Five things to watch for in tonight’s race

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RICHMOND, Va. – This is a new experience for Paul Menard, and he admits he’s not sure how to prepare.

Menard then realizes he knows exactly how to handle tonight’s Federation Auto Parts 400 on NBCSN and the chance to make his first Chase for the Sprint Cup.

“It’s probably easier because I don’t really get all worked up about a whole lot of stuff,’’ Menard said, revealing a sly smile.

The stoic driver enters tonight’s race 15th on the Chase grid, 10 points ahead of Clint Bowyer, who holds the final Chase transfer spot. Menard clinches a Chase spot if he finishes ninth or better tonight.

MORE: Start time, weather info and more for tonight’s race

Menard, who never has made the Chase in eight previous seasons, has one top-10 finish in 17 career starts at Richmond. He’s among those vying for the final five Chase spots.

Jamie McMurray will make the Chase by taking the green flag. Ryan Newman, who finished runner-up for last year’s title, clinches a Chase spot by finishing 31st or better. Jeff Gordon earns a Chase bid placing 17th or better.

“Throughout my career, every time I went into a race and someone said that I have to finish 17th or better, we usually hovered around 18th all night,’’ Gordon said. “So we are trying to do everything we can to think of to be top five or top 10.’’

Who makes the Chase is among the key storylines for tonight’s race but not the only ones.

Rain could play a factor in who makes the Chase. A morning rain washed the rubber off the track from Friday, changing track conditions at least early in the race.

A bigger question is with scattered thunderstorms in the forecast throughout the evening, could rain shorten the race? If so, could a driver needing to win to make the Chase make the right gamble and earn the chance to compete for the title. Kyle Larson tried it at Michigan and fell six laps short. Could his timing be right tonight? Or could it be right for Kasey Kahne or Tony Stewart or Danica Patrick, among others? If so, it would knock a driver out of the Chase.

“You can’t worry about that kind of stuff,’’ Clint Bowyer said. “At the end of the day, we’ve got a good enough point pad that if we go out and do what we’re capable of doing, we’re plenty good. If somebody was to win and something happened, it just wasn’t meant to be.’’

Could a first-time winner emerge from the front of the starting lineup? The last time a driver won their first race of the season in the fall Richmond race was 2004 when Jeremy Mayfield won to earn a spot in the inaugural Chase.

David Ragan, who is winless this season, starts fifth. Tony Stewart is the only other driver without a win this season in the top 10. He starts 10th.

Before Ragan focuses on a victory and earning a spot in the Chase for Michael Waltrip Racing, he’s worried about other things.

“We’ll worry about winning the race when it’s 25, 30 laps to go, but we’ve got to race to that first pit stop, we’ve got to race to halfway, use good adjustments because the racetrack is going to cool off,’’ Ragan said. “It’s a lot of pressure to put on myself, these crew members, (crew chief) Brian Pattie and our engineers, this win, win, win. We’ve got to get there and then we can worry about winning that last restart.’’

A new tire also could impact things for drivers. Goodyear brought a new right-side tire. Previously, teams used a multi-zone tread on the right side but have a single-compound tire this weekend. The new tire should increase grip.

Another thing drivers have noticed is how much the tire wears. Some say tires could be key and that teams will change tires at every caution. The only thing is if there are many cautions, teams could have to conserve tires. They’ll be allowed 11 sets for the race.

So have you heard this one before? Much of the summer it has been Joe Gibbs Racing vs. Team Penske. They’ve combined to win the last eight races and own the front two rows for tonight’s race. Will their streak of dominance continue?