Toyota Owners 400 Preview: Racing Perfection

Toyota Owners 400 Preview: Racing Perfection

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

The Sprint Cup Series will continue short track racing this weekend as we head to Richmond. The small Virginia oval hosts this 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

The Sprint Cup Series will continue short track racing this weekend as we head to Richmond. The small Virginia oval hosts this 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 2016.

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 11 years or 22 races at Richmond International Raceway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Kyle Busch7.16185719407,332110.4
Kevin Harvick8.67025649408,211110.1
Denny Hamlin10.84796311,4046,309108.8
Clint Bowyer11.35382143486,22298.6
Kurt Busch15.05004416315,39394.2
Brad Keselowski16.22882766483,49693.9
Ryan Newman11.36521431006,43891.1
Jimmie Johnson16.14823192935,36390.1
Matt Kenseth16.05082846125,40889.0
Carl Edwards14.44983084885,04188.3
Dale Earnhardt Jr.15.55093582265,09387.2
Kasey Kahne16.54963792814,86186.5
Joey Logano13.82381211652,71885.5
Kyle Larson12.895901,16585.1
Martin Truex Jr.22.0418165484,20879.7
Jamie McMurray20.0384119294,13378.6
Greg Biffle17.2370176633,96478.4
Chase Elliott16.0227014276.9
Aric Almirola16.411637094375.0
A.J. Allmendinger19.72734012,13071.0

With last season's Chevrolet and Toyota victories, Richmond has turned back into a track of manufacturer parity after two seasons of Ford dominating the oval. Ford drivers had won the last three races at the historic Virginia oval prior to last year. This shakeup sets the stage for another multi-manufacturer battle this weekend at RIR. Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano took both Richmond wins in 2014, but it was Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth who would reign supreme at the short track in 2015. Perhaps the biggest contenders to win at Richmond this week will come from the Toyota camps. Coming off Toyota victories at the short tracks of Martinsville and Bristol, Joe Gibbs Racing is in the best position to challenge for the win in this Richmond race. Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Kenseth have combined to win nine victories at the Virginia short track. The last of those was Kenseth's win here last September in the Federated Auto Parts 400. Busch leads the JGR camp with four of those nine wins, the most recent coming in this event in 2012. If Ford hopes to resume the throne at RIR and put down this Toyota insurrection, those hopes will mainly be with Penske Racing star Logano. He won this event in 2014, and is a weekly threat to roll into victory lane. Chevrolet's slim hopes seem to reside mainly with the Stewart Haas Racing camp. Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch have combined to win the last three Chevrolet victories at Richmond International Raceway since the 2011 season. Busch won this event one year ago, so he has to be among the discussion of top contenders this weekend. The following is our preview of the fantasy racing drivers who can lift your team to victory for this 400-lap event at the Richmond oval.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Carl Edwards -
Edwards is fresh off the Bristol victory and riding a big wave of momentum into RIR. The JGR star has been our most dominant performer so far this season on the short tracks, so he's primed to continue his dominance this weekend. He's a one-time Richmond winner, so Edwards knows what it takes to conquer this track. 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 the three events we've had this season on ovals of one-mile or less, Edwards has one win and a pair of Top-5 finishes.

Kyle Busch -
The No. 18 Toyota team had a nightmarish outing at Bristol last week, and that coming on the heels of two-straight wins at Martinsville and Texas. Speed wasn't the problem at Bristol, but a host of mechanical issues and some pit road mistakes led to his bad day. Busch will look to hit the reset button this week at the Richmond oval that has yielded four wins to him over his Sprint Cup Series career. When we last saw the Joe Gibbs Racing star in action at America's premier short track, he qualified in row 2 and finished a brilliant runner-up in last fall's Federated Auto Parts 400. That was one of 14-career Top 5s (67-percent) for Busch at Richmond. With well over 900-career laps led at this facility, winning at this oval is a familiar experience for Busch.

