Toyota Owners 400 Preview: Racing Perfection

Toyota Owners 400 Preview: Racing Perfection

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

The Monster Energy Cup Series will continue short-track racing this weekend as we head to Richmond. The small Virginia oval hosts this Sunday afternoon'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 Monster Energy Cup Series tour. It will be hard to top that just-completed Bristol race, but when you take into account the parity we've seen in the Monster Energy Cup Series thus far this season, we could be in for one

The Monster Energy Cup Series will continue short-track racing this weekend as we head to Richmond. The small Virginia oval hosts this Sunday afternoon'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 Monster Energy Cup Series tour. It will be hard to top that just-completed Bristol race, but when you take into account the parity we've seen in the Monster Energy Cup Series thus far this season, we could be in for one of the most entertaining races to this point in 2017.

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 12 years or 24 races at Richmond International Raceway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Kyle Busch7.06916361,0188,139110.8
Denny Hamlin10.15297141,5947,080109.9
Kevin Harvick8.37816431,0038,970109.9
Kurt Busch14.55914686896,17295.0
Brad Keselowski15.13963026544,22894.7
Clint Bowyer12.85382143486,22293.5
Jimmie Johnson15.45383373375,93790.6
Matt Kenseth16.65823196176,06789.6
Ryan Newman12.37081441006,84689.5
Kasey Kahne15.55734042815,47787.4
Dale Earnhardt Jr.15.35463642265,49187.4
Kyle Larson11.317619151,70787.1
Joey Logano13.23341301653,21186.1
Martin Truex Jr.20.54722552414,85882.6
Jamie McMurray19.3432120294,51479.0
Aric Almirola16.91344901,13973.5
Chase Elliott 15.7519026972.9
A.J. Allmendinger20.02815912,16269.8
Austin Dillon22.310613083767.9
Trevor Bayne19.5697046166.8

With last season's twin Toyota victories, Richmond has turned back into a track of manufacturer domination. Toyota drivers have now won the last three races at the historic Virginia oval. This string effectively ends the recent trend of manufacturer parity at RIR and puts Toyota on defense this weekend to defend their turf. This shakeup sets the stage for a big, multi-manufacturer battle this weekend at Richmond International Raceway. Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin took those last three wins for Joe Gibbs Racing. Considering the struggles JGR is experiencing, Richmond is ripe for the taking with the current momentum of Ford and Chevrolet drivers.

Perhaps the biggest contenders to win at Richmond this week will come from the Chevrolet camps. Coming off wins in the last two-straight races, Jimmie Johnson is riding a huge wave of momentum coming to Virginia this week. Kyle Larson has also been carrying the flag high for the Bow Tie brand, so he will also factor in the outcome this Sunday afternoon. Additionally, it looks as though Chase Elliott could win any given week, so his No. 24 Chevrolet must not be forgotten. If Ford hopes to resume their seat atop the throne at RIR and put down this Toyota streak, those hopes will mainly be with Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer. Harvick finished third this past week at Bristol and the No. 4 team appears to be getting their act together. Logano is a one-time winner at Richmond and has been a Top-5 driver in the last several weeks. Bowyer is less obvious to most, but is coming on strong after his runner-up finish at Bristol this past week. The driver of the No. 14 SHR Ford has two prior wins at RIR and really loves racing at this particular short track. 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

Kevin Harvick –
The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has led more than 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 Ford team going into this weekend's Toyota Owners 400. Considering that Harvick grabbed a pair of Top-5 finishes last season at this historic short track, you can't rule anything out for him this Sunday afternoon. The veteran driver claimed a sixth-place finish at the small oval in Phoenix earlier this season and he's fresh off a strong third at Bristol, so the No. 4 team's short track performance is improving with each outing. He's one of the top Ford contenders at the Richmond oval for this race.

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 as he showed at Bristol this past week he's on fire right now and a threat to win at ovals where he's not won in several seasons. The driver of the No.48 Chevrolet got off to a shaky start on the short tracks this season, but has come thundering forward the last couple weeks to capture wins in consecutive races. He led 44 laps and finished an impressive third in this event one year ago, so Johnson is not a stretch by any means to break into victory lane at Richmond International Raceway this weekend.

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 16 career starts. However, this young Penske Racing driver won this event three 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 six Richmond races. He rides a six-race Richmond Top-10 streak into this Sunday afternoon. 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.

