NASCAR PREVIEW: TOYOTA OWNERS 400
APR 23, 2015 12:00p ET
The Sprint Cup Series will return to short track action as we head to Richmond this weekend. The small Virginia oval plays host to Saturday night's Toyota Owners 400. Richmond International Raceway is a three-quarter-mile oval with median banking of 14 degrees in all the turns. The racing result is the contact and fender-beating of Martinsville, with the feel of Charlotte due to the higher speeds. Drivers run average laps of close to 130 mph which is much faster than the half-mile short tracks, but with the same close quarters racing that produce excitement in abundance. Much like the other short tracks on the circuit, drivers must conserve their brakes. The continual braking in the corners can be tough on those brake pads and rotors. Over the years many fast cars at RIR have retired to the garage early due to overdriving in the corners and lack of brake preservation. Also, watch the fuel gage closely. Unlike most short tracks, the long green flag runs can turn any Richmond race into a pit strategy and fuel conservation affair. All-in-all Richmond may be one of the best spectator tracks in the series. It's the fun competition, momentum swings and varied strategies that make this one of the best venues on the Sprint Cup Series tour. When you move all this excitement under the lights and put it on prime-time television, you get what's often referred to in NASCAR circles as "racing perfection." Based on what we've witnessed over the years, who could argue that point? When you take into account the parity we've seen in the Sprint Cup Series thus far this season, we could be in for one of the most entertaining races to this point in 2015.
As we take a brief look back on the recent short track events at Bristol, Martinsville and Phoenix for some finishing data to consider this weekend, we'll need to also take into account the recent trends at the Richmond short track as well. This three-quarter-mile oval is a unique facility and has enough similarities to the larger ovals to put a bit of a wrinkle in our usual short track lineup of drivers. So this weekend, the loop data from RIR will have a greater emphasis than some of the other short tracks we've examined this season. The loop stats in the table below cover the last 10 years or 20 races at Richmond International Raceway.
|DRIVER||AVG FINISH||QUALITY PASSES||FASTEST LAPS||LAPS LED||LAPS IN TOP 15||RATING|
|Dale Earnhardt Jr.||16.1||454||347||226||4,515||86.9|
|Martin Truex Jr.||22.1||389||146||48||3,779||79.6|
Richmond has turned into a Ford track in recent seasons after being a facility of multi-manufacturer parity for a long while. Ford drivers have won the last three races at the historic Virginia oval and taken Chevrolet and Toyota's stint of dominance away. The shake-up effectively crowned Penske Racing as the lead camp vying for the checkers at this facility. Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano took both Richmond wins in 2014 and set Roger Penske's team as the top contenders to win here this season. With well over 500 laps led between the two at RIR last season, this duo has set themselves up as the drivers to beat at Richmond this Saturday night. The biggest challenger to the Penske guys at RIR could likely come from none other than Kevin Harvick. The Stewart Haas Racing star already has two wins this young season, and he's clearly surging coming to Richmond. Harvick is a three-time winner at the three-quarter-mile oval and he won this event two years ago in his farewell tour with Richard Childress Racing. Aside from Harvick, Jeff Gordon has shown in recent seasons that he can lead laps and challenge for victories at Richmond. He finished runner-up in both races at this facility last season and led a whopping 173 laps in this event one year ago in route to the impressive second-place finish. As far as Toyota is concerned, Carl Edwards was our last Richmond winner for this camp. He took the checkers in 2013's Federated Auto Parts 400. He was driving a Ford at the time for Roush Fenway Racing, but he now brings a strong No. 19 Toyota to the historic short track. Edwards and teammates Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin have all had well documented success at Richmond. So if there's a Toyota spoiler this Saturday night, it will likely be one of these three drivers. The following is our preview of the fantasy racing drivers who can lift your team to victory for this 400-lap event at Richmond International Raceway.
The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win
Brad Keselowski - Last week at Bristol was nothing short of a nightmare for Keselowski and the No. 2 Penske Racing team. However, there's good reason to believe that the crash and poor finish at Bristol can be erased by a possible win at Richmond International Raceway. The last time the Sprint Cup Series visited the Virginia short track it was Keselowski that walked away with his first-career win at the oval in the Federated Auto Parts 400. It was a dominant victory from the pole where the Penske Racing star led a whopping 383 of the 400 laps. That pushes his total to well over 600 laps led at RIR in just his last three races here. We should see a hungry and fast No. 2 Ford team this Saturday night in the Toyota Owners 400.
