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Richmond 400 Preview: Short-Track Shootout

Mark Taylor

Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A four-time FSWA award winner, Taylor was named the 2016 Racing Writer of the Year. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

The Sprint Cup Series will go back short track racing this weekend at Richmond. The small Virginia oval hosts this Saturday night's Richmond 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 bucket fulls. 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. 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 Sprint Cup Series tour. When you move all this excitement under the lights and put it on prime-time television, then it just adds to the viewing enjoyment.

As we take a brief look back on the recent short track events at Bristol, Martinsville and Phoenix for some 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 seven years or 14 races at Richmond International Raceway.

Denny Hamlin7.63465061,1884,437117.6
Kyle Busch5.04254628594,892114.8
Kevin Harvick8.34584078825,161112.6
Jeff Gordon16.63482956593,82398.5
Clint Bowyer10.537589753,67296.3
Tony Stewart8.83791991963,93095.4
Ryan Newman11.442273834,53293.0
Kurt Busch15.53652752313,48092.7
Mark Martin12.023115263,38091.5
Jimmie Johnson16.63091872903,02588.6
Carl Edwards15.83301792363,23486.4
Jeff Burton15.633479683,48985.6
Kasey Kahne18.22982582783,00485.0
Greg Biffle15.5259131632,96282.8
Dale Earnhardt Jr.18.82872651522,54982.6
Juan Pablo Montoya21.530861282,21781.1
Matt Kenseth19.326775802,64879.0
Martin Truex Jr.24.326192412,42978.0
Joey Logano16.510431073474.5
David Reutimann21.2203561041,61373.7

Richmond has fallen into the clutches of Toyota the last few seasons, specifically to the teams of Joe Gibbs Racing. Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin have combined to win five of the last six races at the three-quarter-mile oval. The duo have led 1,250 of the 2,400 laps run at Richmond International Raceway the last three seasons, and totally dominated the field for all five victories. A pattern within this dominance has also emerged. Busch appears to be the spring specialist at RIR with his teammate Hamlin the more dominant of the two in the fall installment at this facility. Considering that Hamlin is riding more momentum than Busch into this weekend, that pattern could be in for an inversion for Saturday night's Richmond 400. The biggest challenger to Joe Gibbs dominance at RIR would likely come from none other than Jimmie Johnson. The five-time champion had won three of the four events at Richmond prior to the Gibbs' winning streak. With the No. 48 team inching closer to victory lane each weekend, this could be the event where Johnson breaks through for his first win of the season. The following is our preview of the fantasy racing drivers, who can lift your team to victory for this 400-lap event at Richmond International Raceway.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Denny Hamlin -
Coming off the big win at Kansas Speedway, his second of the season, the Joe Gibbs Racing star has a ton of momentum coming to one of his favorite tracks this week. He and new crew chief Darian Grubb have things pretty well figured out and are about the business of challenging for the championship this season. Hamlin has led close to 600 laps and captured two of the last five wins at this small oval. He's led 1,188 laps for his career at RIR and sports an amazing 50 percent Top-5 rate at the track. The statistics are simply too good to ignore and the trend line is pointing straight up with the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota team.

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 he solidly cracked the Top 10 in three of his last four starts at this facility. The No. 48 team posted a brilliant third-place starting spot in last September's Wonderful Pistachios 400, led 38 laps early on, but was caught up in a wreck mid-race to ruin a potential Top 5 run in our last Richmond outing. The Hendrick Motorsports star has been narrowly missing winner's circle the last several races, so this could be the weekend where all the parts fall into place.

Kevin Harvick -
The Richard Childress Racing veteran has led well over 900 laps for his career at Richmond International Raceway. Harvick has captured one pole, two wins and 12 Top-10 finishes in his last 14 starts at the small Virginia oval. That type of excellence fills us with confidence for a fantasy racing start in the Richmond 400. Considering that the No. 29 team was our last Richmond winner (fall 2011), Harvick has to be very confident heading into Saturday night's short track brawl. The way Harvick has performed at this three-quarter-mile oval the last few seasons, you can't rule him out for a shot at the checkers.

