Weekly Preview: The Chase Comes to Richmond

Weekly Preview: The Chase Comes to Richmond

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

We head to Richmond, Va., and Richmond Raceway this weekend for the second race in the Chase for the Cup playoffs.  During the earlier years of the Chase era, this had been the track where NASCAR ended its regular season, and determined the field for the Chase.  However, the schedule got a shakeup a few seasons ago, and now this exciting night race on the historic short track plays host to the second race of 10 that determines the NASCAR Cup Series champion.  

The urgency and the heated competition will be different this weekend.  Instead of trying to make it across the cutline for the playoffs, drivers will instead be trying to make it past the cut of the first round of the Chase.  This Richmond race will have a different feel, but all the same importance as the past.  Drivers will be going all out to grab that valuable win that transfers them into the Round of 12 of the Chase playoffs.  As we saw at Darlington this past weekend, drivers are taking chances at this point in the season that they have not up until this point.  That will make for higher stakes, more contact, harder racing and when we put that under the lights at Richmond Raceway, we're sure to be thrilled by what we see take place. 

Since Richmond's oval is a short track with its own group of dominant drivers, let's take a quick look at the recent history of this facility and see who

We head to Richmond, Va., and Richmond Raceway this weekend for the second race in the Chase for the Cup playoffs.  During the earlier years of the Chase era, this had been the track where NASCAR ended its regular season, and determined the field for the Chase.  However, the schedule got a shakeup a few seasons ago, and now this exciting night race on the historic short track plays host to the second race of 10 that determines the NASCAR Cup Series champion.  

The urgency and the heated competition will be different this weekend.  Instead of trying to make it across the cutline for the playoffs, drivers will instead be trying to make it past the cut of the first round of the Chase.  This Richmond race will have a different feel, but all the same importance as the past.  Drivers will be going all out to grab that valuable win that transfers them into the Round of 12 of the Chase playoffs.  As we saw at Darlington this past weekend, drivers are taking chances at this point in the season that they have not up until this point.  That will make for higher stakes, more contact, harder racing and when we put that under the lights at Richmond Raceway, we're sure to be thrilled by what we see take place. 

Since Richmond's oval is a short track with its own group of dominant drivers, let's take a quick look at the recent history of this facility and see who will be running up front this weekend.  The short tracks usually produce familiar names when it comes to driver efficiency, so some of these drivers should look familiar as compared to New Hampshire which was run just a few weeks ago.  The urgency to advance in the Chase will have an impact on performances, but we still expect the short track aces to have the best outings at Richmond.  Here are the loop stats for the last 32 races at Richmond Raceway.

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Kyle Busch6.89398801,48911,079110.1
Kevin Harvick8.41,0118691,13311,934109.8
Denny Hamlin9.07699311,9119,819107.8
Brad Keselowski12.36995861,1777,288100.5
Kurt Busch13.98465538028,70993.8
Joey Logano10.55562674285,97093.4
Martin Truex Jr.16.97175871,1257,99993.3
Christopher Bell9.58720057591.1
Kyle Larson12.233983733,64587.6
Ryan Newman13.39441841298,62786.2
Chase Elliott12.131554362,89985.9
Aric Almirola15.13579213,13378.2
William Byron16.31432901,23177.5
Austin Dillon17.1320104562,64176.3
Tyler Reddick15.5775043173.8
Erik Jones15.91503801,38072.1
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.19.029616721,72970.5
Daniel Suarez14.91744901,28969.5
Alex Bowman21.615264111,39965.5
Cole Custer21.0425033064.0

This is the second visit of the 2021 season at Richmond International Raceway.  If we look back to the race earlier this year, we get very good vibes for the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team and Hamlin.  The star driver led over 200 laps at Richmond's short track and while he didn't win, Hamlin did finish runner-up in the Toyota Owners 400.  Coming off his first victory of the season last Sunday at Darlington, Hamlin will be glad to see Richmond next up in the schedule.  Alex Bowman out-maneuvered Hamlin in April for that win, so there will be some special attention on the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet this weekend as well.  In addition, there were several suitors who challenged Bowman for that Richmond win earlier this season.  Chief among them were Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr.  Both are trying to step up their performance in the playoffs, so the return to Richmond will be welcome for both those drivers.  We'll highlight them, along with other short track specialists and give you the drivers you need to dominate your fantasy league this weekend at Richmond Raceway for the Salute to American Heroes 400.

