Toyota Owners 400 Preview: Racing Perfection

Toyota Owners 400 Preview: Racing Perfection

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

The NASCAR Cup Series will continue short-track racing this weekend as we head to Richmond.  The small Virginia oval plays host to this Sunday's Toyota Owners 400.  Richmond 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, 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 NASCAR Cup Series tour.  It will be hard to top that just-completed Martinsville race, but when you take into account the parity we've seen in the NASCAR Cup Series thus far this season, we could be in for one of the most

The NASCAR Cup Series will continue short-track racing this weekend as we head to Richmond.  The small Virginia oval plays host to this Sunday's Toyota Owners 400.  Richmond 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, 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 NASCAR Cup Series tour.  It will be hard to top that just-completed Martinsville race, but when you take into account the parity we've seen in the NASCAR Cup Series thus far this season, we could be in for one of the most entertaining races to this point in 2021.

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 ¾-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 15 years or 31 races at Richmond Raceway.

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Kyle Busch6.88878691,48810,691110.6
Kevin Harvick7.99728581,13311,559110.3
Denny Hamlin9.37428421,7049,419106.8
Brad Keselowski12.26575751,1526,914100.9
Kurt Busch13.98065268028,46894.2
Martin Truex Jr.17.36795131,0187,60092.2
Joey Logano10.85262353795,57292.2
Kyle Larson11.833573733,61289.2
Ryan Newman12.79941841298,62587.3
Chase Elliott12.126754362,59886.3
Aric Almirola15.63119212,82577.5
Tyler Reddick11.0414023876.5
Austin Dillon17.6265103552,25275.4
Erik Jones15.41453801,37974.5
Christopher Bell15.0239018573.7
William Byron18.28223083872.5
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.19.126914921,66970.6
Daniel Suarez14.71484801,13869.7
Cole Custer20.0414032869.1
Ryan Blaney24.91283501,00460.6

This event one year ago was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  NASCAR opted to race a double header at Darlington Raceway to make up for the loss of the Spring Richmond event.  We would have to wait until mid-September for the Federated Auto Parts 400 to see NASCAR's top division racing at Richmond Raceway.  It would be the one and only event at the Virginia short track in the pandemic-affected 2020 season. 

The Federated Auto Parts 400 would see Brad Keselowski dominate the event and lead 192 laps of the 400 raced.  The Penske Racing star would hold off Martin Truex Jr. by just over 1.5-seconds at the checkered flag and capture the win in this mostly-green raced event.  It was the driver of the No. 2 Ford's second-career victory at Richmond Raceway, and the win for Ford snapped a four-race Toyota win streak at Richmond.  Truex had won the prior two Richmond races and was just foiled in the three-peat bid by Keselowski.  We'll see if Ford and Penske Racing can hold onto their grip of this oval this weekend, or if Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota can rally back into victory lane at the ¾-mile track.  The following drivers will give you an edge in your fantasy racing leagues, and hold the keys to success at Richmond Raceway for the Toyota Owners 400. 

The Contenders – Drivers in the hunt for the win

Martin Truex Jr. – The Joe Gibbs Racing star is the first multi-race winner of the 2021 season.  His big victory this past week at Martinsville was his second of the campaign.  This week he travels to another short track where's he's been dominant in recent outings.  Truex has led close to 600 laps in his last five Richmond outings and has come away with victories in two of those starts.  In fact, he rides a four-race Top-3 streak at Richmond Raceway into Sunday afternoon's action.  The driver of the No. 19 Toyota finished runner-up at this three-quarter-mile oval last September, and Truex should once again be one of the top contenders to win the Toyota Owners 400.      

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin's three-career wins and 1,700+ laps led at this facility will drive some fantasy players to invest in the No. 11 Toyota team this week.  For that reason alone, you have to consider giving a start to the Joe Gibbs Racing star.  He's been a Top-5 machine to this point in 2021, but has yet to find victory lane.  That could change Sunday at the Richmond short track.  Hamlin's 13 Top 5s at Richmond Raceway check in at a strong 46-percent rate.  In his last eight starts alone, he's cracked the Top 5 six times.  That 75-percent Top-5 rate is well above his career average at this facility.  That level of excellence makes Hamlin a threat to win this Sunday afternoon. 

Joey Logano – Logano doesn't have the eye-popping Richmond stats of some other NASCAR Cup Series stars with just two wins and 10 Top-5 finishes in 23-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 in 2017, and has finished inside the Top 3 in three Richmond events since that victory.  He has become one of the top performers at this short track of the last few years.  It wouldn't surprise us at all to see Logano pull into victory lane at Richmond Raceway in this 400-lap battle.