Martin Truex Jr. -
After dominating this past weekend's race at Kansas and racing with the leaders each week to start the season, we have to view Truex as that driver that is outside the "Richmond specialists" who could jump up and spoil this weekend. The Michael Waltrip Racing star is having a truly impressive season thus far and narrowly missed winning this past weekend at Kansas Speedway. His career Richmond numbers are not that impressive, but neither were his Kansas stats and you can see how well the No. 56 team performed this past week.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
With Earnhardt racing and finishing in the Top 10 most every weekend, the No. 88 team is starting to finally realize their potential. The Hendrick Motorsports star comes to Richmond this weekend riding fourth overall in the driver standings and racing the best that he has in years. The NASCAR icon loves racing at Richmond. He's a three-time winner at the track, and as recently as 2006. Earnhardt has led laps at RIR but struggled with finishes since moving to Hendrick Motorsports, but we feel that will change this Saturday night. Considering how well he raced at Martinsville a few weeks ago, we should be treated with another brilliant performance at Richmond.

Kyle Busch -
The star of the Joe Gibbs Racing stable is the statistical leader at Richmond International Raceway. Busch owns a staggering 79 percent Top 5 rate at the short track in 14 career starts. He has led 859 laps in the last seven years at the three-quarter-mile oval and has captured wins in three of the last six races at the track. Considering each of those victories came in this spring event at the Virginia bullring, optimism has to be very high for this Saturday night. The only thing that is preventing Busch and his No. 18 Toyota team from being listed in the contenders list this week is their recent consistency issues. That is a bit of a downgrade, but we can't stress enough the tremendous upside of Busch at Richmond.

Jeff Gordon -
The No. 24 team nearly hit pay dirt in our last short track race at Martinsville. Gordon led over 300 laps but was robbed of the victory by some last-lap shenanigans. The differences in the two ovals aren't enough to endorse the legendary driver for the win this weekend, but good enough to give serious fantasy racing consideration. The Hendrick Motorsports veteran has a long and colorful resume at RIR. One that offers two wins, five poles, 15 Top 5s and 24 Top 10s. Gordon led seven laps and finished third at the Richmond oval last September. He should crack the Top 10 at RIR like he does two-thirds of the time when he starts here.

Ryan Newman -
As Newman tries to shake off a recent mini-slump that has seen him fail to crack the Top 10 in the last two races, we have to hold out optimism for the No. 39 team this weekend. Newman is a one-time Richmond winner and he has 12 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 eighth in last September's Wonderful Pistachios 400. Still, the Stewart Haas Racing veteran chalked up a win at Martinsville and 12th-place finish at Bristol earlier this season, so this team is a proven competitor on these smaller ovals in 2012.

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

Clint Bowyer -
The one-time Richmond winner is looking to continue building on the No. 15 Toyota team's good start to the season that they're riding coming to central Virginia this weekend. Bowyer sports a 50 percent Top 10 rate at Richmond International Raceway and in this event one year ago he brought home a solid sixth-place finish after leading 18 laps in the Crown Royal 400. Bowyer likes this three-quarter-mile oval and it shows in his spotless statistics. He should be able to transfer this high level of performance over to his new Michael Waltrip Racing team.

Juan Pablo Montoya -
After winning the pole and leading 25 laps in this event one year ago and returning in the fall to crack the Top 15 at RIR, we have to take a serious look at the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing star. Montoya has seemingly figured out this three-quarter-mile oval in the last couple seasons. Considering how well the No. 42 team performed the last couple weeks at Fort Worth and Kansas with 16th- and 12th-place finishes, we sense Montoya starting to hit his stride with new crew chief Chris Heroy. When the lights go on and the engines fire up this Saturday night, we expect the EGR star to get his game face on for the Richmond 400.

Kurt Busch -
As Busch continues to build chemistry with his new No. 51 Phoenix Racing team, we look forward to him visiting some of his favorite tracks. The urgency to finish well is really driving this team right now, as evidenced in their pair of Top 20s at Texas and Kansas. While Richmond hasn't been a dazzling track for Busch throughout his career, he has posted good performances there recently. His last visit to the three-quarter-mile oval last fall netted a fifth-place finish with his old Penske Racing team. We're willing to bet the former champion continues to build chemistry with his new team this Saturday night.