Kevin Harvick - The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has led close to a 1,000 laps for his career at Richmond International Raceway. Harvick has captured three victories at the small Virginia oval, with two of those coming since the 2011 season. That high level of performance in recent races gives us high confidence in the No. 4 Chevrolet team going into this weekend's Toyota Owners 400. Considering that Harvick last finished fifth at this historic short track, you can't rule anything out for him this Saturday night. Harvick claimed the win at the small oval in Phoenix earlier this season, and he led a ton of laps at Bristol last weekend. He's the top contender at the Richmond oval for this race.
Joey Logano - Logano doesn't have the eye-popping Richmond stats of our other contenders with just three Top-5 finishes in 12 career starts. However, this young Penske Racing driver won this event one year ago for his first Richmond victory. He's been quickly redefining his stats on these short tracks and setting new personal bests the last couple seasons. Logano returned to Richmond in the fall of last year and finished a strong sixth in the Federated Auto Parts 400. He had a very fast car at Bristol last weekend before early-race misfortune ruined his shot of winning at that short track. It wouldn't surprise us at all to see the young driver pull into victory lane at RIR.
Jeff Gordon - The No. 24 Chevrolet team has been pretty steady this season on the short tracks. Gordon has finishes of ninth-, ninth- and third-place in the three events on ovals a mile or less this season. That's very encouraging heading to Richmond International Raceway. The Hendrick Motorsports veteran has a long and colorful resume at RIR. One that offers two wins, six poles, 18 Top 5s and 28 Top 10s. Gordon led 173 laps in this event one year ago en route to finishing runner-up that evening in Richmond. He returned in the fall and once again finished second-place for a pair of runner-up finishes at the small oval last season. This could be the event where Gordon fetches his first farewell tour win.
Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning
Matt Kenseth - Kenseth gets the short track upgrade again this week, much like he did at Martinsville a few weeks ago, and given his big win at Bristol this past week, he's looking strong coming to RIR. The veteran driver should once again take advantage of the speed, handling and horsepower that his JGR Toyota will provide. Kenseth's historical numbers at Richmond are nothing to write home about, but the numbers have been turning to the positive side since moving to Joe Gibbs Racing. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota has four Top 10s in his last five starts at this oval coming into Saturday night's 400-lap battle. In this race one year ago Kenseth led 35 laps before finishing a strong fifth.
Carl Edwards - Edwards is still searching for that first win of the season with his new race team. He's one-time Richmond winner, so there is ample hope for this start. This weekend the No. 19 Toyota team will get another chance to prove themselves with a much anticipated start at Richmond. Edwards has quietly amassed some pretty impressive stats at the three-quarter-mile oval the last few seasons. The veteran driver has one pole position, one victory, 488 laps led and 11 Top 10s for his career at Richmond International Raceway. In this event one year ago, Edwards battled with the leaders all night long and grabbed a strong ninth-place finish in the Toyota Owners 400.
Ryan Newman - As Newman tries to shake off the stigma of that huge NASCAR penalty from a couple weeks ago, he gets a boost this Saturday night as we visit one of his favorite ovals. Newman is a one-time Richmond winner and he has 16 Top 10s over his career at the Virginia short track. He tends to perform better in the spring event at RIR than the fall, however Newman did qualify 12th and finish ninth in last September's Federated Auto Parts 400. The Richard Childress Racing driver rides a good level of performance at the three-quarter-mile oval into this Saturday night's race. Newman has cracked the Top 10 in his last three-straight Richmond starts.
Kurt Busch - The last time we saw Busch in action on a short track, he nearly upset the biggest names in the business and almost won at Bristol last weekend. The Stewart Haas Racing veteran will be hungry to atone for that late-race pit stop that prevented him from winning the Food City 500. All that aside, he's a top Richmond performer regardless. Three of his last four starts at the Richmond short track have netted Top-10 finishes. His last start at RIR in last September's Federated Auto Parts 400 led to a strong seventh-place finish. Busch is surely upbeat about this start at America's Premier Short Track.
Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Richmond who can provide a solid finish
Jimmie Johnson - The three-time Richmond winner has better tracks in his resume than the small Virginia oval, but he's been very good at the Richmond short track the last few years. Johnson's last victory at RIR came in 2008, but he has the talent to break through and snap this winless streak at Richmond at any time. The driver of the No.48 Chevrolet has gotten off to a good start on the circuit's short tracks this season. Johnson owns 11th- and second-place finishes at Phoenix and Bristol in 2015. The runner-up finish at Bristol last week also bucked some recent trends for him at that short track. Johnson should be on his "A" game this weekend at the Virginia oval.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - With Earnhardt racing and finishing in the Top 10 almost every weekend, the No. 88 team is really in Chase form. The Hendrick Motorsports star comes to Richmond this weekend riding sixth overall in the driver standings and looking to get his short track groove on. The NASCAR icon loves racing at Richmond. He's a three-time winner at the track, and as recently as 2006. Earnhardt battled hard and finished seventh in this race one year ago. That was his 13th career Top 10 at Richmond International Raceway. With Top-10 finishes in two of his last four RIR starts, there should be little concern over the No. 88 team's performance this weekend at Richmond.
