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 leave the road circuit and go short track racing this weekend as we head to Richmond. The small Virginia oval hosts this Sunday afternoon'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 120 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 Circuit of the Americas race, but when you take into account the parity we've seen in the NASCAR Cup Series thus far this season, we

The NASCAR Cup Series will leave the road circuit and go short track racing this weekend as we head to Richmond. The small Virginia oval hosts this Sunday afternoon'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 120 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 Circuit of the Americas 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 2023. 

As we take a brief look back on the only "short track" event thus far this season, 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 tracks we've examined this season. The loop stats in the table below cover the last 17 years or 35 races at Richmond Raceway.

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Kevin Harvick8.01,1889071,18813,039109.6
Denny Hamlin8.49431,0542,13510,995109.2
Kyle Busch7.01,1169211,52912,105109.0
Christopher Bell6.0242145731,57599.0
Brad Keselowski12.58546071,1778,32398.8
Martin Truex Jr.15.78716791,2859,12995.2
Joey Logano10.47323226517,17795.2
Chase Elliott11.1502103953,96889.9
Kyle Larson11.5502153924,74089.3
William Byron14.6276661222,09081.1
Aric Almirola15.049713613,92778.8
Austin Dillon16.2411120563,22475.1
Ryan Blaney20.2322751292,45672.4
Tyler Reddick17.814221087769.3
Erik Jones18.71774801,58768.5
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.19.832719481,80468.2
Chase Briscoe18.013012049668.1
Alex Bowman19.7269105112,11567.8
Daniel Suarez15.52236801,47666.8
AJ Allmendinger21.92857512,17064.5

This event one year ago we witnessed Denny Hamlin rise late and literally steal the victory away from William Byron. The Toyota Owners 400 would see Byron dominate a good portion of the event and lead 122 laps of the 400 raced. However, Hamlin would run him down in the closing laps and take the lead with 5 to go. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota would muscle his way past Byron and cruise to the checkered flag. It was Hamlin's fourth-career Richmond victory and first since 2016.

The NASCAR Cup Series would return to the Richmond short track in August of last year. It would be a sweet upset for Ford as Kevin Harvick would lead 55 laps late and pull away from Toyota drivers Christopher Bell and Hamlin to capture the win. It was part of a day of dominance for the Ford brand as Joey Logano would lead a whopping 222 laps and dominate most of the event before Harvick swept into victory lane. For the driver of the No. 4 Ford, it was his fourth-career win at Richmond Raceway. Harvick and Hamlin are both names to keep an eye on, they always bring their best to Richmond. What will we witness this weekend at Richmond Raceway? Current hot streaks will play a big part, but we have to like some of the veteran short track aces to have a leg up on the younger drivers. 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

William Byron – Simply stated, Byron is on fire right now. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet has two victories and three Top-5 finishes in his last four races. He's one of the early-season leaders in laps led with 268 total, including 28 just this past weekend at Circuit of the Americas. Byron has been the gold standard six races into the 2023 season. Richmond is another great opportunity for this driver and team to shine. They won a few weeks ago in Phoenix at the only track that remotely resembles a short track thus far in the schedule. Byron was also very strong in this event one year ago. The young Hendrick Motorsports driver would qualify on the outside pole, lead 122 laps and finish third in last year's Toyota Owners 400. Byron doesn't have strong career statistics at the Richmond oval, but he performed very well here last season in the Next-Gen car. 

Kevin Harvick – The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has led well over 1,200 laps for his career at Richmond Raceway. Harvick has captured four victories at the small Virginia oval, with his last coming in last August's Federated Auto Parts 400. 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 won and finished runner-up at Richmond last season, you can't rule anything out for him this Sunday afternoon. The veteran driver hasn't quite hit his stride just yet in 2023, but Harvick did peddle to 36 laps led and an impressive fifth-place finish at the small Phoenix oval a few weeks ago. That's a really good look for the driver of the No. 4 Ford heading to another one of his favorite short tracks at Richmond.

Kyle Larson – Larson has had some uneven luck thus far, but his best two starts have come on intermediate and small ovals. The Hendrick Motorsports star won the pole a Phoenix a few weeks ago and led a dominating 201 laps before finishing fourth-place in the United Rentals 500. Larson is a one-time Richmond winner (2017) and he's won two of the last three pole positions at the central Virginia track. He pedaled the No. 5 Chevrolet to a strong fifth-place finish in this event one year ago. Larson has never been a big lap-leader at this track, just 92 total laps led in 16 starts, but he always seems to find a way to rise late in these races and become a factor down the stretch. This is thanks mostly to long green-flag runs at Richmond Raceway and the strategy component to racing here.