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 finished runner-up in this event one year ago 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, so the No. 4 team's short track performance is high. He's one of the top Chevrolet contenders at the Richmond oval for this race.

Joey Logano -
Logano doesn't have the eye-popping Richmond stats of our other contenders with just one win and five Top-5 finishes in 14 career starts. However, this young Penske Racing driver won this event two years ago for his first Richmond victory. He's been quickly redefining his stats on these short tracks and setting new personal bests the last few seasons. Logano has two pole positions, 165 laps led and four Top-6 finishes in the last four Richmond races. The No. 22 team has been missing the ingredients of putting two halves of a race together of late. That could change in the Toyota Owners 400. It wouldn't surprise us at all to see the young driver pull into victory lane at RIR.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
With Earnhardt racing and finishing inside the Top 10 almost every weekend, the No. 88 team is in Chase form early in the season. The Hendrick Motorsports star comes to Richmond this weekend riding sixth overall in the driver standings and looking to keep his short track groove going. The NASCAR icon loves racing at Richmond. He's a three-time winner at the track, and he's finished runner-up as recently as 2012. Earnhardt battled hard and finished fifth in his last appearance at this oval last fall. That was his 14th 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.

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth gets the short track upgrade again this week, much like he did at Martinsville a few weeks ago. Given his historical numbers at RIR, expectations are high coming into the Toyota Owners 400. The veteran driver should once again take advantage of the speed, handling and horsepower that his JGR Toyota will provide. Kenseth's performance stats at Richmond have been turning to the very positive side since moving to Joe Gibbs Racing a few seasons ago. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota has one victory and six Top 10s in his last seven starts at this oval coming into Saturday night's 400-lap battle. In last September's Federated Auto Parts 400, Kenseth led a whopping 352 laps from the outside pole and won his second-career race at the Virginia oval.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin's two-career wins and 1,400+ laps led at this facility will drive some fantasy players to invest in the No. 11 team this week. For that reason alone you have to consider giving a start to the Joe Gibbs Racing star. He's not been in race-winning form this season, but he's good enough at this oval to expect a Top-10 finish this Saturday night. Hamlin's 10 Top 10s at Richmond International Raceway check in at a respectable 53-percent rate. In his last start at the three-quarter mile oval, the veteran driver raced from 25th-spot on the starting grid to lead 14 laps and finish an impressive sixth in the Federated Auto Parts 400.

Kurt Busch -
In this event one year ago, we saw Busch lead 291 laps and dominate his way to his second-career win at Richmond International Raceway. That performance capped what has been a three-season surge for the veteran driver at RIR. Four of his last six starts at the Richmond short track have netted Top-10 finishes. Busch has been a top short track performer this season with one Top-5 and two Top-10 finishes in the three oval races of one-mile or less to this point in the schedule. Recent history and current Richmond performance are clearly tilting in the No. 41 team's favor this week. 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 ninth-place finishes at Phoenix and Martinsville in 2016. The Hendrick Motorsports star has been better on the intermediate ovals than the short tracks this season, but he's still a top driver to consider. Johnson should be on his "A" game this weekend at the Virginia oval.

Brad Keselowski -
Last week at Bristol was nothing short of a disappointment for Keselowski and the No. 2 Penske Racing team. However, there's good reason to believe that the poor finish at Bristol can be erased by a Top 10 at Richmond International Raceway. The last time the Sprint Cup Series visited the Virginia short track it was Keselowski qualifying third and finishing eighth in the Federated Auto Parts 400. He now has one win and three Top 10s in his last four trips to RIR. In addition Keselowski has well over 600 laps led during that span. We should see a hungry and fast No. 2 Ford team this Saturday night in the Toyota Owners 400.

