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Toyota Owners 400 Preview: Racing Perfection

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 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 Sprint Cup Series tour. When you move all this excitement under the lights and put it on prime-time television, you get what's often referred to as "racing perfection". Based on what we've witnessed over the years, who could argue that point. With the debut of the Gen-6 car this weekend at Richmond International Raceway, we're sure to see as entertaining a race as we've seen to this point in the season.

As we take a brief look back on the recent short track events at Bristol, Martinsville and Phoenix for some Gen-6 car 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 eight years or 16 races at Richmond International Raceway.

Denny Hamlin8.14005821,3905,221117.8
Kyle Busch5.44915088915,607113.9
Kevin Harvick9.15284228955,910111.1
Clint Bowyer9.64371201634,36598.5
Tony Stewart8.14402753294,57897.9
Jeff Gordon16.13813176614,05796.6
Mark Martin11.2314162354,09992.6
Ryan Newman11.449883965,03092.0
Jimmie Johnson15.73682322933,68090.4
Kurt Busch17.13713062313,53288.6
Carl Edwards15.53682444423,75188.4
Kasey Kahne17.03783232813,75087.8
Dale Earnhardt Jr.17.43573202193,33185.8
Jeff Burton16.037884683,90184.3
Greg Biffle15.3295149633,26382.3
Juan Pablo Montoya20.635163282,57480.7
Matt Kenseth17.936481803,29180.5
Martin Truex Jr.24.1306126482,96179.3
Brad Keselowski18.71656101,32076.8
Marcos Ambrose16.015333099272.5

Richmond has tipped to the Toyota side of the ledger the last few seasons, specifically to the teams of Joe Gibbs Racing. It's not clear at this point if Denny Hamlin will be able to race this weekend due to his recovery from a recent back injury, but we have to prepare just as if he is going to climb into the No. 11 Toyota this Saturday night. Kyle Busch and Hamlin have combined to win six of the last eight races at the three-quarter-mile oval. The duo have led 984 of the 2,400 laps run at Richmond International Raceway the last three seasons, and totally dominated the field for four of those six wins. 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 Busch is riding more momentum than Hamlin into this weekend, that pattern could hold true to form for Saturday night's Toyota Owners 400. The biggest challenger to Joe Gibbs dominance at RIR could likely come from none other than Carl Edwards. The Roush Fenway Racing star won the last time we went racing on a one-mile oval (Phoenix) and there are enough similarities between Phoenix and Richmond to get our senses tingling a bit. In this event one year ago, Edwards peddled the No. 99 Ford to 206 laps led and a Top-10 finish at RIR. With the No. 99 team inching closer to victory lane each weekend, this could be the event where Edwards breaks through for his second win of the season. Aside from Edwards, Clint Bowyer has shown in recent seasons that he can lead laps and win races at Richmond. He took the checkers here in the fall of last season with a convincing victory in the Federated Auto Parts 400. That was Bowyer's second career win at Richmond, so he's no stranger to victory lane here. 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

Kyle Busch -
The star of the Joe Gibbs Racing stable is the statistical leader at Richmond International Raceway. Busch owns a staggering 75 percent Top-5 rate at the short track in 16 career starts. He has led 891 laps in the last eight years at the three-quarter-mile oval and has captured wins in four of the last eight 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 fact that his JGR teammate Denny Hamlin may remain sidelined with a back injury for this one only bolsters his contender status in the Toyota Owners 400.

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 four of his last six starts at this facility. The No. 48 team has posted a runner-up finish and victory in two of this season's short track events to-date. The runner-up came at the similar oval in Phoenix and Johnson's victory came a few weeks ago in Martinsville. While the five-time champion may be a bit disadvantaged to the Toyota drivers this weekend, he'll be strong enough to challenge for the win.

Carl Edwards -
Edwards is still searching for that follow-up win to punctuate the Phoenix victory at the start of the season. This weekend the No. 99 Ford team will get another chance to prove themselves with a very anticipated start at Richmond. Edwards has quietly amassed some pretty impressive stats at the three-quarter-mile oval the last few seasons. The veteran driver has one pole position, 425 laps led, three Top 5s and five Top 10s in the last six events at Richmond International Raceway. How he's remained winless to this point at this short track is perplexing. Edwards certainly has had his share of laps at the front. Maybe this Saturday night is where all the pieces fall into place for the back-flipping Roush Fenway Racing star.

