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Toyota Owners 400 Preview: Saturday Night Spectacle

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 return to short track action as we head to Richmond this weekend. 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 in NASCAR circles as "racing perfection." Based on what we've witnessed over the years, who could argue that point? When you take into account the parity we've seen in the Sprint Cup Series thus far this season, we could be in for one of the most entertaining races to this point in 2014.

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 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 nine years or 18 races at Richmond International Raceway.

Denny Hamlin8.94115841,3905,361114.8
Kyle Busch7.25335299316,271111.9
Kevin Harvick8.76134588986,617110.0
Clint Bowyer10.14851833485,140100.7
Tony Stewart8.74622763294,75596.5
Jeff Gordon15.34363437104,51896.0
Kurt Busch15.84283643404,33892.2
Ryan Newman11.25501081005,41991.6
Carl Edwards14.24292914884,27690.1
Jimmie Johnson16.83982742933,99088.5
Kasey Kahne17.14333412814,08886.8
Jeff Burton15.545892754,60885.5
Dale Earnhardt Jr.16.84143232193,76985.4
Matt Kenseth16.64121352254.09084.7
Greg Biffle16.2337167633,66581.5
Brad Keselowski20.12211081421,92981.1
Martin Truex Jr.22.6363136483,53480.8
Jamie McMurray22.527269252,64373.7
Joey Logano17.81503501,13272.9
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.13.0454014371.6

Richmond has turned into a track of manufacturer parity the last couple seasons. Ford, Toyota and Chevrolet have won each of the last three races at the historic Virginia oval. The shake-up effectively ended Toyota's three-year run of dominance at RIR, specifically the teams of Joe Gibbs Racing. Kyle Busch and Hamlin have combined to win six races at the oval. If you add JGR relative new-comer Matt Kenseth to the equation, the stable has three drivers with seven wins total. With well over 2,500 laps led among the trio, you still have to like the Gibbs camp to reassert themselves this Saturday night. The biggest challenger to Joe Gibbs Racing at RIR could likely come from none other than Kevin Harvick. The Stewart Haas Racing star claimed his second victory of the season at Darlington before the Easter off-week, and he's clearly surging coming to Richmond. Harvick is a three-time winner at the three-quarter-mile oval and he won this event one year ago in his farewell tour with Richard Childress Racing. Aside from Harvick, 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 the 2012 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. As far as Ford is concerned, Carl Edwards was our last Richmond winner for this camp. He took the checkers in last September's Federated Auto Parts 400. He out-battled fellow Ford driver, Brad Keselowski, who also had a fast car that evening. These two drivers could easily jump up and claim the trophy in Saturday night's Toyota Owners 400. 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

Kevin Harvick -
The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has led well over 900 laps for his career at Richmond International Raceway. Harvick has captured three victories at the small Virginia oval, with two of those coming in the last five events there. That high level of performance in recent races gives us high confidence in the No. 4 Chevrolet team going into this weekend's Toyota Owners 400. Considering that Harvick won this event one year ago, you can't rule anything out for him this Saturday night. Harvick claimed the win at the small oval in Phoenix earlier this season, and he's fresh off the victory at Darlington in our last race. He's the top contender at the Richmond oval for this race.

Kyle Busch -
The star of the Joe Gibbs Racing stable is the statistical leader at Richmond International Raceway. Busch owns a staggering 67-percent Top 5 rate at the short track in 18 career starts. He has led 931 laps in the last nine years at the three-quarter-mile oval and has captured wins in four of the last 10 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 Busch has one pole position and 95 laps led in the last two short track events of this season, shows that he's performing at a high level on these style ovals coming into 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 has the talent to break through and snap this winless streak at Richmond at any time. The driver of the No.48 Chevrolet has gotten off to a good start on the circuit's short tracks this season. Johnson owns sixth- and second-place finishes at Phoenix and Martinsville in 2014. The runner-up finish at Martinsville also yielded close to 300 laps led for the Hendrick Motorsports star. Johnson should be on his "A" game this weekend at the Virginia oval.

Joey Logano -
Logano doesn't have the eye-popping Richmond stats of our other contenders, two Top-5 finishes in 10 career starts. However, this young Penske Racing driver is really coming of age in 2014. He's redefining his stats on these short tracks and setting new personal bests. Logano has over 100 laps led and a pair of Top-5 finishes at the short tracks of Phoenix and Martinsville this season. He comes to Richmond looking to continue to redefine his expectations at this three-quarter-mile oval. The driver of the No. 22 Ford finished a career-best third in this event one year ago, and we'll believe he'll have a shot at bettering that mark this Saturday night. It wouldn't surprise us at all to see the young driver pull into victory lane at RIR.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning

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 56-percent Top-10 rate at Richmond International Raceway and in this event one year ago he brought home a strong runner-up finish in the Toyota Owners 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 72 laps before bad luck saddled him with a 25th-place finish. We expect Bowyer to come to Richmond this weekend looking to complete some unfinished business.