Brad Keselowski – Last week at Martinsville was nothing short of a disappointment for Keselowski and the No. 2 Penske Racing team.  Keselowski had a Top-10 machine, but ran into problems and finished 33rd-place.  However, there's good reason to believe that the poor finish at Martinsville can be erased by a run for the checkered flag at Richmond Raceway.  Last September, in the series' last visit to Richmond, Keselowski led a dominating 192 laps and claimed victory in the Federated Auto Parts 400.  He is now a two-time winner at the Richmond short track and owns 12 Top-10 finishes there.  The No. 2 Penske Racing team has been giving Keselowski good cars this season, and he's grabbed three Top-5 finishes so far.  We like Keselowski as a low end contender for this event. 

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

Chase Elliott – Elliott has been pretty good, though not spectacular on the short tracks this season.  He peddled to a Top-5 finish at Richmond, a Top-10 finish on the Bristol dirt and a brilliant runner-up finish at Martinsville this past week.  The trend line is definitely headed in the right direction.  Richmond Raceway has been pretty good recently to the driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet.  Elliott boasts three Top-5 finishes in his last five Richmond starts, including a runner-up finish in this event in 2018.  While we don't expect him to be quite that fast and good this weekend, Elliott should be good enough to battle hard and crack the Top 5 in this 400-lap Richmond race.

Kyle Larson – The Hendrick Motorsports star is off to a great start this season and is fresh off a Top-5 finish at Martinsville this past weekend.  Larson stands a lofty fourth-place in the driver point standings as we enter the Toyota Owners 400.  Richmond Raceway has held a decent amount of success for the driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet.  Larson is a one-time Richmond winner (2017) and he boats a sound 41-percent Top-10 rate at this Virginia short track.  In his last start at this facility, Larson peddled to an impressive sixth-place finish in the 2019 installment of the Federated Auto Parts 400.  This will be his first Cup Series start at Richmond in about 1-1/2 years, but that's of little concern.  The No. 5 team is piling up the Top-5 and Top-10 finishes right now.

Kevin Harvick – The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has led over a 1,100 laps for his career at Richmond 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 rides a five race Richmond Top-10 streak into this week's action, you can't rule anything out for him this Sunday afternoon.  The veteran driver hasn't quite hit his stride in 2021, but Harvick does have Top 10s in two of his last three races entering this weekend.  He's one of the top Ford drivers at the Richmond oval for this 400-lap battle.

Kyle Busch – The No. 18 Toyota team has yet to catch fire this season, but Busch and his new crew chief have been fighting hard to post Top 10s most weeks.  Busch is coming off a hard-fought 10th-place finish at Martinsville, and that's pretty much the state of things at the moment.  He will look to up the ante a bit this week at Richmond, where he's won six times in his Cup Series career.  When we last saw the Joe Gibbs Racing star in action at America's premier short track, he finished sixth-place in last fall's Federated Auto Parts 400.  That was one of 23-career Top 10s (77-percent) for Busch at Richmond.  Busch rides a six-race Richmond Top-10 streak into Sunday's Toyota Owners 400, and that is very reassuring. 

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Richmond & solid upside

Austin Dillon – The Richard Childress Racing veteran has been pretty much a Top-15 driver each week of this season, and that trend should continue in the Toyota Owners 400.  Richmond Raceway was a track of struggles for the driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet for several seasons.  However, Dillon seemed to figure things out here in 2018.  In his last five starts at the Richmond short track, he's earned three Top-10 and four Top-15 finishes.  Those efforts were punctuated by his career-best fourth-place finish in last September's Federated Auto Parts 400.  If you're looking for a lower tier driver with a lot of potential and upside this week, Dillon is your man.  

Christopher Bell – The Joe Gibbs Racing youngster overcame his Bristol heartache with an impressive seventh-place rebound performance at Martinsville last weekend.  It showed the young driver is resilient and still poised to have a huge season.  Bell has been pretty dialed-in on the series' short tracks, and Richmond should keep with that trend.  This is just his second NASCAR Cup Series start at the oval, but Bell cracked the Top 15 in his debut here last September.  He was zeroed in like a laser during his Xfinity Series career racing at Richmond, claiming a staggering three victories in just five starts.  With over 450 laps led in that division of NASCAR at Richmond, you could draw the conclusion that he really likes this short track.    

Tyler Reddick – Reddick is in pretty much the same position as Christopher Bell this week.  He's coming off a solid Top-10 run at Martinsville Speedway this past Sunday, and he forged an impressive 11th-place Richmond finish in his Cup Series debut here last September.  The No. 8 Chevrolet team's current momentum helps to trump the lack of historical stats for Reddick at this oval.  While Reddick didn't have as much Xfinity Series success at the 3/4-mile Virginia short track as Bell, he did claim three Top 10s in five starts and post a strong 9.8 average finish for his career at this facility.  Reddick is in a good place right now, riding a two-race Top-10 streak into Sunday, and he should have little trouble extending that to three after the Toyota Owners 400. 