Clint Bowyer -
The two-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 57 percent Top 10 rate at Richmond International Raceway and in this event one year ago he brought home a solid seventh-place finish in the Capital City 400. Bowyer likes this three-quarter-mile oval and it shows in his spotless statistics. The last time the series visited RIR, the driver of the No. 15 Toyota led 88 laps and out-dueled Jeff Gordon to the win.

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

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth gets the Joe Gibbs Racing upgrade again this week, much like he did at Kansas this past week and we all saw how that ended. The veteran driver should once again take advantage of the speed, handling and horsepower that his Toyota will provide. Kenseth's historical numbers at Richmond are nothing to write home about, but he does boast one career win and a 39 percent Top 10 rate at the Virginia short track. The bottom line is that Kenseth should be in for one of his best RIR performances since his early years at Roush Fenway Racing.

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 13 Top-10 finishes in his last 16 starts at the small Virginia oval. That type of excellence fills us with confidence for a fantasy racing start in the Toyota Owners 400. Considering that the No. 29 team has won as recently as 2011, you can't rule anything out for the No. 29 Chevrolet team this weekend. Harvick peddled to a 10th-place finish here last September in the Federated Auto Parts 400. That performance brought him to an impressive 63 percent career Top 10 rate at the small oval.

Kasey Kahne -
Kahne has been a stud to this point in the season on the circuit's ovals of one mile or less. He sports one victory and two Top-5 finishes in those three races. Now that we're coming to Richmond, the No. 5 Chevrolet team should get a bump over their historical numbers at this facility. Still, Kahne does own one career win and seven Top-10 finishes at the central Virginia short track. The recent Bristol winner owns a pair of Top-5 finishes in the last two Richmond spring races, so this event in particular appeals to the Hendrick Motorsports star. Coming off the runner-up finish at Kansas, how can we not like the momentum of this driver and team?

Ryan Newman -
As Newman tries to shake off a poor start to the season on the circuit's short tracks, he gets a boost this Saturday night as we visit one of his favorite ovals. Newman is a one-time Richmond winner and he has 13 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 lead 13 laps and finish eighth in last September's Federated Auto Parts 400. The Stewart Haas Racing driver rides a good deal of momentum into RIR this weekend as he has cracked the Top 14 in four of the last five races.

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

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin will undoubtedly be the most-watched news story of the week. As of Monday the stories are already circulating that the Joe Gibbs Racing star has a 50-50 chance of racing this weekend at Richmond. If he does, then few other drivers in the field can compete with his excellence at this three-quarter-mile short track. Hamlin is a two-time Richmond winner and he sports a ridiculous 50 percent Top 5 rate at the small Virginia oval. With close to 1,400 laps led we're used to seeing him up front early and often at this facility. From a fantasy racing standpoint you probably want to hedge your bets this weekend, but have a backup ready in case Hamlin doesn't climb behind the wheel.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
With Earnhardt racing and finishing in the Top 10 almost every weekend, the No. 88 team is nearly in Chase form. The Hendrick Motorsports star comes to Richmond this weekend riding fifth overall in the driver standings and looking to get his short track groove on. The NASCAR icon loves racing at Richmond. He's a three-time winner at the track, and as recently as 2006. Earnhardt qualified 10th and finished second in this race one year ago. He returned in the fall and took the pole position, led 67 laps and finished 14th in the Federated Auto Parts 400. We could see a similar performance in this Saturday night's Toyota Owners 400.

Brad Keselowski -
Keselowski leads the series with seven Top-10 finishes in the first eight races of 2013. He comes to Richmond this weekend riding third in the overall standings. What the reigning Sprint Cup Series champion lacks in hardware at this small oval he makes up for with intangibles. Keselowski's two Richmond Top 10s look lonely in the big picture until you realize they both come in the 2012 season. He finished a workman-like ninth- and seventh-place at RIR last season. Considering that Keselowski posted Top 5s and Phoenix and Bristol and he narrowly missed the Top 5 at Martinsville, this team's short track performance is riding high.

