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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup

Kenseth Claims Pole in Hotly Contested Richmond Showdown

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Lame-duck Joe Gibbs Racing driver Matt Kenseth will start from the pole in Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at the D-shaped, 0.75-mile Richmond Raceway.

Kenseth busted off a lap of 122.421 miles per hour to claim the No. 1 starting spot ahead of JGR teammate Denny Hamlin, who ran 122.277 mph.

Saturday night’s battle will be the 26th and final race of the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular season

And it’s the last chance for any driver who is winless in 2017 to score a victory and qualify for NASCAR’s 10-race, season-ending playoffs, which start next week at Chicagoland Speedway.

Thirteen of the 16 playoff drivers are locked in already by virtue of winning earlier this season and three more will sew up spots on Saturday night. Here’s where all 39 drivers will start the Federated Auto Parts 400.

  1. Matt Kenseth

Still without announced plans of 2017, Kenseth is one of three playoff bubble drivers in the field but he’s safely in unless there’s a first-time 2017 winner, then it could come down to points.

  1. Denny Hamlin

The good news for Hamlin was he swept both races at Darlington last weekend. The bad news is both his cars flunked tech.

  1. Kurt Busch

The 2017 Daytona 500 winner won the first NASCAR playoffs way back in 2004 and on Saturday, he’ll start from the inside of Row 2.

  1. Kyle Larson

One of the favorites to make it to the championship race at Homestead, Larson has had a breakout season with Chip Ganassi Racing.

  1. Martin Truex Jr.

The star of the season so far, Truex is guaranteed to enter the playoffs with a minimum of 52 playoff points.

  1. Kevin Harvick

The 2014 Cup champion is a threat to win pretty much any and every weekend. He ought to be tough again this time, too.

  1.  Kyle Busch

The 2015 Cup champion is in great position to make a serious run at a second title.

  1. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Stenhouse has 10 playoff points, which is good, but little momentum, which isn’t too good.

  1. Chase Elliott

Despite being winless in his career so far, Elliott is in good shape to make the playoffs for the second consecutive season.

  1. Erik Jones

Riding a streak of three consecutive top-five finishes, Jones could very well break through and win on Saturday night, which would be huge.

  1. Jamie McMurray

Although he’s currently playoff eligible, McMurray is the only one of the top 16 drivers with no playoff points so far.

  1. Joey Logano

In the first race at Richmond this year, Logano won the race but flunked tech inspection afterwards, so his victory doesn’t count towards the playoffs. Saturday night he needs to win again and this time clear tech.

  1. Clint Bowyer

For Bowyer at Richmond, there is no try. Do or not — win or miss the playoffs in his first year with Stewart-Haas Racing. He was the first driver to miss the final qualifying round.

  1. Ryan Blaney

He’s in the playoffs alright, but Blaney and the Wood Brothers need to run error-free races if they want to advance.

  1. Brad Keselowski

Two early season victories and four stage wins have given Keselowski 14 playoff points, a respectable total.

  1. Daniel Suarez

The last-minute substitute for Carl Edwards at the start of the season, Suarez has had a good rookie season.

  1. Kasey Kahne

A surprising Brickyard 400 victory means Kahne is in the playoffs in his last year at Hendrick Motorsports.

  1. Trevor Bayne

Bayne is one of 14 drivers who is in the top 30 in points, but winless so far this year. His only playoff shot is a victory.

  1. Danica Patrick

Will 2017 be Patrick’s last year at Stewart-Haas Racing? Could be, as neither she nor the team has shown signs of staying together.

  1. Jimmie Johnson

Yes, the seven-time champion has three race victories this season, but his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has lacked speed of late.

  1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

After practice, Earnhardt said he has about a sixth- to 12th-place car. He needs to win to make the playoffs. Qualifying back here won’t help.

  1. AJ Allmendinger

Historically, Richmond hasn’t been of the ‘Dinger’s best tracks, but he’ll press on.

  1. Aric Almirola

Rumors persist that Richard Petty Motorsports might be switching to Chevrolets in 2018 and maybe even to Dodge in 2019.

  1. Chris Buescher

Last year, Buescher made the playoffs as rookie; this year, he probably won’t.

  1. Matt DiBenedetto

DiBurrito, as he’s known to call himself, has had some decent runs this season.

  1. Paul Menard

With a move to the Wood Brothers set for next year, Menard will be glad to put this season in the rear-view mirror.

  1. Ryan Newman

The Indiana native is locked into the playoffs but at the moment doesn’t look like a serious championship contender.

  1. Michael McDowell

It’s been a good season so far for the Arizona racer, but this is one of his worst tracks.

  1. David Ragan

Three times, Ragan has finished fourth or better at Richmond in his career. He probably won’t add to that this weekend.

  1. Landon Cassill

So far this year, Cassill has finished very well, but he takes good care of his equipment.

  1. Austin Dillon

The elder Dillon is coming off a top-five finish at Darlington last week, his first since winning the Coca-Cola 600 in May.

  1. Ty Dillon

The younger Dillon tied his career best with a 13th-place finish last weekend at Darlington.

  1. Corey LaJoie

Looks like LaJoie will start deep in the field, which is normal this year.

  1. Gray Gaulding

The young racer is gathering valuable experience this season.

  1. Cole Whitt

A dubious honor for Whitt: He’s 33rd in the Cup points standings, which is the worst of any driver who’s made every race this season.

  1. Reed Sorenson

This is will be Sorenson’s 20th start in the first 26 races of the season.

  1. Jeffrey Earnhardt

Another dubious honor: Earnhardt leads the series with 11 DNFs.

  1. Derrike Cope

The veteran soliders on for another weekend.

  1. B.J. McLeod

As expected, McLeod will start deep in the field and probably will end up there, too.

All article photos courtesy of Nigel Kinrade Photography © 2017 

Tom Jensen

Tom Jensen is a veteran motorsports journalist. He spent 13 years with FOXSports.com, where he was Digital Content Manager. Previously, he was executive editor of NASCAR Scene and managing editor of National Speed Sport News. Jensen served as the president of the National Motorsports Press Association and is the group’s former Writer of the Year.