The Contenders – Drivers in the hunt for the win

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin is coming to Richmond at the right time and surging coming off his first win of the season last Sunday at Darlington.  It's taken the driver of the No. 11 Toyota a long time to reach victory lane this season, but he's peaking at the right time.  He is a three-time Richmond winner, and he sports a strong 48-percent Top-5 rate at the ¾-mile oval.  With over 1,900 laps led at Richmond, Hamlin is quite comfortable with racing at this historic short track.  Earlier this season the Joe Gibbs Racing star nabbed a brilliant runner-up finish at Richmond Raceway.  Hamlin has always loved racing at this small oval, and he's a major threat to win Saturday night's Salute to American Heroes 400. 

Kyle Larson – Although Larson is not one of the top performing Richmond drivers, he has to be viewed as a threat to win anywhere the series races right now.  His runner-up performance at Darlington Raceway last weekend is a prime example.  While Richmond isn't his best short track, Larson is a one-time winner here (2017) and he has shown other flashes of brilliance in recent Richmond races.  The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet finished runner-up at this facility as well in 2016.  While the career averages leave something to be desired, they may serve to temper most fantasy racing players' expectations.  Don't be fooled by those stats.  Larson faces his best opportunity to win a championship in his Cup Series career, and he'll race like that at Richmond Raceway.    

Martin Truex Jr. – Coming off the strong performance (Top-5) at Darlington, Truex is heating up as we enter the Chase.  The driver of the No. 19 Toyota swept both Richmond races in 2019, and he's led a whopping 1,000+ laps at this short track since 2016.  Truex rides a strong five-race Richmond Top-5 streak into this weekend's action, that includes his 107 laps led and fifth-place at the track in April of this year.  His recent Richmond hot streak has boosted Truex's career Top-10 rate at the track to a more respectable 43-percent.  The way Truex has raced this oval in recent seasons, he has to be viewed as a potential contender for Saturday night's Salute to American Heroes 400. 

Joey Logano – The Penske Racing star rebounded from some recent tough luck to post a hard-earned eighth-place finish at Darlington this past weekend.  That's a good sign coming to one of his better short tracks this week.  Logano is quite skilled at racing at Richmond as his stats bear out.  The driver of the No. 22 Ford has two runner-up finishes and two-career victories at the Virginia short track.  The career marks check in at impressive 46- and 58-percent Top-5 and Top-10 rates respectively.  Three of Logano's last four starts at Richmond Raceway have netted Top-3 finishes along with 196 combined laps led.  He and his Penske Racing team are pretty dialed-in at this historic short track. 

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

Kyle Busch – Richmond Raceway is statistically Busch's best short track on the circuit.  The Joe Gibbs Racing star has six-career victories and a whopping 18 Top-5 finishes at the Virginia short track.  The driver of the No. 18 Toyota clearly knows how to run up front at Richmond, and the numbers bear this out.  His 18 Top-5 finishes check in at a stellar 58-percent rate for the star of this Toyota racing camp.  Busch swept this oval in 2018, and he rides an eight-race Richmond Top-10 streak into Saturday night's 400-mile battle.  He may not be the top threat to win the Salute to American Heroes 400, but he'll surely be a face among the Top 5 at the end of the night.

Kevin Harvick – The Stewart Haas Racing star showed a lot of potential at Darlington this past weekend.  Harvick wasn't the most dominant driver on track, but he led 20 laps and finished fifth-place in the Cook Out Southern 500.  The urgency to win and advance in the Chase will be off the charts this weekend at Richmond.  The veteran driver turned things up a notch last week and he should continue to do so as the playoffs progress.  Harvick is just too good at this short track to ignore.  He is a three-time winner at the small oval, and Harvick has cracked the Top 10 in five of his last six Richmond starts.  Harvick also sports a strong 65-percent Top-10 rate at this facility.  The veteran driver has to feel very confident going into this 400-lap battle under the lights.