Matt DiBenedetto – The Wood Brothers Racing veteran peddled to a respectable 12th-place finish on the Martinsville short track last Sunday.  That's been the norm for the No. 21 Ford team of late.  DiBenedetto has been doing his part with Top-15 finishes in the last four events.  While he still has no Top 10s for the season, the team has been consistent and very steady.  It's just a matter of time before we see DiBenedetto post his first Top 10 of 2021.  Richmond Raceway will give him that opportunity.  His career-long numbers at this track are uninspiring, but since moving to better teams in 2019, DiBenedetto is trending in the right direction at this historic short track.  He has finishes of 14th- and 17th-place in his last two Richmond outings.  Those combined with his recent level of performance suggests he'll challenge the Top 10 in Sunday's 400-lap race.

Chris Buescher – This journeyman driver has been riding low on the fantasy racing radar of late, but he's not to be overlooked this weekend.  Buescher is coming off a three-race stretch of seventh-, 14th- and 13th-place leading up to Sunday's event at Richmond Raceway.  Crew chief Luke Lambert has been turning out some great cars and Buescher has been putting the team in great position to succeed.  The veteran driver has nine-career Cup Series starts at Richmond Raceway, but very little in the way of accomplishments to highlight.  His lone Top-20 finish in 2017 has done little to improve his 26.7 career average finish at this raceway.  We believe the Toyota Owners 400 will be different.  With an average finish of 15.9 so far for the 2021 campaign, we're convinced he'll challenge and likely crack the Top 15 this weekend.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – Things have been going pretty well of late for Stenhouse and the No. 47 Chevrolet team.  The veteran driver just completed a three-race stretch of 12th-, second- and 15th-place with the highlight being the runner-up finish on the Bristol dirt.  Stenhouse has been earning his paycheck well in 2021.  Now that our focus shifts to Richmond, we continue to endorse this driver and team for fantasy racing use.  Stenhouse has never been a world beater at the Richmond short track, but his last four starts have been steady results.  Finishes of 13th-, 16th-, 13th- and 18th-place have been his body of work since 2018.  He looks set to exceed those marks in Sunday's Toyota Owners 400.  Stenhouse's average finish over the last three events is a strong 9.7.  We believe the Richmond number falls somewhere in between recent outings and recent Richmond starts.  So expect this driver and team to be among the Top 15 in Sunday's 400-lap battle.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Ryan Blaney – The Penske Racing driver had a strong performance leading 157 laps at Martinsville this past week, but settled to a somewhat discouraging 11th-place finish in the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500.  Blaney will look to regroup and finish better this week at Richmond.  However, we believe he's a driver to fade just a bit this week.  Richmond Raceway has been a tough nut to crack for the young driver.  Blaney's nine-career Cup Series starts at this track have yet to yield a Top-10 finish.  In fact, his average finish stands at a lofty 24.8 which makes Richmond among one of Blaney's worst ovals on the NASCAR Cup circuit.  Blaney has the skill and team to buck this trend and prove us wrong Sunday, but we believe it's better to err to caution this week.

Alex Bowman – A driver with an equally poor Richmond resume to that of Ryan Blaney would be Bowman.  The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet also has nine-career Cup Series starts at Richmond Raceway, and he has just one Top-10 finish in those efforts.  The average finish across the career span stands at an inflated 23.8.  Short-track racing hasn't been too kind to the No. 48 team of late.  Bowman's 22nd-place finish on the Bristol dirt was followed by last week's crash and 34th-place finish at Martinsville.  We get the sense that Bowman can't wait to get back on the intermediate ovals at this point.  The Hendrick Motorsports veteran is a driver to keep on the fantasy racing bench this week for the Toyota Owners 400.

Aric Almirola – Almirola's season has been a truly puzzling piece of work.  The driver of the Stewart Haas Racing No. 10 Ford has yet to crack the Top 10 this season and comes to Richmond a distant 28th-place in the driver point standings.  The start to the 2021 season goes a bit beyond a little drought and is entering into some concerning territory.  After a lackluster 20th-place finish at Martinsville this past Sunday, there's little hope that Almirola will turn things around at Richmond.  With just six-career Top-10 finishes at this facility, the veteran driver has just a 35-percent Top-10 rate at Richmond. His career average finish of 15.5 at Richmond Raceway even seems like a tough mark to hit this Sunday for the No. 10 Ford team.  

Michael McDowell – This season's Daytona 500 winner has fallen into a bit of a rut of late.  McDowell has finishes of 19th-, 12th- and 31st-place the last three events, and he's looking to get his season back on track at the three-quarter-mile Richmond oval this Sunday.  McDowell has 19-career Cup Series starts at this track and only one Top-15 finish to his credit (2016).  The career average finish stands at a sky-high 32.2 thanks to many seasons of racing as a start-and-park driver at this oval.  However, his more recent outings at Richmond are just as discouraging.  Finishes of 36th-, 21st- and 25th-place have been McDowell's recent body of work at this Virginia short track.  It's best to pass on any thoughts of using McDowell and the No. 34 team this week in the Toyota Owners 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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