Getty Images

When it comes to the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, Richmond Raceway has a long history of determining which drivers will get the opportunity to race for a championship and which won't. As the site of the cutoff race for NASCAR's original Chase for the Cup format, the bright lights of the Virginia short track were the stage where championship ambitions were either made or broken for good. But in nearly 20 years of playoff racing in the Cup Series, it's never seen anything like the push for the 2022 playoffs.

Richmond Raceway is the site of this weekend's Federated Auto Parts 400, a race which takes place against a backdrop of extreme tension. With Kevin Harvick's win at Michigan making him the 15th different driver to win a race and pencil his name on the playoff grid, only one spot currently remains for a driver to make the playoffs on points with just three races remaining in the regular season. Ryan Blaney holds a scant 19 point advantage over Martin Truex Jr. for that very spot, but both drivers are very much in peril of missing the playoffs despite ranking second and fourth in points.

How to Watch the NASCAR Cup Series at Richmond

  • Date: Sunday, August 14
  • Location: Richmond Raceway -- Henrico County, V.A.
  • Time: 3 p.m. ET
  • TV: USA Network
  • Stream: fuboTV (try for free)

What to watch

  • While many will be focused on the playoff implications of Sunday's race, NASCAR officials will likely be paying special attention to exactly how the on-track product unfolds as they seek the answer to whether or not they've successfully worked out some of the issues the Next Gen car exhibited during its first short track races in the springtime.

    The Next Gen car has made for very exciting races on speedways, but the tradeoff for that was seemingly a more lackluster product on asphalt short tracks. The spring race at Richmond was hardly a dull affair, but one where the action was more contingent on tire and pit strategy than traditional bumper-to-bumper, slam-bang 'em methods of short track racing. An uneventful race at Martinsville, however, sounded alarm bells throughout the sport that something needed to be done.

    According to Bob Pockrass of Fox Sports, no changes have been made to the Next Gen car's aerodynamic package for Richmond. However, NASCAR has been active in trying to find a way to make the car better on short tracks, such as when they experimented with using the same technical rules used in Bristol Motor Speedway's dirt race -- a plastic underbody with no rear diffuser extensions -- during a tire test at Martinsville in June. Whether or not this weekend at Richmond offers an entertaining race will likely go a long way in determining whether or not NASCAR stays the course with their current work, or if they are forced to make changes for playoff short track races at Bristol and Martinsville.
  • Between the two drivers now fighting for their playoff lives, Ryan Blaney arguably has the most to be concerned about this weekend because his closest competitor for the last playoff spot is one of the best at Richmond.

    Martin Truex Jr. excels at this track, especially when it comes to the traditional fall race. Truex has three Richmond wins since 2019, has won the track's fall race two out of the last three years and has nine top fives and 15 top 10s at this track overall. In the spring, Truex led 80 of 400 laps before finishing fourth.

    Granted, Blaney was no slouch when the Cup Series first visited Richmond in the spring -- He won the pole, led a race-high 128 laps, and finished seventh. Not only that, but Team Penske has had its own run of recent success at Richmond with victories by Brad Keselowski (2014, 2020) and Joey Logano (2014, 2017) over the past decade.

    The odds are good that Blaney and Truex will only have to be concerned with each other this week, as no other non-winners this season seem like threats to contend for the win this weekend.
  • With three races to go in the regular season, the chances of there being at least two more new winners are far from scant. Exactly who would make the playoffs in that instance, however, is becoming increasingly complex.

    In the event of at least 17 winners in the regular season, one winning driver would end up missing the playoffs by having fewest points. The drivers in jeopardy in that scenario appeared to be Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric, who are 15th and 16th in points respectively after winning very early in the season. But now, that dubious distinction belongs to Kurt Busch, who will miss his fourth-straight race due to a concussion suffered at Pocono and is in freefall through the points standings.

    In the event that there is only one more new winner, or no new winners at all, Busch would still make the playoffs thanks to his win at Kansas and a medical waiver granted by NASCAR. Where things get really complicated, though, is if Busch is unable to return to the driver's seat by the playoff opener at Darlington next month -- a scenario which seemingly offers a lifeline to any driver who does not make the playoffs.

Pick to Win

(Odds via Caesars Sportsbook)

Christopher Bell (+700): Although there will be a great deal of focus on Martin Truex Jr. given his Richmond record, don't be surprised if things play out in a similar fashion to New Hampshire, where Truex dominated only for Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Christopher Bell to end up in Victory Lane. Bell battled Truex for the lead here in the spring and led 63 laps on his way to a sixth-place run, and he's led a total of 104 laps over the last four weeks, including 31 last week at Michigan.

Richmond is also one of Bell's strongest tracks, as he had top five finishes in both Richmond races in 2021 and has never finished worse than 15th here in his Cup career. He was also exceptional at this track in Xfinity Series competition, winning three out of four races between 2018 and 2019.