Chase Elliott -
The young driver is just getting started on his Sprint Cup Series resume so we don't have the historical data to judge Elliott by this weekend, but his current level of performance has been nothing less than impressive in the No. 24 Chevrolet. He's riding a two-race Top-5 streak, including an impressive fourth-place finish at Bristol this past weekend into Richmond this Saturday night. Elliott raced his way through the field at Bristol to finish inside the Top 5 which makes that run even more eye-catching. Richmond International Raceway is clearly an oval that the Hendrick Motorsports rookie likes very well. In two seasons of Xfinity Series racing at RIR, he earned a victory and two runner-up finishes in four starts. Elliott will once again perform above his age level in the Toyota Owners 400.

Ryan Newman -
Newman 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 finish 11th in this race one year ago. The Richard Childress Racing driver rides a good level of performance at the three-quarter mile oval into this Saturday night's race. His best tracks thus far in 2016 have been the circuit's short tracks, with Top-10 finishes at Martinsville and Bristol. Newman has cracked the Top 10 in three of his last five Richmond starts. That makes the RCR veteran a steady fantasy racing play in this 400-lap event.

Clint Bowyer -
The two-time Richmond winner is looking to build on the momentum of his Bristol Top 10 for his struggling team. Last week's performance lifted this slow-to-start No. 15 team in 2016. Bowyer sports a 60-percent Top-10 rate at Richmond International Raceway and in his last start at this facility he brought home a strong 10th-place finish in the Toyota Owners 400. Bowyer likes this three-quarter-mile oval and it shows in his spotless statistics. The HScott Motorsports 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 build on his current three-race Top-10 streak at this small oval.

Ryan Blaney -
The Wood Brothers Racing rookie has been very strong to this point in the season. Short track racing in particular has stood out. With finishes of 10th-, 19th- and 11th-place at Phoenix, Martinsville and Bristol, Blaney has been very competitive to start the year on the circuit's bull rings. He has no Sprint Cup Series starts at this oval, but four Top-10 finishes in four Xfinity Series starts over the last few years at Richmond. The No. 21 Ford team should show up with a good car this weekend and Blaney should have no trouble cracking the Top 15 in this 400-lap short track battle. His 11th-place finish at the tough oval in Bristol this past week is a good barometer of what to expect.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

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 2016 season that we must also consider. He comes into the Toyota Owner's 400 a lowly 24th in the driver point standings and still searching for his first Top 10 of the season. The veteran driver also has a clear record of struggles at Richmond International Raceway. His six-career Top 10s work out to an uninspiring 22-percent rate at the small oval. Biffle has only cracked the Top 10 once in his last 18 Richmond starts, and that's not the kind of stats that inspire confidence in a fantasy racing selection any week of the season.

Kyle Larson -
Inconsistency has been the biggest problem this season for Larson and the No. 42 team. Good qualifying runs and fast cars have not resulted in good finishes on a weekly basis for this young driver. He comes to a short track that hasn't been tough for him with Top-15 finishes in three of four-career starts. However, Larson's up-and-down performance this season causes us to yield to caution this week. The 35th-place finish at Bristol this past week is particularly concerning entering this event. Larson has only two Top-10 finishes in eight starts this season, so it would be wise to bench him this week and deploy him later in the season once his team gets on a roll.

Kasey Kahne -
Kahne has been up-and-down 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 eight Top-10 finishes in 24 career starts (33-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 17.2 at this facility. That's well short of our expectations for this driver and team.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
With his 16th-place finish at Bristol this past weekend it has been a tough campaign so far on the circuit's short tracks. That Top 20 result pulled up his two finishes outside the Top 30 this year on the bull ring circuit. Richmond International Raceway has been a real puzzle for the Roush Fenway Racing driver. With one Top 10 in six-career starts his average finish sits around a lowly 22.3 average. Stenhouse finished 28th in this event one year ago and that fits his pattern of generally finishing better in the fall date than the spring date at Richmond. The No. 17 team has shown good speed on the intermediate ovals, so it's probably better to give him a start on the cookie cutter ovals than the series' short tracks.

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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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