Mark Martin -
Martin had been living a charmed life recently, until his engine failure this past weekend at Kansas. The No. 55 team has been giving the veteran driver awesome cars of late, and Martin has been putting them in and around the Top 10 most weeks. Hopefully that shouldn't change this weekend. Despite having only one victory at RIR, he has a 54 percent Top 10 rate at the track for his career. Considering that Martin has cracked the Top 10 in three of his six starts this season, we should see a steady performance in this 400-mile event at the Richmond short track.

A.J. Allmendinger -
Allmendinger has been a useful fantasy racing driver in most leagues this year, with special emphasis in weekly lineup leagues. He enters this weekend 23rd in the driver standings and improving each week. Allmendinger is fresh off the pole position and 44 laps led at Kansas before a engine failure ruined his day. So it's clear that he and the No. 22 Dodge team are beginning to get acquainted. The new Penske Racing driver has posted finishes of eighth-, seventh- and 11th-place in his last three trips to the central Virginia oval. Allmendinger should pick up a Top-15 finish at Richmond International Raceway.

Aric Almirola -
The new Richard Petty Motorsports driver has one Top-10 finish this season and it came on another Virginia short track, Martinsville Speedway, a few weeks ago. Almirola has never made a Sprint Cup start at Richmond International Raceway, but he will get his first crack this Saturday night. The driver of the No. 43 Ford has five Nationwide (16.4 average finish, one Top 10) starts at this three-quarter-mile oval so Almirola is not unfamiliar with the racing grooves at RIR. Considering that his best performances (12th-, 19th- and eighth-place) have come on the three short tracks this season, we have high expectations for Almirola at Richmond.

Marcos Ambrose -
Ambrose has been a tough-luck driver this season, but we know his luck will change at some point, and likely this weekend at RIR. The driver of the No. 9 Ford will be making his seventh career Richmond start this weekend. Two of those six prior starts have yielded Top-10 finishes. His respectable average finish of 15.2 at this short track grabs our attention immediately. Considering how well Ambrose was racing at Phoenix to start the season, there may be something to this three-quarter- to one-mile ovals for this driver. We like Ambrose to challenge the Top 15 in the Richmond 400 on Saturday night.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Paul Menard -
It's difficult to put the No. 27 Chevrolet team in the flops list this week considering how well Menard has raced this season. Menard enters this week's race 13th in the driver standings with three Top-10 finishes on the season. The Richard Childress Racing driver simply struggles at this short track. He has no Top 10s in 10 career starts at RIR, and five of those efforts have resulted in finishes outside the Top 30. Keep Menard on the bench this week and deploy him later on in the schedule at Talladega and Charlotte to better effect.

Regan Smith -
The Furniture Row Racing driver finally seemed to get some momentum going at Martinsville a few weeks ago. Smith brought home a 16th-place finish in the Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500 and posted his fourth Top 20 of the season. However, the last two races have seen the No. 78 team finish 23rd- and 24th- respectively at the Texas and Kansas ovals. Richmond ranks as one of Smith's weakest tracks on the circuit. He has only two Top-20 finishes in seven career starts at this small oval and that works out to a subpar 24.9 average finish at this facility. Smith will flirt with the Top 20 in the Richmond 400, but history says he's much more likely to finish outside the Top 25.

Tony Stewart -
Despite being a three-time winner at Richmond International Raceway, we have to downgrade Stewart for this week's race at the three-quarter-mile oval. Entering this event Stewart is inexplicably struggling. He's failed to crack the Top 10 in his last two starts and looked completely uncompetitive in the last race at Kansas. Three of his last five trips to the Richmond oval have resulted in finishes outside the Top 10. Stewart may be good enough for a token Top 20 at RIR this weekend, but that's not what we expect out of an "A" list driver like Smoke.

Jeff Burton -
Burton once displayed some competitive racing ability at Richmond earlier in his Sprint Cup Series career. In 35 starts at the Virginia short track the veteran driver has one win and 15 Top-10 finishes. Since moving to Richard Childress Racing in 2004, Burton has cooled at the Virginia short track. Burton has only four Top 10s in 15 starts with current boss Richard Childress at RIR. Considering that the No. 31 Chevy team is struggling entering this event, no Top 20s in the last four races, it's better to keep Burton on the bench this Saturday night.