Cook Out 400 Preview: Playoff Hunt Intensifies

Cook Out 400 Preview: Playoff Hunt Intensifies

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

We head to Richmond, Virginia and Richmond Raceway this weekend for the 22nd race of the season and approaching a climax in the run up to the Chase for the Cup playoffs.  During the earlier years of the Chase era, this had been the track where NASCAR ended its regular season and determined the field for the Chase. However, the schedule got a shakeup a few seasons ago, and NASCAR decided to move this event into the 10 races of the Chase playoff. This changed in 2022 as the sanctioning body decided to return Richmond back into the races that lead up to the cutoff to make the playoffs. The urgency and the heated competition will be different this weekend. Instead of trying to advance in the Chase, drivers will instead be trying to make it into the playoff field of drivers as the clock is rapidly winding down on this regular season. This Richmond race will have a different feel, but all the same importance as the past. Drivers will be going all out to grab that valuable win that transfers them into the playoffs. As we saw at Pocono this past weekend, drivers are taking chances at this point in the season that they have not up until this point. That will make for higher stakes, more contact, harder racing and when we put that on the small oval at Richmond Raceway, we're sure to be thrilled by what we see take place. 

Since Richmond's oval is a

We head to Richmond, Virginia and Richmond Raceway this weekend for the 22nd race of the season and approaching a climax in the run up to the Chase for the Cup playoffs.  During the earlier years of the Chase era, this had been the track where NASCAR ended its regular season and determined the field for the Chase. However, the schedule got a shakeup a few seasons ago, and NASCAR decided to move this event into the 10 races of the Chase playoff. This changed in 2022 as the sanctioning body decided to return Richmond back into the races that lead up to the cutoff to make the playoffs. The urgency and the heated competition will be different this weekend. Instead of trying to advance in the Chase, drivers will instead be trying to make it into the playoff field of drivers as the clock is rapidly winding down on this regular season. This Richmond race will have a different feel, but all the same importance as the past. Drivers will be going all out to grab that valuable win that transfers them into the playoffs. As we saw at Pocono this past weekend, drivers are taking chances at this point in the season that they have not up until this point. That will make for higher stakes, more contact, harder racing and when we put that on the small oval at Richmond Raceway, we're sure to be thrilled by what we see take place. 

Since Richmond's oval is a short track with its own group of dominant drivers, let's take a quick look at the recent history of this facility and see who will be running up front this weekend. The short tracks usually produce familiar names when it comes to driver efficiency, so some of these drivers should look familiar as compared to New Hampshire which was run just a couple weeks ago. The urgency to make the Chase for the Cup playoff field will have an impact on performances, but we still expect the short track aces to have the best outings at Richmond. Here are the loop stats for the last 36 races at Richmond Raceway.

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Kevin Harvick7.91,2689201,18813,422109.4
Denny Hamlin8.71,0151,0732,20611,318108.7
Kyle Busch7.21,1649251,53012,359108.1
Christopher Bell5.7312160991,961100.8
Brad Keselowski12.49226141,1788,67398.5
Martin Truex Jr.15.69267001,3419,50495.4
Joey Logano10.37933326517,39894.9
Kyle Larson10.95641861855,14091.7
Chase Elliott11.1502103953,96889.9
William Byron15.53201172392,46984.8
Aric Almirola14.953113714,06478.5
Austin Dillon16.7425120563,23473.9
Ryan Blaney20.6341911292,54171.7
Chase Briscoe16.819912080670.8
Alex Bowman18.9322114192,51470.6
Tyler Reddick17.51722801,01270.4
Ross Chastain21.12581011001,56568.8
Daniel Suarez16.22597001,65167.1
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.20.633719481,83766.7
Erik Jones19.81774901,58766.1

This is the second visit of the 2023 season at Richmond International Raceway. If we look back to the race earlier this year, we get very good vibes for the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team and Kyle Larson. The star driver tracked down William Byron in the closing laps and took the lead to win the Toyota Owners 400. It was Larson's second-career victory at Richmond Raceway and first since 2017. The veteran driver has had some troubles in recent weeks, but he's been pretty sharp on short tracks this season, so there's reasonable hope Larson will be in top form this weekend. 