Jeff Gordon -
The No. 24 team nearly hit pay dirt in our last short track race at Martinsville. Gordon finished a season-best third after mixing it up with the leaders all day long at the paperclip. 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, 16 Top 5s and 25 Top 10s. Gordon qualified second, led two laps and finished runner-up 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.

Brian Vickers -
The initial entry list shows Vickers in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Barring any late medical clearance by Denny Hamlin's doctors, this will be a Vickers start in the JGR car. If that's the case Vickers has tremendous upside in this one. The journeyman driver has eighth- and 11th-place finishes on ovals shorter than one-mile already this season. His recent Richmond resume is just as strong with a pair of Top 10s in his last four trips to the central Virginia race track. There's some calculated risk with this selection, but if Vickers races there's little doubt what he'll do with one of the series' best short track entries.

Jamie McMurray -
The No. 1 Earnhardt Ganassi team has caught fire. McMurray has three Top 10s in his last five events and he's racing as well as he did in 2010. He brings that hot streak to Richmond International Raceway this weekend for the Toyota Owners 400. RIR has been problematic over the years for the EGR driver, but indicators have been improving of late. McMurray has a pair of Top-15 finishes in his last three trips to the Richmond oval, and he's finished outside the Top 20 only once in his last six races there. He should up the ante this weekend riding the team's current wave of momentum. We look for McMurray to challenge that career-best Richmond finish of seventh-place.

A.J. Allmendinger -
The Allmendinger renaissance should continue at Richmond this Saturday night. He's working overtime to reestablish his Sprint Cup Series career, and that racing with urgency shows in the numbers. Allmendinger has finishes of 11th- and 13th-place already this season on the circuit's short tracks. His Richmond resume shows a pair of Top 10s in his last four trips to the three-quarter-mile oval and no finishes outside the Top 20 since the 2009 season. Allmendinger has been a real shot in the arm for this Phoenix Racing No. 51 team, and that should continue in the Toyota Owners 400.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Martin Truex Jr. -
After a couple strong weeks on the intermediate ovals, we have to give the downgrade to Truex this weekend. The MWR driver has two angles working against him this week at Richmond. For one, his transition to the Gen-6 car on the short tracks this season has been nothing short of disastrous. Phoenix, Bristol and Martinsville yielded finishes of 36th-, 12th- and 40th-place. When we couple that with Truex's career numbers at Richmond, we see red flags everywhere. The driver of the No. 56 Toyota only has two Top-10 finishes in 14 career starts at RIR. It's probably best to tuck Truex away this weekend and redeploy him on the larger ovals later in the season.

Joey Logano -
This driver has been more up-and-down than any in the series this season. Logano's last five races are a good example. Finishes of 17th-, third-, 23rd-, fifth- and 39th-place have done nothing to instill confidence in the No. 22 Penske Racing team. Logano's crash at Kansas this past week is just the latest in a series of shock waves to rock the young driver. To put this in perspective for this week, Richmond has held little success for Logano over the years. In eight starts he's picked up only one Top 10 and has finishes of 35th-, 24th- and 30th-place in his last three trips to RIR. Logano has been just surprising enough to prove us wrong this weekend, but we're willing to bet against him in the Toyota Owners 400.

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 six starts and looked completely uncompetitive in the last race at Kansas. His short track starts this season have been particularly troublesome, so the new generation stock car is clearly giving the No. 14 team fits. 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.

Juan Pablo Montoya -
Montoya's struggles were illustrated well at Kansas Speedway this past weekend. Even when the No. 42 team fields a good car, the finishes just don't materialize. Montoya took a car that was fast in all the practice sessions to a 27th-place finish at Kansas. He has only one Top-15 finish in the first eight races of 2013 and enters this event a lowly 27th in the championship standings. Richmond has been a place of struggles for this EGR driver. Montoya has a scant three Top 10s in 12 career trips to the three-quarter-mile oval.