Mash The Gas: Richmond Preview

Denny Hamlin leads a pack of cars during the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway. [Credit: Jeff Curry/Getty Images]

Denny Hamlin leads a pack of cars during the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway. [Credit: Jeff Curry/Getty Images]

by Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series remains in short track mode this week as the Richmond International Raceway hosts the Toyota Owners 400 Sunday afternoon.

Traditionally a Saturday night race, the Richmond spring event was moved to the daylight on Sunday afternoon for 2016.

The Richmond International Raceway is a relatively flat ¾ mile circuit with a sweeping front straightaway and the track tends to mimic the characteristics of the Phoenix International Raceway, a track twice its size. The best test sample on what to look for on Sunday afternoon is to look back on the Phoenix event earlier this year as it has been the only race where the low downforce aero package has been raced on a track similar to Richmond.

The move to the daylight hours is without precedent as a year ago the race was rained out on Saturday night and conducted on Sunday afternoon.

With six winners in the first eight races, the competition for places in The Chase has been intense and that should continue on Sunday. Here are some drivers to watch for in the Toyota Owners 400 from Richmond…

Denny Hamlin (Dan Margetta)
Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas have won the last three NASCAR Sprint Cup races in a row and the whole organization has established itself as the top group on the circuit, which should make hometown driver Denny Hamlin very happy this weekend. The Daytona 500 winner plays a home game this week as he grew up in the shadows of this track and attended races as a fan in the grandstands before landing behind the wheel. Hamlin is also very good at Richmond where he owns two victories and seven top five finishes. He is listed at 6-1 odds this week and he is using the same chassis that he drove to an impressive third place finish at Phoenix earlier this year. If there is such a thing as “home field advantage” in NASCAR racing, Denny Hamlin should have it this weekend and he is my pick to win on Sunday.

Tony Stewart (John Wiedemann)
That’s right, Tony Stewart. Stewart returns to racing after a preseason accident sidelined him for the beginning of his final season in the Sprint Cup Series. Even better, Stewart is chomping at the bit to get back on the track and probably isn’t too happy after NASCAR fined him $35K for his comments kicking off the lugnut controversy. Stewart won at Richmond in his 2nd, 5th and 7th Sprint Cup series starts at the track. Since then, his stats have steadily declined. Since two top five finishes in 2012, Stewart’s best finish has been 15th in the 2014 fall race. Still, this is his last year and considering the circumstances, Stewart has to be on the top of the “ones to watch list”.

Kurt Busch (DM)
Last year Kurt Busch finished fifth at Phoenix and then came to Richmond on a rain-delayed Sunday afternoon and won this race. This year, Kurt Busch finished sixth at Phoenix and the race has been moved to Sunday afternoon. Do you see a pattern here? Kurt Busch is pretty good at Richmond having scored two victories to go along with six top five finishes and while his “so-so” finishes this season have left him at 18-1 odds this week, he should still be considered a threat to win on Sunday. This team has been sneaky fast just about each week without the results to show for it victory wise and that could change on Sunday afternoon as Richmond could be just what Kurt Busch needs to break into the win column in 2016.

Carl Edwards (JW)
Last weeks’ winner just might be poised to kick off a hot streak. Back in the days when he raced for Jack Roush, Carl Edwards had a streak of races at Richmond between 2010 and 2013 where he rattled off top ten finishes in seven of eight races including a win, a runner-up finish and four top tens. As he gets more comfortable with his team, Edwards is really picking up steam and will be a big part of the success that Joe Gibbs Racing can accomplish this year. Last weekend at Bristol Edwards was clearly the dominant car. It will be interesting to see if he starts off this weekend on fire as well. If so, the competition may be in for another tough race on Sunday.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (DM)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is listed at 20-1 odds for Richmond this weekend. I’ll say it again…Dale Earnhardt Jr. is listed at 20-1 odds for Richmond this weekend. That ought to jump up and smack you in the face if you are looking for a great bargain betting wise. Earnhardt is coming off back to back runner-up finishes and he owns three Richmond victories and ten top five finishes. Those three wins all came in the Spring race as well and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the #88 team have been on strong roll performance wise of late. Plus he finished a strong fifth at Phoenix earlier this year. What more do you need to not see Dale Earnhardt Jr. as a contender this weekend. Junior Nation could be very happy on Sunday.

Kevin Harvick (JW)
We haven’t talked much about Kevin Harvick and his name hasn’t been brought up on the broadcasts as much as last season, but don’t forget about him. The lead driver of the Stewart-Haas organization is a three time winner at Richmond and has finished worse than 12th only three times since 2005. This season Harvick has only one finish outside of the top ten and is the leader in total points accumulated in the eight races so far. How will he do this weekend? If we look back at Phoenix, where Harvick led the most laps on his way to the victory, this might be a solid weekend for Harvick. I expect Harvick to pull off win number two this weekend and get all of us talking about him again.

Martin Truex Jr. (DM)
My long shot pick this week is Martin Truex Jr. who comes in at 25-1 odds mainly due to his mediocre Richmond record where he has just four top ten finishes, including a tenth place result in this race last year. This season, however, with the new alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, Truex and the #78 team have consistently proven themselves to be contenders each and every week. Their 14th place finish at Phoenix earlier this year was nothing to write home about but that was the race where crew chief Cole Pearn served a one race suspension. Pearn is back on the box this weekend at Richmond and with the set-up help from the JGR camp, Martin Truex Jr. should be one of the drivers to watch on Sunday.

Chase Elliott (JW)
Momentum is currently on Chase Elliott’s side right now as he is shooting up the point standings with another top ten and best finish of 4th place last week at Bristol. Elliott has raced at Richmond in the Sprint Cup Series one time, and that time was last year where he started and finished 16th. Look for even better results this weekend as Elliott continues to run well and looks for that first victory in NASCAR’s top series and the iconic #24. Will it come this weekend? We’ll have to watch.

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