's Sprint Cup Series reaches the end of its first quarter Saturday at Richmond International Raceway, race No. 9 of 36, with the Richmond 400. And while the 26th race of the season, set for September at RIR, figures to be a bigger benchmark because it finalizes the field for the 10-race Chase, there are still enough storylines and driver plot-lines to make the trek up I-64 to RIR this week worthwhile for area fans.
Drivers to watch
The former Langley Speedway division champion never is bad at RIR. In September
rallied to finish ninth and landed a spot in the Chase despite damage in an early 13-car pileup. Entering off of a win at Kansas on Sunday, and with two Cup wins at RIR on his resume, Hamlin has a good shot to become the first Cup driver with consecutive wins this season.
Has Denny Hamlin replaced him as the star at
has no wins and just one top five in eight races this season. But he is a monster in a Cup car at RIR, with 11 top fives and three wins in 14 spots.
DALE EARNHARDT JR.
His winless streak is at 137 races, but with six top 10s in eight races, Junior, fourth in the Cup standings, is running as well as he has in years. Wrecked out by Kyle Busch at RIR in 2008 while leading with three laps to go, he's conceivably a threat.
Is it time for concern about his Chase hopes? The Cup season will end its first quarter on Saturday with the four-time champion mired in 18th place, 49 points out of 10th. The good news: his average finish is ninth in his past 10 starts at RIR.
Following his five Chase victories and dramatic rally at Homestead to win the Cup title, is there anyone more worth keeping your eyes on?
has a fondness for RIR, where (in September 1999) he earned his first Cup victory. He was solid at RIR last year with two top 10s.
GREG BIFFLE LEADS THE CUP STANDINGS
With a win (at Texas), a pole and five top-fives in eight races, it's little wonder
, perhaps one of the best active drivers not to win a title, has forged a 15-point lead atop the Cup standings. With just two top fives in 19 starts at RIR, maintaining or building on the margin would make Saturday a good night for Biff.
HENDRICK AT 200 AND HOLDING
Legendary car owner Rick Hendrick celebrated win No. 199 at Kansas in October and has been waiting for No. 200 since.
have won a combined nine races at RIR, but current form suggests the 10th, and 200, aren't happening this week.
DANICA DRIVES A STOCK CAR AT RIR
is familiar with RIR's 3/4-mile oval, having raced on it in the
several times. She'll make her debut at RIR in a stock car on Friday in the Nationwide Series 250-lapper. Patrick is 11th in the standings on the heels of an eighth-place finish at Texas.
TRAVIS PASTRANA MAKES NATIONWIDE DEBUT
Known for his freestyle motocross double backflip and 16
gold medals, Pastrana's arguably as popular as anyone at RIR this week: Dale Jr. and Danica included. But he's a still a relative novice in a stock car, likely to draw fans to the Nationwide and K&N races, but no threat to win either.
C.E. FALK RACES THE BIG BOYS AGAIN
The three-time defending Langley Speedway champion fought off Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart to win the Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown two years ago. Hamlin, Stewart, Kyle Busch,