Tyler Reddick – Speaking of strong starts to the season, we can't leave out Reddick and the No. 45 Toyota team in that conversation. With his victory this past week at COTA and three-race Top-5 streak coming to Richmond, this young driver is squarely on our radar screen heading in the Toyota Owners 400. While Reddick has yet to make a major impact in his first five Cup Series starts at Richmond Raceway (three Top-15 finishes, 17.8 average finish) he is likely poised for a career-best Richmond performance in Sunday's Toyota Owners 400. Reddick recently drove his 23XI Racing Toyota to an impressive third-place finish at the one-mile oval in Phoenix. That's a good short track look heading into Richmond. We like Reddick in all fantasy racing formats this Sunday afternoon. 

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

Alex Bowman – After six races it's pretty clear that Bowman and the No. 48 team have their act together. He's fresh off a strong third-place showing at Circuit of the Americas and now he returns to Virginia for some short track action. Bowman is a one-time Richmond winner (2021) and he's cracked the Top 10 in three of his last five starts at the track. His career-long numbers at Richmond aren't that great, but he's been very sharp here since the 2020 season. Bowman and the No. 48 team weren't overpowering recently at Phoenix, which is a comparable sized oval. However, he was a Top-10 finishers that afternoon in Arizona. With that being said, Bowman cannot be overlooked this weekend and will easily be a Top-10 finisher in the Toyota Owners 400.

Kyle Busch – The No. 8 Chevrolet team are off to a good start this season and are looking to stay on a roll at Richmond this Sunday. Busch is coming off an impressive runner-up finish at COTA this past week, and looking to build on it at one of his favorite short tracks. He will look to up the ante a bit this week at Richmond Raceway, where he's won six times in his NASCAR Cup Series career. When we last saw the Joe Gibbs Racing star in action at America's premier short track, he finished ninth-place in last August's Federated Auto Parts 400. That was one of 27-career Top 10's (79-percent) for Busch at Richmond. Busch rides a whopping 10-race Richmond Top-10 streak into Sunday's Toyota Owners 400, and that is very reassuring.  

Joey Logano – Logano doesn't have the eye-popping Richmond stats of some other NASCAR Cup Series stars with just two wins and 12 Top-5 finishes in 27-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 years. Logano won this event in 2017, and has finished inside the Top 10 in four of the last five Richmond races. He has become one of the top performers at this short track of the last few years. Logano was respectable and consistent in collecting an 11th-place finish at Phoenix recently. We believe he'll be even better at Richmond.

Christopher Bell – The Joe Gibbs Racing youngster has just five Cup Series starts at Richmond, however, they've been quite something. Bell has raced to three Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes in those five starts, and has a strong 6.0 average finish at the track across those efforts. Bell likes this place. Coming off an unfortunate crash and DNF at COTA this past Sunday, so it looks like the No. 20 Toyota team will be on the comeback trail this week in Virginia. In addition, Bell absolutely slayed this track in his Xfinity Series career. He nabbed three Xfinity Series victories at Richmond and four Top 10's in just five starts (5.0 average finish). Bell is a great fantasy racing play in weekly lineup and salary cap leagues this week.

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Richmond & solid upside

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin's start to the season has been a slow-starting affair. With just two Top-10 finishes and 13.2 average finish through six events, it's been a slow but not terrible start. However, he's just good enough at Richmond for this to be the rallying point in his early season. Hamlin's four-career victories and 2,100+ laps led at Richmond cannot be easily discounted. He won this event one year ago and he now sports a stunning 53-percent Top-5 rate at this facility. We've moved Hamlin to the sleepers list week to reflect the risk that he currently carries, but it's difficult to imagine the driver of the No. 11 Toyota having a bad race at Richmond considering he's only finished outside the Top 20 here five times in 32-career starts.

Ryan Blaney – The Penske Racing star used to absolutely hate this place, but it seems Blaney may be turning a corner at this ¾-mile oval. He grabbed a pole position with seventh- and 10th-place finishes at Richmond last season in the new generation stock car. Both were career-best marks at the track for the driver of the No. 12 Ford. Blaney has started this season reasonably well and rides into Virginia ninth in the overall driver standings after a subpar finish at COTA last Sunday. He recently finished runner-up at the small Phoenix oval and demonstrated that the team's short track program is in a good place right now. That could be a preview of Blaney's potential this weekend at Richmond. He could be poised for another career-best Richmond effort in Sunday's Toyota Owners 400.

Martin Truex Jr. – Truex has been a good hand on the short tracks for the past several seasons, and even though he's had a bit of a slow start to the season this should be an uptick weekend for the driver of the No. 19 Toyota. The veteran driver led 80 laps and finished a strong fourth-place in this event one year ago. Truex returned to Richmond last August and nabbed a strong follow-up finish of seventh-place. Those pair of Top 10's added to the 16 Richmond Top 10's that Truex now has for a respectable 49-percent Top-10 rate. The three-time Richmond winner enters this weekend on an amazing eight-race Richmond Top-10 streak. This could be the race that helps kick start Truex's spring performance.