Clint Bowyer –
The two-time Richmond winner is looking to be the upset driver that no one sees coming this weekend. Last week's runner-up performance at Bristol served notice that this veteran driver is nearing a return to victory lane. Bowyer sports a 55-percent Top-10 rate at Richmond International Raceway over his 11-season career. The Stewart Haas Racing driver likes this ¾-mile oval and it shows in his spotless statistics. Bowyer has been hitting the short tracks hard in his resurgent 2017 campaign. Through the first three events on ovals of one-mile or less in size, Bowyer has a strong 7.3 average finish. We believe the driver of the No. 14 Ford should be started in every weekly lineup league possible for the Toyota Owners 400.

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

Kyle Larson –
By far the strongest driver of this eight-race-old season has been Larson and his No. 42 team. He's been a major power on the larger ovals, and he hasn't been too shabby on the short tracks. While Larson lacks the current polish and finesse to win one of these short track events, he still has the shear speed and talent to crack the Top 10 as we witnessed at Bristol this past weekend. If Larson can avoid the mistakes and mental errors, he could even win at Richmond this week. His current record shows just one Top-10 finish in six starts, but it was a whale of a performance. Larson started on the outside pole and finished runner-up last summer at Richmond. That one start shows the dramatic potential he presents in this race. We would consider Larson a safe Top-10 play this Sunday and a low-key contender for the win.

Chase Elliott –
The young driver has been one of the more consistent short track performers this early season. Elliott has finishes of 12th-, third- and seventh-place at Phoenix, Martinsville and Bristol. He's led a 126-combined laps in those three events and he's qualified extremely well on these small ovals in 2017. Elliott doesn't have great Richmond numbers in his brief Monster Energy Cup Series career. He has three finishes in the middle-to-upper teens in his three starts at Richmond International Raceway. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet has now seen enough of this oval to begin to move the bar up the ladder. Let's not forget that Elliott claimed one win and four Top-5 finishes in his four-career starts at this oval in the Xfinity Series, so clearly he can wheel a car around this oval.

Kyle Busch –
The No. 18 Toyota team had a nightmarish outing at Bristol last week, and that coming on the heels of two Top-3 finishes at the short tracks of Phoenix and Martinsville. Speed wasn't the problem at Bristol, but a host of handling and mechanical issues 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 Monster Energy Cup Series career. When we last saw the Joe Gibbs Racing star in action at America's premier short track, he qualified ninth and finished ninth in last fall's Federated Auto Parts 400. That was one of 17-career Top 10s (74-percent) for Busch at Richmond. With well over 1,000-career laps led at this facility, racing up front at this oval is a familiar experience for Busch.

Denny Hamlin –
Hamlin's three-career wins and 1,500+ 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 Sunday afternoon. Hamlin's 12 Top 10s at Richmond International Raceway check in at a respectable 57-percent rate. In his last start at the three-quarter mile oval, the veteran driver started on the pole, led 189 laps and won the Federated Auto Parts 400. While we don't expect a repeat of that performance this weekend, we know that Hamlin loves racing on this short track. He'll be a lock for a Top-10 finish this Sunday afternoon.

Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Richmond who can provide a solid finish

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 Monster Energy Cup Series visited the Virginia short track it was Keselowski qualifying 17th and racing his way through the field to finish a strong fourth-place in the Federated Auto Parts 400. He now has one win and four Top 10s in his last six trips to RIR. In addition, Keselowski has well over 500 laps led during that span. We should see a hungry and fast No. 2 Ford team this Sunday afternoon in the Toyota Owners 400.

Matt Kenseth –
Kenseth gets the short track upgrade again this week, much like he did at Martinsville and Bristol more recently. 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 four Top 10s in his last six starts at this oval coming into Sunday afternoon's 400-lap battle. In this event one year ago, Kenseth led 2 laps and finished a steady seventh at the Virginia oval.

Martin Truex Jr. –
The Furniture Row Racing star is off to a steady, but improving start to the season on the short track circuit. After 11th- and 16th-place finishes at Phoenix and Martinsville, the driver of the No. 78 Toyota turned things up a notch at Bristol last week. Truex led 116 laps and battled up front all afternoon before finishing eighth in the Food City 500. That's a good sign as we go short track racing again this week at RIR. Truex has turned things up of late at the Richmond oval. Three of his last four trips to central Virginia have netted Top-10 finishes. The veteran driver turned in perhaps his best-career performance at the ¾-mile oval in last fall's Federated Auto Parts 400. Truex led 193 laps and dominated most of that evening race before finishing a stellar third. The notes will be fresh from that performance you can be sure.