In addition to Larson, there were several suitors who challenged for that Richmond win earlier this season. Chief among them were Byron and Martin Truex Jr. Both are trying to step up their performance for the quickly approaching playoffs, so the return to Richmond will be welcome for both of those drivers. We'll highlight them, along with other short track specialists and give you the drivers you need to dominate your fantasy league this weekend at Richmond Raceway for the Cook Out 400.

The Contenders – Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kyle Larson – Larson's brush with a win at Pocono last week would go up in smoke after a late race incident with Denny Hamlin. Now he'll get a chance to rebound with a start at one of his favorite short tracks, Richmond Raceway. Larson's two victories and eight Top-10 finishes at Richmond have all come since the 2016 season. He boasts a win and three Top 10's in his last four starts at Richmond Raceway, including his victory in April's Toyota Owners 400. The Hendrick Motorsports star has been pretty strong this season with two victories and four Top-5 finishes on ovals one-mile in size and smaller. He'll be a force to contend with Sunday afternoon at Richmond Raceway.    

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin is coming off the momentum of a big Pocono win and will carry that momentum to one of his most successful and favorite short tracks. Richmond Raceway has yielded four victories, 17 Top-5 finishes (52-percent!) and over 2,200 career laps led at the Virginia short track. Hamlin's disappointing 20th-place finish at Richmond earlier this season snapped a four-race Top-5 streak at the track for the No. 11 Toyota team. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has rebounded from that Richmond start and has collected Top-10 finishes in three-straight short track starts since then. This is a driver and team headed in the right direction and this weekend Hamlin should challenge for the win in the Cook Out 400.    

Martin Truex Jr. – Truex has simply been a dominant performer at Richmond Raceway in recent seasons. His three-career Richmond wins have all come in the last eight events at the Virginia short track. Truex's uptick in Top 10's has elevated his career total to 16 in 34 starts for a respectable 47-percent rate. The driver of the No. 19 Toyota has a Loudon win and Pocono Top-3 in the last two events, and Truex will ride that momentum into Sunday's Cook Out 400. The veteran driver's last three short track performances of this season have been third-, first- and first-place finishes at Martinsville, Dover and Loudon. That's a good indicator of what this driver and team could do at Richmond Raceway.  

William Byron – Byron has been painfully close to winning in two of his last three Richmond starts. He led a race-high 122 laps in the spring 2022 event at Richmond and finished third at the end of the afternoon. Byron would qualify third and lead a race-high 117 laps earlier this season in the Toyota Owners 400 before race flow and misfortune would saddle him with 24th-place. It's clear that the No. 24 Chevrolet team have had great speed in each of the last three Richmond events. Byron has been strong but inconsistent on short tracks this season. He nabbed a Phoenix victory earlier in the season and a Top-5 recently at Dover. His 383 combined laps led on short tracks in 2023 indicate his homerun potential at Richmond Raceway.

Solid Plays – Near locks for a Top 10 with an outside shot to win

Kevin Harvick – The Stewart Haas Racing star pulled off a strong performance this past week at Pocono. Harvick raced among the Top 5 all afternoon and collected an impressive fourth-place finish. For a follow up performance he'll attempt to turn in another strong effort at the Richmond oval this week. Harvick is a four-time winner at Richmond Raceway and he cracks the Top 10 at an amazing 68-percent rate. Even though it's been a somewhat inconsistent season for the No. 4 SHR team, Harvick has been very consistent on the short tracks. With three Top 5's in five starts this season, including a strong fifth-place finish at Richmond early in the season, Harvick should be a very good fantasy racing performer in the Cook Out 400.

