The Sprint Cup Series returns from the off-week to go back short track racing under the lights in this weekend's Crown Royal 400 at Richmond. 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 Bristol and 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. Like the other short tracks on the series, drivers must conserve their brakes. The continual braking in the corners can be tough on those pads and rotors. 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 tracks on the circuit that is as popular with the drivers as it is with the fans. It's the fun competition, and varied strategies that make this one of the best spectator tracks on the Sprint Cup Series tour.
As we look back on the recent bull ring events at Bristol, Martinsville and Phoenix for some 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 creature and has enough similarities to the larger ovals to put a bit of a wrinkle in our usual short track lineup. 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 six years or 12 races at Richmond International Raceway.
|DRIVER||AVG FINISH||QUAL. PASSES||# of FASTEST LAPS||LAPS LED||LAPS IN TOP 15||DRIVER RATING|
|Dale Earnhardt Jr.||19.0||244||263||152||2,374||85.6|
|Martin Truex Jr.||23.5||221||65||29||2,089||79.9|
|Juan Pablo Montoya||21.4||245||39||3||1,784||79.3|
Richmond has fallen into the clutches of Toyota the last couple seasons, specifically to the teams of Joe Gibbs Racing. Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin have each won two of the last four races at the Virginia short track and firmly pushed the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets aside in the process. The duo have led 977 of the 1,600 laps run at Richmond International Raceway the last two seasons, and totally dominated the field for all four victories. A pattern within this dominance has also emerged. Busch appears to be the spring specialist at RIR with his teammate Hamlin the more dominant of the two in the fall installment at this facility. Considering that Busch is riding more momentum than Hamlin into this weekend, that pattern should hold up for Saturday night's Matthew & Daniel Hansen 400. The biggest challenger to Joe Gibbs dominance at RIR would likely come from none other than Jimmie Johnson. Our reigning champion had won three of the four events at Richmond prior to the Gibbs' victories. With the No. 48 team fresh off their first win of the season at Talladega, Johnson is riding some momentum into this weekend. The following is our best list of fantasy racing drivers for this 400-lap event at Richmond International Raceway.
The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win
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 facility the last few years. Johnson's last victory at RIR came in 2008, but he solidly cracked the Top 10 in both events last season. The No. 48 team posted a brilliant third-place finish in last September's Air Guard 400, so Johnson was close to victory lane in his last Richmond outing. Coming off the Talladega win in the last race, we have to be mindful of the lurking Sprint Cup Series champion this weekend.
Kevin Harvick –
The Richard Childress Racing veteran has led well over 700 laps for his career at Richmond International Raceway. Harvick has captured one pole, one win and 11 Top-10 finishes in his last 12 starts at the small Virginia oval. That type of consistency fills us with confidence for a fantasy racing start in the Matthew & Daniel Hansen 400. The way Harvick's Chevrolet come on strong late to easily win at Martinsville a few weeks ago, we have to keep the No. 29 team on our radar screen for this event.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. –
With Earnhardt finally showing his capabilities for owner Rick Hendrick, the future is beginning to look somewhat brighter in the No. 88 camp. He comes to Richmond this weekend riding third overall in the driver standings and racing better than he has in years. The NASCAR icon loves racing at Richmond. He's a three-time winner at the track, and as recently as 2006. Earnhardt has led laps at RIR but struggled with finishes since moving to Hendrick Motorsports, but we feel that will change this Saturday night. Considering how well he raced at Martinsville a few weeks ago, we should be treated with another brilliant performance at Richmond.
Kyle Busch –
The star of the Joe Gibbs Racing stable is the statistical leader at Richmond International Raceway. Busch owns a staggering 83 percent Top 5 rate at the short track in 12 career starts. He has led 624 laps in the last six years at the ¾-mile oval and has captured wins in two of the last four races at the track. Considering each of those victories came in this spring event at the Virginia bull ring, optimism has to be very high for this Saturday night. Couple that stat with Busch's Bristol win a few weeks ago, and the No. 18 Toyota could be the winning number at Richmond.
Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning
Jeff Gordon –
The No. 24 team has already hit pay dirt once this season when Gordon took the team to victory lane at Phoenix. The similarities in the two ovals aren't enough to endorse the legendary driver for the win this weekend, but good enough to give serious fantasy racing consideration. The Hendrick Motorsports veteran has a long and colorful resume at RIR. One that offers two wins, five poles, 14 Top 5's and 23 Top 10's. Gordon had been riding a seven-race Top 10 streak at Richmond until his 12th-place finish here last September. Gordon should crack the Top 10 at RIR like he does two-thirds of the time when he starts here.
Juan Pablo Montoya –
After posting sixth- and seventh-place finishes here last season, we have to take a serious look at the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing star. Montoya mastered this three-quarter-mile oval last season and even earned the outside pole in the race here last September. Considering how well the No. 42 team performed recently at Martinsville, we expect the short track love to continue this weekend for Montoya. When the lights go on and the engines fire up this Saturday night, we expect the EGR star to get his game face on.
