR he has three wins and a fourth one on Saturday would not only clinch him a Chase top 10 start but put him tied for the points lead at Chicago. Stewart rights the ship this weekend at RIR.
Sal Sigala Jr: Kyle Busch
Rob Tiongson: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
It's gonna be another Junior Nation kind of night; well the first one since 2004. However, if Gordon's running in second, team orders may be a factor...just sayin!
Standings following Atlanta:
Sal Sigala Jr. (836) Jimmie Johnson finished 34th (3)
Billy Fellin (829) Jimmie Johnson finished 34th (4)
Christopher Leone (821) Jeff Gordon finished 2nd (2)
Rob Tiongson (817) Jeff Gordon finished 2nd (4)
Ryan O'Hara (806) Jeff Gordon finished 2nd (2)
Dustin Parks (802) Jeff Gordon finished 2nd (1)
James Broomhead (791) Brad Keselowski finished 3rd (3)
Kelly Crandall (791) Jimmie Johnson finished 34th (3)
Misan Akuya (787) Tony Stewart finished 22nd (1)
Patti Rodisch (782) Greg Biffle finished 15th (2)
Kara Martin (769) Jimmie Johnson finished 34th (2)
Michael Hirshbein (754) Kyle Busch finished 6th (1)
Final Thoughts: The one race that teams long to get to has arrived. Ten drivers are already guaranteed to be in the championship hunt, one is practically locked in as either a wild card or could sneak into the top-10. The real battle is for the final spot, between two of the sport's top names. One still is in his prime, the other wants to show he can win the title the hard way.
It will be 400 laps of intensity, 400 miles of aggravation, and the end of the regular season. When those laps are complete, 12 drivers will have the honor to do battle for the last 10 weeks to win a championship.
ABC will have the call beginning at 7 p.m ET.
Summary of Picks:
Dale Earnhardt Jr-1