Christopher Bell – The Joe Gibbs Racing youngster has been pretty strong in recent weeks. A pole position at the New Hampshire short track was followed by a sixth-place finish at Pocono. Bell has been performing very well at some of his favorite race tracks. That's also been his experience on short tracks this season. He grabbed a fourth-place finish earlier this season at Richmond and an equally impressive sixth-place finish at Dover. Bell rides a five-race Top-10 streak at Richmond into this weekend's action. That has lowered his average finish at the Virginia bull ring to a stellar 5.7 average finish. We're willing to bet he'll extend that streak to four after the Cook Out 400.     

Chase Elliott – Elliott does not have the kind of Richmond stats that inspire much confidence, however, he has been turning his performances there more positive in recent seasons. Elliott owns three Top-5 finishes in his last five Richmond Raceway starts. That has increased his Top-10 rate at the oval to 43-percent and lowered his average finish to a sharp 11.1. The driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet hasn't been razor sharp yet on short tracks in 2023, but his 10th-, 11th- and 12th-place finishes work out to a steady 11.0 average finish. Elliott nabbed a strong fifth-place finish in his last Richmond start, which came last August.  

Joey Logano – Logano has enjoyed some success this season on the circuit's short tracks. A seventh-place finish at Richmond early in the year was shortly followed by a pair of brilliant runner-up finishes at Martinsville Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Logano is a two-time Richmond winner and his 17 Top-10 finishes at the track check in at a strong 61-percent rate. The career average finish at the Virginia short track is a tidy 10.2. Coming off a disappointment at Pocono Raceway last Sunday and looking to rebound, Logano appears to be visiting Richmond Raceway at just the right time.

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Richmond & solid upside

Kyle Busch – Richmond Raceway is statistically Busch's best short track on the circuit. The Richard Childress Racing star has six-career victories and a whopping 18 Top-5 finishes at the Virginia short track. The driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet clearly knows how to run up front at Richmond, and the numbers bear this out. His 18 Top-5 finishes check in at a stellar 51-percent rate for the star of this Chevrolet racing camp. Busch swept this oval in 2018, and he has 10 Top-10 finishes in his last 11 Richmond starts entering Sunday's 400-mile battle. He may not be the top threat in the Cook Out 400, but he'll surely be a face among the Top 10 at the end of the afternoon.

Brad Keselowski – The owner/driver of the No. 6 Ford has been getting back into the groove in recent weeks, and that shouldn't change Sunday in the Cook Out 400. Keselowski has nabbed three Top 10's this season on short tracks and two of them have come in the last two short track events (Dover and Loudon). He's a two-time Richmond winner and as recently as the 2020 season. Keselowski's 13 Top-10 finishes at the track net a decent 48-percent Top-10 rate at Richmond Raceway and hold down a respectable career 12.3 average finish. The veteran driver finished 10th-place in the event earlier this season at the Richmond oval and he should be at least that good Sunday afternoon.  

Tyler Reddick – Reddick rides a two-race Top-10 streak into Virginia this week after his strong runner-up finish at Pocono last weekend. The 23XI Racing youngster has been turning more positive in recent weeks and especially on short tracks. With finishes of seventh- and sixth-place at Dover and Loudon, the No. 45 Toyota team comes into the Cook Out 400 in good shape. Reddick has not been a top performer at Richmond Raceway, but he did qualify a career-best fifth-place there in April of this year. It would seem that the driver of the No. 45 Toyota is poised to collect a career-first Top-10 finish in Sunday's Cook Out 400.  

Ross Chastain – Although he's cooled off a bit in recent races, Chastain still represents significant fantasy value at Richmond Raceway this weekend. Short tracks have held a great deal of success for the No. 1 Chevrolet team this season. Chastain has nabbed two Top-5 finishes and led 146 laps all on ovals one-mile in size or less in 2023. His last Richmond start was a strong third-place finish in April's Toyota Owners 400. Chastain has two top-10 finishes in his last four Richmond starts so success has been building for the veteran driver at this facility. The Trackhouse Racing veteran brings a lot of upside potential to the Cook Out 400.      

