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 plays host to 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 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

The Monster Energy Cup Series will continue short-track racing this weekend as we head to Richmond. The small Virginia oval plays host to 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 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 2018.

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-quarters-of-a-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 13 years or 26 races at Richmond International Raceway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Kyle Busch7.47506571,0578,855109.7
Kevin Harvick8.48486861,0149,646109.6
Denny Hamlin9.65997541,6537,712109.3
Brad Keselowski14.15044377734,97197.3
Kurt Busch13.86694776896,71594.8
Kyle Larson10.424961732,48393.0
Clint Bowyer13.35962343486,76792.7
Jimmie Johnson14.96323463376,51090.1
Ryan Newman11.78041551297,48589.6
Joey Logano11.94141471903,94288.2
Kasey Kahne15.66204102815,82186.2
Martin Truex Jr.20.05363494395,64385.2
Jamie McMurray18.5519124295,01279.6
Chase Elliott16.214117092577.3
Aric Almirola16.31845201,43873.5
Daniel Suarez9.53917022170.6
A.J. Allmendinger21.12856812,17067.4
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.20.116538099267.3
Austin Dillon21.913613098366.7
Trevor Bayne19.3867052464.6

With last season's Ford and Chevrolet victories, Richmond has turned back into a track of manufacturer parity. Toyota drivers had won the three prior races at the historic Virginia oval. This string of Toyota dominance came to an end with Joey Logano and Kyle Larson's Richmond victories in 2017. This shakeup sets the stage for a big, multi-manufacturer battle this weekend at Richmond International Raceway. With the current momentum of some Ford and Toyota camps, this weekend's Toyota Owners 400 is truly up for grabs. Perhaps the biggest contenders to win at Richmond this week will come from the Toyota camps. Coming off wins in the last two-straight races, Kyle Busch is riding a huge wave of momentum coming to Virginia this week. Denny Hamlin has also been carrying the flag high for the Toyota brand, so he will also factor in the outcome this Saturday night. Both drivers have multiple Richmond wins, so they're seemingly the drivers to beat. If Ford hopes to continue their success at the Richmond oval, those hopes will mainly be with Kevin Harvick, Logano and Clint Bowyer. Harvick finished seventh this past week at Bristol and the No. 4 team appears dangerous on Harvick's favorite short tracks. Logano is a two-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 recent win at Martinsville and Top 10 at Bristol this past weekend. 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

Kyle Busch -
The No. 18 Toyota team is on fire. Busch is coming off two-straight victories at Texas and Bristol, and he's clearly the driver to beat at the moment. Busch will look to make it three in-a-row 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 seventh and finished ninth in last fall's Federated Auto Parts 400. That was one of 18-career Top 10s (72-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. His current momentum makes him the top contender for the win.

Kyle Larson -
The Chip Ganassi Racing driver has been overcoming a slow start to the season, but he showed last week at Bristol he's ready to win. Larson led 200 laps and finished runner-up at Bristol Motor Speedway last weekend. If Larson can put it all together this week, he can dominate yet another short-track event. His current record shows just two Top-10 finishes in eight starts, but one of those was a victory in last September's Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond. Larson started in the second row, led 53 laps and collected the win in our last trip to the Virginia short track. That one start shows the dramatic potential he presents in this race. We would consider Larson a safe Top-10 play this Saturday and one of a handful of drivers that can compete with Kyle Busch right now.

Kevin Harvick -
The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has led over 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 has grabbed three Top-5 finishes in his last four starts at RIR, you can't rule anything out for him this Saturday night. The veteran driver won at the small oval in Phoenix earlier this season and he's fresh off a strong Top 10 at Bristol, so the No. 4 team's short-track performance is on point right now. He's one of the top Ford contenders at the Richmond oval for this 400-lap battle.

Joey Logano -
Logano doesn't have the eye-popping Richmond stats of our other contenders with just two wins and seven Top-5 finishes in 18-career starts. However, his Richmond resume has been getting stronger and stronger each season. He's been quickly redefining his stats on these short tracks and setting new personal bests the last few seasons. Logano won this event one year ago, and he returned in the fall to finish runner-up in the last Richmond race. He rides an eight-race Richmond Top-10 streak into this Saturday night. 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

Clint Bowyer -
The two-time Richmond winner is looking to be the upset driver that no one sees coming this weekend. Bowyer's big win at Martinsville Speedway a couple weeks ago served notice that this veteran driver is back to competitive racing. Bowyer sports a 50-percent Top-10 rate at Richmond International Raceway over his 12-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 2018 campaign. Through the first three events on ovals of one-mile or less in size, Bowyer has a strong 5.0 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.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin's three-career wins and 1,600+ 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 14 Top 10s at Richmond International Raceway check in at a strong 61-percent rate. In his last start at the three-quarter mile oval, the veteran driver started on the outside pole and finished fifth 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 weekend.

Brad Keselowski -
Last week at Bristol was nothing short of a disappointment for Keselowski and the No. 2 Penske Racing team. Keselowski led 67 laps and had a Top-5 machine, but ran into problems and finished 23rd. However, there's good reason to believe that the poor finish at Bristol can be erased by a Top 10 at Richmond International Raceway. In this event one year ago it was Keselowski qualifying 15th and racing his way through the field to finish a strong runner-up in the Toyota Owners 400. He now has three Top 10s and two 11th-place finishes in his last five trips to RIR. In addition, Keselowski has well over 100 laps led during that span. We should see a hungry and fast No. 2 Ford team this Saturday evening in the Toyota Owners 400.