Clint Bowyer - The two-time Richmond winner is looking to continue building on the No. 15 Toyota team's good resume at this historic oval. Bowyer sports a 56-percent Top-10 rate at Richmond International Raceway and in his last start at this facility he brought home a strong third-place finish in the Toyota Owners 400. Bowyer likes this three-quarter-mile oval and it shows in his spotless statistics. The Michael Waltrip Racing driver has been looking to string some good finishes together and no better place than Richmond to kick off that streak. We expect Bowyer to come to Richmond this weekend looking to complete some unfinished business from last fall.
Tony Stewart - With his Top 10 at Bristol this past weekend it could be that the veteran driver is finally getting a feel for the new car rules package and could be heating up with the weather. Smoke is a three-time winner at Richmond International Raceway, so we have to pay close attention to the No. 14 team for this week's race at the three-quarter-mile oval. His Richmond resume shows a driver that cracks the Top 10 at a strong 61-percent rate. The owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet also checks in at a strong 36-percent Top-5 rate. With close to 1,000 laps led for his career at the Virginia short track, Stewart has ample experience and excellence at Richmond.
Martin Truex Jr. - Despite snapping his seven-race Top-10 streak at Bristol last weekend, we still have to endorse Truex and the No. 78 Chevrolet team this week at Richmond International Raceway. This team was due to have an off week and they should rebound well at this fast short track. Truex's career numbers are nothing to write home about here but have turned north only in recent seasons. Two of his four-career Richmond Top 10s have only come in the last three races. In this event one year ago, making his first Richmond start in the Furniture Row Racing Chevy, Truex started 22nd on the grid and raced to a respectable 10th-place finish in the Federated Auto Parts 400.
Danica Patrick - The Stewart Haas Racing driver has shown some major improvement in short track performance this season. Patrick has seventh- and ninth-place finishes at Martinsville and Bristol the last four weeks. Both were career-bests at those short tracks. Her four Richmond starts are unimpressive, but Patrick's 16th-place finish at RIR last fall was a marked improvement over previous attempts. We should expect to see the fruits of that effort in Saturday night's upcoming performance. Patrick should yield a Top-15 if not a Top-10 finish in the Toyota Owner's 400.
Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week
Denny Hamlin - Neck spasms drove Hamlin out of his No. 11 Toyota shortly after the start of last week's race at Bristol. We have to make careful note of that before this week's Richmond race. While those problems may not crop again at RIR, they have to be carefully considered as a potential to resurface this week. Hamlin's two-career wins and near 1,400 laps led at this facility may drive some fantasy players to invest in the No. 11 team this week. However, we would caution and point to his last three starts at this small oval. Those have been efforts of 21st-, 22nd- and 21st-place the last year-and-a-half. Those marks are well below what we expect for the Joe Gibbs Racing star at Richmond.
Greg Biffle - The fact that Roush Fenway Racing's Cup program is down right now is one thing to make note of, but it's also Biffle's poor start to the 2015 season that we must also consider. He comes into the Toyota Owner's 400 a lowly 20th in the driver point standings. The veteran driver also has a clear record of struggles at Richmond International Raceway. His six-career Top 10s work out to an uninspiring 24-percent rate at the small oval. Biffle has only cracked the Top 10 once in his last 16 Richmond starts, and that's not the kind of stats that inspire confidence in a fantasy racing selection any week of the season.
Paul Menard - Sure, the Richard Childress Racing veteran is coming off a respectable 11th-place finish at Bristol this past week, but we have to give him the downgrade this weekend at Richmond. Menard's eight-season career of Cup racing at this facility has been wholly unimpressive. In his 16 starts at the Richmond oval, he has only one Top-10 finish to his credit and only five Top-20 finishes in those starts. That works out to a miniscule 6-percent Top-10 rate at Richmond. Menard's 24th-place and 18th-place Richmond efforts in 2014 are likely more reflective of the slot he'll place in Saturday night in this 400-lap event.
Kasey Kahne - Kahne has been pretty steady to start the season, but ran into some trouble despite a strong race car at Bristol last week. The short tracks have always been a weakness for this Hendrick Motorsports star. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet's Richmond resume is also less than reassuring. Kahne has only seven Top-10 finishes in 22 career starts (32-percent). Only one of his last seven trips to RIR has netted a Top-10 result. All indicators point to a finish somewhere around his career average of 18.0 at this facility. That's well short of our expectations for this driver and team.
Taylor is a three-time FSWA Racing Writer of the Year.
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