The chase ends. Then the Chase begins.
Saturday night at Richmond, 12 drivers will move on to NASCAR's playoffs, while the others will languish in their own motor oil. Sitting 11th in points, Denny Hamlin looks pretty safe for the Chase, since he's 76 points in front of 12th, but he'll need to make sure he doesn't wreck. Still, any finish 21st or better gets Hamlin in. So the real drama will come down to three drivers competing for one final spot:
Clint Bowyer, 12th place. Bowyer won the first time around at Richmond, and while he probably had only the fourth- or fifth-best car that day, a performance like that would guarantee him a Chase berth. Bowyer has a history of steadiness in big spots, so unless someone wrecks him, it seems unlikely that he'll make a mistake that causes him to spit the bit. In five career starts at this track, he's never finished worse than 12th.
David Ragan, 13th place, 17 points behind. Ragan finished just 17th the first time around this year at Richmond, but in this event last season, he finished third, serving notice that he wasn't just a reality-TV winner without real driving chops. The past three months or so, Ragan has been as steady as they come, and he'll put pressure on Bowyer for sure.
Kasey Kahne, 14th place, 48 points behind. Kahne basically needs to win his second career Richmond race, and then he'd still need some help to qualify for the Chase. The point differential is intimidating for sure, but worse still is that he needs each of the men in front of him to have a terrible race. That's a tall order.
Ragan has been gritty and gutty, but it says here that Bowyer probably does enough to make his second consecutive Chase, joining his two Childress teammates. If Ragan made it, it would put a whopping four Roush cars in, which would tie the record for the most any one team has entered.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last Week: Carl Edwards, 6th; Kyle Busch, 7th)
Hamlin makes my best fantasy play Saturday night, and not only because he needs a good finish to make the Chase. This is his home track, and he led 380 laps in the spring race before blowing a tire from the lead. A win here would mean the world to Hamlin, but I don't think he'll do that: He won't want to take the chance of a DNF, so he'll probably play it pretty conservative. But for him, at Richmond, that probably means a top-5 at least.
I'll also take Kyle Busch again as a very solid high-fantasy-dollar driver. In seven career Richmond starts, Busch has a ludicrous six top-five finishes, including a controversial second-place result last time around at this track, when he spun out Dale Earnhardt Jr. as Junior led the race late. It's worth noting that Busch has yet to win a race here, and there'll never be a time when he's more able to go for a win without any ramifications; he's locked in as the top Chase seed no matter what happens Saturday night.
"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
(Michigan Race: Brian Vickers, 12th; David Ragan, 13th)
Ryan Newman is worth a play in most fantasy leagues this week. He has 10 straight finishes of 20th or better at Richmond, including six top-10s. In three Car of Tomorrow events at this track, Flyin' Ryan has finished sixth, 11th and sixth, which harkens back to a few years ago, when he was one of the sport's dominant drivers. Newman will leave Penske for Tony Stewart's new team over this winter -- gee, you think Penske wishes it had backed Rusty Wallace in Wallace's feud with Newman a couple years ago? -- but he's got at least one more very good finish left in the No. 12.
I'll also take Mark Martin, another guy who'll be changing rides in a couple months. Martin is taking his perpetual-retirement tour to Hendrick, where he'll bounce Casey Mears out of the No. 5. But in the meantime, he's a solid Richmond driver whose fantasy value is still undercut by his part-time schedule. Last time around at this track, Martin finished third amid the fireworks of the late wrecks, spinouts and blown tires.
"Not For You" (Beware Of This Driver)
(Michigan Race: Denny Hamlin, 3rd)
This section of STBC is devoted to finding the guys who, statistically speaking, don't excel on the present week's track and/or track style. I'm not definitively predicting a guy will stink at this week's race; rather, I'm saying there are more consistent fantasy options elsewhere. This week, I'm staying away from Greg Biffle. Now, I'm only allowing myself to select Chase drivers in this section, so each week there's a chance that my "Not For You" driver will turn in a very nice outing (see also: Hamlin at Fontana last week). Such is the case with The Biff at Richmond. Still, in three COT events at this venue, Biffle has finished 19th, 39th and 14th; that middle effort was wreck-aided, and in an old car Biffle was a regular occupant of the top 10. But the stats are the stats, and I maintain there are safer selections at the top of your fantasy board.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Michigan Race: Scott Riggs, 25th; David Gilliland, 23rd)
I mentioned Mears earlier, but let's give him a nod as a possible top-20 finisher Saturday night. He wrecked early this spring and finished 36th, but before that, Mears was a pretty good Richmond driver: Last year, he finished 17th and 18th in the COT at this track, and he was 11th and 17th here in '06. Mears was my biggest whiff in my Sprint Cup preseason previews -- I thought he'd be a borderline Chase contender -- but he does still have great equipment and a stellar crew chief, so he's undervalued at a track like this, where he usually has been pretty solid.
And finally, I'll give a nod to David Reutimann, whose past two finishes at Richmond have been 13th and 22nd. He also finished a season-high ninth at Fontana last week, and after his awesome qualifying effort at Bristol a couple weeks ago (he started on the outside pole), you get the sense that the No. 44 is just a bit locked in. I think Reutimann will give you another finish in that 13-to-22 range, which makes him a nice start as the last man on your fantasy team.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner across all three of those sports. You can e-mail him here.