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 Top-5 finishes at Phoenix and Martinsville, the driver of the No. 78 Toyota had a letdown at Bristol last week, but he should be on the rebound trail at Richmond. Truex has led close to 400 laps in his last three Richmond outings, but has somehow come away without the wins. On the bright side, he's netted Top-10 finishes in three of his last four starts at this historic short track. That has boosted his career average to a 33-percent Top-10 rate at RIR. The No. 78 Toyota should once again be fast on the Richmond oval, and Truex will be racing among the leaders.

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

Kurt Busch -
The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has been a career-long Richmond performer. In 34-career starts Busch has nabbed 15 Top-10 finishes (44-percent) and he's claimed two victories, the last coming in 2015. The driver of the No. 41 Ford rides a four-race Richmond Top-10 streak into this weekend's action, so the current trend line has been very good. Busch was very fast at Bristol this past week, capturing the outside pole, but he ended up being a non-factor in the Food City 500. We're willing to bet he doesn't spoil a good race car two weeks in a row. We look for Busch to slot somewhere between sixth- and 10th-place in Saturday night's 400-lap battle under the lights.

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 the comeback trail and getting over his slow start to the season. The driver of the No.48 Chevrolet hasn't finished outside 11th-place in his last seven Richmond starts, and that includes five Top-10 finishes. Times have been tough for the Hendrick Motorsports star, but Richmond is a comfort race track for the seven-time champion. Johnson's chances of winning are slim, but he should be good for a Top-10 finish for the second consecutive week.

Aric Almirola -
One of the best kept secrets of the young season has been Almirola and his surging Stewart Haas Racing No. 10 team. The new SHR driver has kicked off 2018 in great style. With three Top 10s in the first eight events, Almirola comes into Richmond a surprising 11th in the championship standings. A big part of that success has been the short tracks. Seventh-, 14th- and sixth-place efforts at Phoenix, Martinsville and Bristol have helped the veteran driver to the good start. Richmond has always been a steady track for Almirola. With four Top 10s in 12 starts and a respectable 16.2 average finish, RIR ranks as one of his better short tracks on the circuit. In this event one year ago Almirola peddled to a ninth-place finish for his former team.

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 18 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 seventh in this event one year ago. The Richard Childress Racing driver rides a good level of performance at the three-quarter mile oval into this weekend's race. His best tracks thus far in 2018 have been the circuit's short tracks, with 11th-, 19th- and 10th-place finishes at Phoenix, Martinsville and Bristol. Newman sports a 56-percent career Top-10 rate at this oval and strong 11.8 average finish. That makes the RCR veteran a steady fantasy racing play in this 400-lap event.

Daniel Suarez -
Things have been a bit uneven to start the season for the Joe Gibbs Racing youngster, but Suarez has had some high points on the short tracks. Eighth-, 18th- and 11th-place have been his body of work at Phoenix, Martinsville and Bristol. That's a bit better than the No. 19 team's performance on the larger ovals this season. Suarez should be happy to see Richmond. He collected 12th- and seventh-place finishes in his first two-career starts at this oval last season. Suarez is fresh off a good run at Bristol last weekend, and will be looking to build some momentum in the Toyota Owners 400. Given his recent short-track performance and his efforts at this oval last season, we have to recommend a start for Suarez this Saturday night.

Alex Bowman -
After a slow start to the season, Bowman has really picked it up of late. Top-10 finishes at Martinsville and Bristol have propelled the No. 88 team to 13th in the driver point standings. The short tracks have been way better venues for this driver and team than the larger ovals. Bowman has four prior Richmond starts, with results not worth mentioning since they came long ago and for teams lesser than his current team. This fantasy pick doesn't rely on historical averages or past performance, but rather is a projection of current performance. Bowman is on the rise, and don't let a start for the No. 88 team at Richmond deter deployment.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Kasey Kahne -
With Kahne's impressive Richmond stats, one might be tempted to deploy him in fantasy racing lineups this weekend, but we would recommend otherwise. His one victory and 10 Richmond Top 10s came largely earlier in his career. This season has been a pure struggle on the short tracks for Kahne and his new race team. Two finishes outside the Top 20 and one outside the Top 30 have been his body of work on the one-mile and smaller ovals this season. The No. 95 Chevrolet simply hasn't looked up to speed. Kahne finished 22nd in this event one year ago, and that mark would figure to be about the ceiling right now for this driver and team.

Chase Elliott -
While his Richmond numbers aren't awful, they do fall well short of this driver and team's expectations. Elliott's five-career starts at RIR have only netted one Top-10 finish and three finishes outside the Top 15. The No. 24 team has been slow to start the 2018 season and their mysterious lack of speed at Bristol this past week is concerning. Elliott got into trouble and labored to a 29th-place finish in the Food City 500. He'll look to regroup at Richmond, but realistically we have to acknowledge he's only cracking the Top 10 at a lowly 38-percent so far this season. It would seem that this won't be the week that Elliott turns things around. Continue to keep him benched for now.

Ryan Blaney -
The Penske 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 16th-, third- and 35th-place on the one-mile and smaller tracks water down what would otherwise be an awesome season. Richmond International Raceway has also been a struggle during Blaney's brief Cup Series career. His four-career starts at Richmond have only netted one Top-20 finish. The driver of the No. 12 Ford is without question a talented driver, but the young Blaney still has a lot to learn about wheeling these cars around small ovals.

Jamie McMurray -
McMurray's slow start to the season has been hard to figure. His teammate, Kyle Larson, seems to be shaking off the early season slump, but McMurray has not so far. His lone Top-10 finish in the first eight races has him ranked 22nd in the driver standings coming into Richmond. This track has held some recent success for the Chip Ganassi Racing veteran, but we would still caution over expectations this weekend. Finishes of 26th-, 26th- and 19th-place have come on some of his better short tracks this early season. Most fantasy racing players will look at his good, recent Richmond numbers this week, but we recommend not falling into that trap.

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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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