Alex Bowman – Bowman was the surprise winner when the NASCAR Cup Series visited here in April of this year.  The Hendrick Motorsports driver out-foxed the prime contenders and stole a victory in the closing laps of the Goodyear 400.  It will be long odds for Bowman to defend that victory, but he should be Top-10 material for this important playoff race.  The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet also won on the one-mile oval of Dover during the Summer.  More recently, Bowman navigated the one-mile oval in New Hampshire to the tune of a Top-10 finish.  He's been greatly improved on the short tracks this season.  Bowman's last two Richmond starts are a ninth-place and a victory, so he's warming up on this oval.  He's a driver to watch closely this Saturday night.     

Kurt Busch – Busch has hopes to keep his current momentum rolling in the Chase for the Cup.  He peddled the No. 1 Chevrolet to a strong sixth-place finish at Darlington last weekend, and has Top 10's in three of his last four starts leading up to this Saturday night.  The driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet has two-career victories, over 900 laps led and 15 Top-10 finishes at this historic Richmond oval.  Those numbers dovetail nicely with his current level of performance.  He's been one of the Top-5 performing drivers in the series the last 10 races.  Busch is digging his heels in for a potentially deep drive into this season's playoffs, and a good performance at Richmond will propel him to that goal.

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Richmond & solid upside

Brad Keselowski – The Penske Racing star righted the ship last week at Darlington with a steady seventh-place finish in the Cook Out Southern 500.  Keselowski will look to exploit his short track racing expertise in this 400-lap event to stay in playoff-advancing form.  The driver of the No. 2 Ford has fairly average career numbers at the Richmond oval, but he's been getting much sharper in recent appearances.  He won this event in 2020 for his second-career Richmond victory, and he's led over 300 laps in his last three starts at Richmond Raceway.  Keselowski has been inconsistent in recent weeks, but considering how well the No. 2 Ford team has performed on this oval in recent seasons, you can't count Keselowski out. 

Austin Dillon – Despite being outside the Chase playoff picture, Dillon soldiered to an impressive Top 10 at Darlington last weekend.  That's something to take note of before going to a track that has rewarded this driver and team of late.  Dillon's last two starts at Richmond Raceway have netted 56 laps led as well as fourth- and 10th-place finishes.  Crew chief Justin Alexander has helped Dillon figure this oval out and they're reaping the success.  The driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet now has four-career Top 10's at this challenging short track and they've all come in his last five starts.  Given this team's current level of performance and that recent Richmond success, we feel like Dillon has a very high potential for this Salute to American Heroes 400.      

Chase Elliott – Elliott does not have the kind of Richmond stats that inspire much confidence, so we're sliding him into the sleepers list for this Richmond race.  Only four of his 11-career starts at Richmond have netted Top 10's, but all three have come since the 2017 season.  Elliott finished 12th in April's Goodyear 400 and that's right on his career average at this oval of 12.0.  The driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet has not been a big lap leader at Richmond either with only 36 laps led in those 11-career starts.  The bottom line is that Elliott's playoff urgency will likely spur him to a Top-10 finish this weekend, but his lack of accomplishments at this short track are noteworthy and likely indicative not to expect huge things for this driver and team.    

Christopher Bell – The Joe Gibbs Racing youngster has just two Cup Series starts at Richmond Raceway.  However, they were strong 15th- and fourth-place finishes.  The moderately-banked short track is definitely to Bell's liking.  The driver of the No. 20 Toyota absolutely tore this place apart in his three-season Xfinity Series career.  Bell racked up three victories, 457 laps led and a microscopic 5.0 average finish in five starts at this facility.  To say that this young driver loves racing at this short track would be a huge understatement.  Bell is looking to kick start his playoff performance up a notch after last weekend's 20th-place Darlington finish.  This will prove to be the perfect track for him to turn up the heat.      

