With only one race remaining before the Chase for the Cup begins, the media focus is on Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is now a long shot to make the 12-man field. Fantasy players, however, have a broader view of this week's event at Richmond International Speedway. For participants in the Stock Car Challenge, it's all about gaining or maintaining a top spot in the group. It's going to take a lot more than leaning on Junior for a strong run to stay at or near the top.
Only one precious victory before the Chase is up for grabs, and that means it won't be easy choosing between the very best drivers. Jimmie Johnson wants to maintain his seeding at the top of the Chase field, and "slumping" teammate Jeff Gordon needs to turn things around quickly to have a chance of tying him. A total of six drivers in the top 12 have one win each, and you can bet that each driver in the top dozen will be gunning hard for that victory Saturday night. Other drivers will certainly look to be spoilers as they start building towards next season.
RIS has often been described as the "perfect" track, as it combines the short-track elements of a Bristol with the fast feel of a 1.5-mile layout. Racing at Richmond is always exciting, but the multi-lane racing can often lead to multiple-car wrecks, which means any driver can be in danger of falling out of the race at any time. That's not good for Gordon, considering his run of bad luck recently. Track position is crucial and drivers must be careful not to abuse their brakes. A dramatic Saturday night lies ahead, with several interesting storylines. From a SCC perspective, it's simply about maintaining success in the midst of all the headlines.
VICTORY LANE SPECIAL
Kevin Harvick (21.4 salary): He hasn't been dependable this season, but Harvick will be determined to keep Junior out of the Chase field. He currently owns a 128-point lead for the final spot in the top 12. Harvick is the defending champion of the Chevy Rock and Roll 400 and consistently runs with the front of the pack at RIS. Over the past five races at Richmond, Harvick leads all current drivers in average running position (4.6), fastest laps run (250), average green flag speed and 1,924 laps in the top 15 (96 percent). He has four top-5 finishes and seven top-10 showings at the site. His 114 quality passes rank second among the current field. NASCAR defines quality passes as passes of cars in the top 15 under green-flag conditions. He finished seventh in the first RIS race of 2007.
Tony Stewart (24.0): Stewart is no stranger to Victory Lane at RIS, and is the best bet to end up there if Harvick doesn't win. Stewart has won three times at Richmond, and has a total of 11 top-10 showings at the site, so you know he's going to run up front for a good portion of the race. Stewart finished eighth at Richmond earlier this season and has finished eighth or better in four of the past five races at the site. He has led a total of 765 laps in 17 career races at RIS. This season, Stewart has now finished in the top 15 in seven consecutive races.
Denny Hamlin (22.5): Richmond is yet another track that the impressive Hamlin has taken to very quickly in his brief, yet very successful Nextel Cup career. In three races at the site, he has two top-5 finishes and one pole. He has an average finish of 6.7 at RIS. His average running position of 5.9 is second-best among current drivers in the past five races, three in which he has taken part of. During that span, he has spent 99 percent of his laps in the top 15, better than any other driver. He finished third at Richmond earlier this season.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (21.6): He will need to win and lead the most laps and hope for Harvick to finish 33rd or worse to get in the Chase. The lowest he can finish is fifth and he still can make the Chase if Harvick finishes 43rd. It all seems like hoping for a miracle, but Junior should still run well at RIS on Saturday. His last win came at Richmond in 2006, and he has three career victories at the site. Over the past five races, he leads all drivers with 270 green-flag passes. He has nine top-10 showings in 16 career races at Richmond.
Bobby Labonte (18.1): Stick with him while he's doing well. The switch to Doug Randolph as a crew chief has worked for Labonte. He has finished 11th or better in the past three races under Randolph's guidance. Labonte managed a 15th-place finish at RIS earlier this season. He has finished in the top 10 a total of 10 times at the site.
Kasey Kahne (17.8): He has started to turn his fortunes around recently, and his overall inconsistency this season has dropped him to this friendly price tag. Kahne has delivered finishes of second and 10th in the past two races. Kahne has one win and three top-10 finishes at Richmond. His 214 of the fastest laps run is second-best among current drivers during the past five races.
Dave Blaney (14.2): He's angling to get Bill Davis Racing back into 35th place in the owner standings, and he is only four points behind Bill Elliott. Blaney has run well at RIS recently. He finished fourth in the Chevy Rock and Roll 400 in 2006, and placed 11th at RIS earlier this season. Blaney has scored his only two top-10 finishes of 2007 in the past six races.
Jimmie Johnson (23.4) won the first race of RIS in 2007, but he only has an average finish of 19.4 at the site. … Kurt Busch (22.0) has one win and three top-5 finishes at Richmond. … Kyle Busch (22.8) is another strong choice, with an average finish of 3.4 at RIS. … J.J. Yeley (16.2) has finished in the top 15 in two of his three races at RIS.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.