Chris Buescher – The Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing veteran was very impressive in his two Richmond starts last season. Buescher would grab a Top-15 finish in this event one year ago, and then he'd return in August and nab a very impressive third-place finish in the Federated Auto Parts 400. The driver of the No. 17 Ford recently grabbed a Top-15 finish on the one-mile Phoenix oval, so the short track program of this team is on point right now. Buescher doesn't have career-long stats at Richmond Raceway, so don't get hung up on that in the analysis. He and his RFKR team are coming off a strong eighth-place finish at COTA this past Sunday and should ride that momentum right into Richmond.  

Brad Keselowski – Keselowski's Richmond Raceway history is quite the piece of work. He's a two-time winner at the oval, and has 12 Top-10 finishes (46-percent rate) across 26 starts. He's been less sharp in recent visits, but still a Top-15 finisher. In fact, Keselowski hasn't finished outside the Top 15 at Richmond since 2015. The average finish at the track across 13 years of competition is a razor sharp 12.4 for Keselowski. Coming off a frustrating performance at the road circuit in Austin, the No. 6 Ford team and Keselowski will be hungry to perform coming to Virginia. He's a Top-10 threat in the Toyota Owners 400 with the safety net of almost certainly being a Top-15 finisher.    

Josh Berry – Berry returns to the No. 9 Chevrolet again this week at Richmond Raceway after yielding to Jordan Taylor last week on the COTA road circuit. He finished a strong 10th-place at the Phoenix oval a few weeks ago and was a reasonable 18th-place at Atlanta before taking a week off at Circuit of the Americas. Berry will tap into the experience of the Hendrick No. 9 team for this race. The outfit has propelled Chase Elliott to six Top 10's at this facility, including his fifth-place finish last August in the Federated Auto Parts 400. That experience will be valuable for the rookie pilot. Berry has some Xfinity Series experience at Richmond Raceway, and he's earned a pair of Top 10's there in three-career starts.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Ross Chastain – Richmond Raceway hasn't been a great oval for Chastain during his Cup Series career. The Trackhouse Racing star has just one Top-10 finish in eight-career starts at the central Virginia oval. The average finish of 23.3 is way off what we'd consider to be worthy of a fantasy racing start this weekend. Despite his great season in 2023, Richmond was one of the few tracks where the driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet had very little success. Chastain slogged to 19th- and 18th-place finishes here last season and that despite leading 80 laps in the August event. His 24th-place finish at the similar-sized oval in Phoenix a few weeks ago is an unsettling preview of what could happen for this driver and team this weekend.

Aric Almirola – Almirola's woeful start to the season continued at COTA last week. The driver of the No. 10 Ford struggled to an uninspiring 30th-place finish last Sunday in Austin. He has just one Top-20 finish in the first six events of 2023 and comes to Richmond Raceway a lowly 29th-place in the driver standings. Things don't look very promising to turn around for the No. 10 Ford team and Almirola this weekend. While not terrible, Richmond is far from his favorite short track. With just eight Top-10 finishes in 21-career starts, the Top-10 rate checks in at a lowly 38-percent. Only one of his last three starts at Richmond Raceway have netted a Top-10 finish. Almirola is a struggling driver visiting one of his poorer short tracks on the circuit.

Daniel Suarez – Much like his Trackhouse Racing teammate, Ross Chastain, Suarez is a risky fantasy start at Richmond Raceway. His 11-career Richmond starts span across four different teams, but one thing remains the same no matter the team…the struggles. Suarez has just three Top-10 finishes in those starts for a very low 27-percent Top-10 rate and subpar 15.5 average finish. On the good news side, the driver of the No. 99 Chevrolet has never registered a DNF at Richmond Raceway, but he tends to get caught running mid-pack and finishing there in most events. Suarez registered 16th- and 19th-place finishes here last season in the new generation stock car, and that falls short of our expectations of this driver and team.   

Bubba Wallace – Wallace and the No. 23 Toyota team are struggling right now. The frustration was pretty clear on Wallace's face after crashing out in Austin at COTA last Sunday. He now has three DNF's on the season vs. just one Top-10 finish. He's slumped to 21st-place in the driver points due to his inconsistency to start the 2023 season. The 23XI Racing driver will hope to rebound at Richmond Raceway this Sunday, but he faces a tall order. Wallace has nine-career Cup Series starts at the Virginia short track and just two Top-15 finishes. The average finish of 23.8 leaves a lot to be desired for this young driver. Short tracks have typically been pretty decent ovals for Wallace, but Richmond Raceway has been the exception. He's a driver to avoid in weekly lineup leagues for 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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