Tyler Reddick – Reddick had a subpar start to his Chase for the Cup with an 18th-place finish at Darlington last week.  The young driver should rebound sharply with his start at Richmond Raceway this Saturday night.  Reddick is still in the early stages of building his resume at this oval, but in two events he's been a decent 15.5 average Richmond finisher to this point.  The driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet has been one of the more consistent performers of the last several weeks with five Top-10 and seven Top-15 finishes in his last 10 events.  The 13.0 average finish across his recent span stands out upon examination.  Reddick will surely be a Top-15 finisher this Saturday night and potentially challenge the Top 10. 

Aric Almirola – Almirola hasn't been very productive outside of his shocking win at Loudon, New Hampshire during the Summer.  He's been plagued by inconsistency most of the season, but we believe Richmond is an opportunity for him to have an uptick weekend.  Almirola will admit that Richmond Raceway isn't one of his better ovals, but recent visits have been promising with three Top 10's in his last five starts.  The veteran driver finished eighth-place in this event one year ago and Almirola finished a strong sixth in April's Goodyear 400.  The driver of the No. 10 Ford has been warming up to Richmond Raceway of late and he should be one of the surprise finishers in Saturday night's 400-lap short track battle.

Slow Down – Drivers to avoid this week

Ryan Blaney – The driver of the No. 12 Penske Racing Ford had been on fire but last Sunday night's Darlington race cooled him off quite a bit.  Blaney ran into some trouble and finished a disappointing 22nd-place in the Cook Out Southern 500.  The young driver's Richmond Raceway resume shows 10-career starts and only one Top-15 finish.  Blaney has not gotten much traction at this ¾-mile oval in his first five seasons of Cup Series racing.  Blaney's 23.4 average finish at this Virginia short track ranks as one of his worst ovals on the circuit.  This young driver and team could prove us wrong Saturday night, but Blaney appears to be one of the top drivers to avoid this weekend.

Erik Jones – You know times are tough when you suffer an untimely engine failure at one of your favorite tracks.  That's exactly what happened to Jones last Sunday at Darlington.  Unfortunately, things won't be any easier this week as Jones has a tough Richmond history to overcome.  Richmond Raceway has been stingy with this young driver to this point in his career.  Jones has just one Top-10 finish in eight starts at the Virginia short track and a 20.1 average finish.  That's pretty close to where he finished here in his last two starts (22nd- and 19th-place).  Short tracks in 2021 have been pretty lean for the No. 43 Chevrolet team, so it's a very questionable decision to deploy this driver and team in fantasy leagues this week. 

Michael McDowell – This season's Daytona 500 hero has, unfortunately, fallen on very hard times of late.  McDowell's crash and DNF at Darlington this past Sunday is just the latest bump in the road.  He's now DNF'd in three of the last four events and hasn't cracked the Top 20 since June.  The downfall and slump have been pretty breathtaking for a veteran driver and team that started the 2021 season on fire.  McDowell faces another stiff test at Richmond Raceway.  In 20-career starts he has no Top-10 finishes and just one Top-15 finish for an inflated 31.9 career average finish.  McDowell's laundry list of issues at this track are long and tumultuous.  He's definitely a driver to avoid in weekly lineup and salary cap leagues this week. 

Bubba Wallace – The driver of the No. 23 Toyota has been an up-and-down performer most of the Summer.  Despite Top-5 finishes at Pocono and Daytona, Wallace has also been outside the Top 20 a number of times of late, including this past Sunday night at Darlington.  Based on his recent performance, it may be a weekend to fade the 23XI Racing driver.  Wallace has six-career Cup Series starts at Richmond Raceway and just one Top-15 finish in those efforts.  His last two starts at the Virginia short track were a pair of 26th-place finishes in this event one year ago and this Spring.  The career average Richmond finish of 23.8 isn't very inspiring.  In fact, this is one of Wallace's worst short tracks in his resume.  

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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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