Clint Bowyer –
The one-time Richmond winner is looking to continue building on the No. 33 team's huge wave of momentum that they're riding coming to central Virginia this weekend. Bowyer sports a 50 percent Top 10 rate at Richmond International Raceway and the last time the Sprint Cup Series raced there he brought home a solid sixth-place finish after leading 33 laps in the Air Guard 400. Bowyer likes this three-quarter-mile oval and it shows in his spotless statistics.
Ryan Newman –
As Newman tries to shake off a recent mini-slump that has seen him fail to crack the Top 10 in the last three races, we have to hold out optimism for the No. 39 team this weekend. Newman is a one-time Richmond winner and he has 11 Top 10's over his career at the Virginia short track. He tends to perform better in the spring event at RIR than the fall as shown by his seven-race Top 10 streak in the Richmond spring races. Still, the Stewart Haas Racing veteran chalked up Top 10's at Bristol and Phoenix earlier this season, so this team is a proven competitor on these smaller ovals in 2011.
Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Richmond who can provide a solid finish
Denny Hamlin –
Despite his recent slump, we have to give Hamlin at least sleeper status this week at Richmond International Raceway. Hamlin has led well over 500 laps and captured two of the last three wins at this small oval. He's led 1,150 laps for his career at RIR and sports a brilliant 50 percent Top 5 rate at the track. The statistics are simply too good to ignore and the upside is tremendous with the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota team.
Kurt Busch –
As the strong 2011 season continues for Busch, we look forward to him visiting some of his favorite tracks. While Richmond hasn't been a dazzling track for Busch throughout his career, he has posted good performances there recently. Two of his last five trips to Richmond have resulted in Top-10 finishes, and the other three were all efforts inside the Top 20. Considering the Top 10's that the No. 22 team collected at both Bristol and Phoenix earlier this season, this short track should hold a good finish for Penske Racing veteran Busch.
Mark Martin –
Martin has lived a charmed life recently. The No. 5 team hasn't been giving the veteran driver the best cars, but Martin has been putting them in and around the Top 10 most weeks. Hopefully that shouldn't change this week. Despite having only one victory at RIR, he has a 54 percent Top 10 rate at the track for his career. Considering that Martin has cracked the Top 15 at all three ovals one-mile in length or less this season, we should see a steady performance at Richmond.
A.J. Allmendinger –
Allmendinger has been a useful fantasy racing driver in most leagues this year, with special emphasis in weekly lineup leagues. He enters this weekend 15th in the driver standings and a consistent finisher in the Top 20 each week. Allmendinger posted his career-best finish at RIR last fall with a solid eighth-place finish in the Air Guard 400. The little black book should come in handy for the No. 43 team this Saturday night, and the results should yield a Top-15 finish at the Richmond oval.
David Ragan –
Ragan is beginning to outgrow his sleeper status due to his good 2011 campaign. This is not the first time this season we have highlighted the Roush Fenway Racing driver. Ragan has eight career starts at Richmond with only one Top-10 finish to his credit, but don't let those numbers discourage you. The No. 6 team is unloading fast cars each weekend, and his back-to-back Top 10's at Fort Worth and Martinsville recently stand testament to that fact.
Marcos Ambrose –
The driver of the No. 9 Ford will be making his fifth career Richmond start this weekend. In his two prior starts Ambrose posted ninth- and fifth-place finishes at the short oval. His respectable average finish of 11.8 at this short track grabs our attention immediately. We like Ambrose to challenge the Top 15 in the Matthew & Daniel Hansen 400 on Saturday night.
Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs
Greg Biffle –
It's difficult to put the No. 16 team in the flops list this week considering how well Biffle has raced the last couple events. The Roush Fenway Racing veteran simply struggles at this short track. He owns five Top 10's in 17 career starts at RIR, but the last of those came in 2006. Since then Biffle has really only been a Top-25 driver at the three-quarter-mile oval. Keep Biffle on the bench this week and deploy him later on a Dover and Darlington to better effect.
Regan Smith –
The Furniture Row Racing driver finally seemed to get the ship righted at Talladega a couple weeks ago. Smith brought home a Top-15 finish in the Aaron's 499 and snapped a six-race Top 20 drought. While we would like to believe that the momentum of that finish will carry through the off week and help Smith to a good effort this week at Richmond, we have to be realists. In five career starts at the three-quarter-mile oval, he has no Top-20 finishes and a lowly 27.8 average finish. Considering how much Smith struggled at the other short track events to this point in 2011, you'd be best advised to stay away this week.
Tony Stewart –
Despite being a three-time winner at Richmond International Raceway, we have to downgrade Stewart for this week's race at the Virginia short track. Entering this event Smoke is reeling. He's failed to crack the Top 10 in his last five straight starts and looked completely uncompetitive in the last race at Talladega. Stewart may be good enough for a token Top 20 at RIR this weekend, but that's not what we expect out of an "A" list driver like him.
Travis Kvapil –
Kvapil once displayed some competitive racing ability at Richmond earlier in his Sprint Cup Series career. In six starts at the Virginia short track prior to joining Front Row Motorsports, he claimed three Top-20 finishes and a career-best of 11th-place in 2005. Since moving to FRM, Kvapil has struggled at RIR. Finishes of 34th- and 35th-place last season likely indicate what to expect this weekend. Kvapil enters this event struggling to qualify the No. 38 Ford each week, and that's not a good situation in fantasy racing terms.