Ryan Newman –
Newman gets a boost this Sunday afternoon 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 18th 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 Sunday afternoon's race. His best tracks thus far in 2017 have been the circuit's short tracks, with the surprise victory at Phoenix and eighth- and 14th-place finishes at Martinsville and Bristol. Newman sports a 53-percent career Top-10 rate at this oval and strong 12.3 average finish. That makes the RCR veteran a steady fantasy racing play in this 400-lap event.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. –
Only one driver in the series has racked up Top-10 finishes in all three one-mile or less oval events to-date this season. It's not Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick nor Kyle Busch, but it is the driver of the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford. Stenhouse is off to a great start this season on the short tracks. Fourth-, 10th- and ninth-place finishes have been this young driver's body of work so far. There's no coincidence or fluke here, Stenhouse is just very good on these bull ring tracks. Although his Richmond resume is lacking some pop (one Top 10 in eight starts), he's poised to do much better than his 22.2 average finish at this oval might suggest. Stenhouse may not keep his Top-10 streak going on these small tracks, but he shouldn't finish far outside of the Top 10 if he slips a bit.

Erik Jones –
It's been easy to be dazzled by all the young talent in the series this season, but we would be remiss if we didn't mention Jones. Sure Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott are going to grab a lot of attention and a lot of the talk, but this young driver of the No. 77 Toyota should not be overlooked. Jones had a very impressive outing at Bristol last week. He raced in the Top 10 much of the day before some late setbacks slid him back to a still-respectable 17th-place finish. His eighth- and 12th-place Phoenix and Martinsville outings should not be overlooked as well. This will be the rookie driver's first Monster Energy Cup Series start at Richmond, so there will be some learning to do in this event. However, let's not forget that Jones has forged three Top-5 finishes in four-career Xfinity Series starts at the Richmond oval. That experience will be priceless.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Dale Earnhardt Jr. –
With Earnhardt's shockingly poor performance at Bristol this past week, came the even more shocking news 24 hours later that he has decided to retire at the end of this season. In a way, you could see it coming. After last season's concussion and his poor start to this season (one Top 10 in eight starts, ranked 24th in the standings) the whispers and hints about a possible retirement had been circulating. It's a sad day in NASCAR to see its most popular driver admit that it's time to step out of the car. We wish that things looked hopeful for Richmond considering Earnhardt's strong career numbers here (three wins and 14 Top 10s). However, the No. 88 team's current level of performance is concerning and rules him out of any "safe" fantasy racing expectations.

Kurt Busch –
We hate to think that winning the Daytona 500 was a curse, but it would seem so for the No. 41 SHR team. Busch has struggled to just two Top-10 finishes in the seven races since his win in the Great American Race. The short tracks have been particularly puzzling for this driver and team. Busch's 25th-, 37th- and 25th-place finishes in those three events go almost beyond explanation. We're not certain what's wrong with Busch and this team, but they clearly lack the speed, handling and other crucial ingredients to race up front each week. Despite Busch's career success at Richmond International Raceway, keep him benched in all fantasy racing formats for the time being.

Ryan Blaney –
The Wood Brothers Racing driver has had a bit of a mixed season. While Blaney has been very strong, fast and impressive on the larger ovals, he's really struggled on the circuit's short tracks. Finishes of 23rd-, 25th- and 33rd-place on the one-mile and smaller tracks water down what would otherwise be a pretty good season. Richmond International Raceway has also been a struggle during Blaney's brief Cup Series career. His only two starts at this track, which came last season, were subpar 28th- and 39th-place finishes. The driver of the No. 21 Ford is without question a talented driver, but the young Blaney still has a lot to learn about wheeling these cars around small ovals.

Danica Patrick –
Patrick will be making her ninth-career start at Richmond this Sunday afternoon. In her eight prior starts she's only logged one Top-15 finish and four finishes outside the Top-25. The average is checking in at a rotund 24.0 for the driver of the No. 10 Ford at RIR. To say that the short tracks have been a struggle this young season for Patrick would be an understatement. She logged 22nd- and 23rd-place finishes at Phoenix and Martinsville, but last week she ran into major trouble and posted a whopping 36th-place on the board at Bristol. That brings her season average finish to 27.0 on the ovals one-mile and less in size. Almost without question we can predict she'll slot in that 24th- to 27th-place portion of the finishing order this Sunday afternoon.

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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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