Alex Bowman – Bowman missed one of the short track events this season due to his back injury, but he's made starts in the other four bull ring events. The Hendrick Motorsports veteran has earned a pole position, a pair of Top 10's and four Top 15's for a total average finish around 10.5. Interestingly enough, the best of those performances came earlier this spring at Richmond Raceway. The pilot of the No. 48 Chevrolet won the pole position, led 8 laps and finished a steady eighth-place in the Toyota Owners 400. That's one of four Top 10's (and one victory) in Bowman's last six starts at the Richmond short track. While Bowman hasn't been making big waves of late, Richmond could be an upside weekend.   

Ty Gibbs – Things have suddenly begun to "click" for the young driver of the JGR No. 54 Toyota. Gibbs is coming off a strong fifth-place at Pocono this past week and a few races removed from his strong ninth-place finish on the streets of Chicago. Now the rookie driver will need to carry that success onto a NASCAR short track. Gibbs has one Top-10 (Richmond earlier this season) and two Top-15 finishes in his last four starts on ovals one-mile and less in size. Things are trending in the right direction for this driver and team after a lot of inconsistency throughout the 2023 season. The Joe Gibbs Racing youngster qualified 14th on the grid and finished a solid ninth-place earlier this season at Richmond and that could be a good indicator for this Sunday afternoon.   

Slow Down – Drivers to avoid this week

Ryan Blaney – Blaney has been an inconsistent performer on the short tracks this season. He does sport three Top 10's, but he also has a 26th-place finish earlier this season at Richmond and most recently a 22nd-place finish at Loudon. When we combine that inconsistency with his history at Richmond Raceway, we get some warning signs. With just three Top-10 finishes in 14-career starts at the Virginia short track, Blaney has just a 21-percent Top-10 rate here. The 20.5 average finish across those 14 starts leaves a lot to be desired. While Blaney and the No. 12 Ford team have had some fantasy racing utility in recent weeks, we believe this weekend is a race to take a pass.  

Noah Gragson – Short tracks this season have yielded no Top-25 finishes for Gragson vs. three DNF's in the No. 42 Chevrolet. In fact, his average finish is hovering around an undesirable 32.4. The Legacy Motor Club rookie has two prior starts at Richmond Raceway, and while that helps, the news is not so good. Gragson has finishes of 24th- and 37th-place in those two efforts. Gragson has had a rough season, but the short tracks have been particularly brutal. He's no-go material for Sunday's Cook Out 400.    

Bubba Wallace – While Wallace has had some short track successes this season (two Top 10's in five starts), he has had some struggles as well. None more puzzling than Richmond Raceway. The 23XI Racing driver's start here in April netted a lowly 28th-place qualifying performance, followed by a head-scratching 22nd-place finish. Way off the standards he's set on other short tracks this season. However, when we look at Wallace's history at Richmond Raceway, we see a lot of struggles. In 10-career starts he's nabbed just two Top-15 finishes and sports an inflated 23.6 average finish. Things sort of begin to make a bit of sense. Richmond has been a real puzzle for the young driver, and not likely one he'll solve this weekend.

Austin Cindric – The driver of the No. 2 Penske Ford has had some success this season, but he's also had some clear struggles. Short track racing has been a part of that problem for Cindric and his team. With two Top-25 finishes vs. three finishes outside the Top 25, the young driver carries a short track average finish of 27.4 into Richmond this weekend. That includes his subpar 28th-place finish in April's Toyota Owners 400. Cindric has four-career starts at Richmond Raceway and just one Top-15 finish vs. two finishes outside the Top 25 for a 22.0 average finish. The Penske Racing youngster is a high risk driver for Sunday's Cook Out 400. 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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