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth gets the short track upgrade again this week, much like he did at Martinsville a few weeks ago. The veteran driver should once again take advantage of the speed, handling and horsepower that his JGR Toyota will provide. Kenseth's historical numbers at Richmond are nothing to write home about, but the numbers have been turning to the positive side since moving to Joe Gibbs Racing. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota rides a three-race Richmond Top-10 streak into Saturday night's 400-lap battle. In this race one year ago Kenseth won the pole, and led 140 laps before finishing a solid seventh.

Carl Edwards -
Edwards is still searching for that follow-up victory after the big Bristol win. 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, one victory, 488 laps led and 10 Top 10s for his career at Richmond International Raceway. In the Sprint Cup Series last visit to RIR, Edwards out-battled Kurt Busch and a handful of other drivers to claim his first career Richmond win in the Federated Auto Parts 400.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
With Earnhardt racing and finishing in the Top 10 almost every weekend, the No. 88 team is really in Chase form. The Hendrick Motorsports star comes to Richmond this weekend riding fourth 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 battled hard and finished 10th in this race one year ago. That was his 12th career Top 10 at Richmond International Raceway. With Top-5 finishes in three of his last four short track starts, there should be little concern over the No. 88 team's performance this weekend at Richmond.

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

Denny Hamlin -
Few drivers in the field can match Hamlin's excellence at this three-quarter-mile short track. Hamlin is a two-time Richmond winner and he sports a ridiculous 47-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, because this Joe Gibbs Racing star has had some performance issues of late. The disappointing 19th-place finish at Martinsville and 19th-place finish at Darlington in his last start are a bit concerning heading into this weekend. Hopefully, the off-week helped the No. 11 Toyota team to refocus and reset.

Tony Stewart -
Smoke is a three-time winner at Richmond International Raceway, so we have to pay close attention to the No. 14 team for this week's race at the three-quarter-mile oval. Entering this event Stewart is racing pretty well. He's picked up four Top 10s in the first eight races and sits a steady 13th-place in the championship standings. His Richmond resume shows a driver that cracks the Top 10 at a strong 66-percent rate. The owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet also checks in at a strong 38-percent Top-5 rate. With close to 1,000 laps led for his career at the Virginia short track, Stewart has ample experience and excellence at Richmond.

Jeff Gordon -
The No. 24 Chevrolet team has been pretty steady this season on the short tracks. Gordon has finishes of fifth-, seventh- and 12th-place in the three events on ovals a mile or less this season. That's very encouraging heading to Richmond International Raceway. The Hendrick Motorsports veteran has a long and colorful resume at RIR. One that offers two wins, six poles, 16 Top 5s and 26 Top 10s. Gordon qualified captured the pole position, led 49 laps and finished eighth 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 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 14 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 4 laps and finish a surprising third in last September's Federated Auto Parts 400. The Richard Childress Racing driver rides a good level of performance at the three-quarter-mile oval into this Saturday night's race. Newman has cracked the Top 10 in three of his last five Richmond starts.

Kurt Busch -
The last time we saw Busch in action on a short track, he was upsetting the top names in the series and claiming the surprising win at Martinsville Speedway. The Stewart Haas Racing veteran will be challenged to equal that task this weekend, but he's a top Richmond performer regardless. Three of his last five starts at the Richmond short track have netted Top-10 finishes. His two starts here in 2013 for former team, Furniture Row Racing, led to a combined 109 laps led and ninth- and second-place finishes. Busch is surely grinning ear-to-ear anticipating this start at America's Premier Short Track.

Aric Almirola -
The Richard Petty Motorsports driver has been absolutely dynamite on the circuit's short tracks this season. With finishes of 15th-, third- and eighth-place at Phoenix, Bristol and Martinsville, Almirola has gotten off to the best start of his career on these small ovals in 2014. Almirola will be making his fifth career Richmond start this Saturday night. In his prior four starts, he has one Top-10 finish and it came in this event one year ago. In the fall of 2013 he returned to RIR and claimed a respectable 20th-place finish. The way the No. 43 Ford team is racing right now, there's no reason to expect less than a Top-15 finish from Almirola in the Toyota Owners 400.

A.J. Allmendinger -
The steady performances for Allmendinger should continue at Richmond this Saturday night. He's coming off three Top-15 finishes in his last four events, and he's racing well entering the Toyota Owners 400. Allmendinger has finishes of 16th-, 14th- and 15th-place in his last three trips to the three-quarter-mile oval. With a strong 11th-place finish in our last short track race at Martinsville Speedway, the JTG Daugherty Racing driver is looking good on these small ovals. Allmendinger has finished on the lead lap of his last nine Richmond races, and that's the kind of security you're looking for at the end of your fantasy racing lineup.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Martin Truex Jr. -
Despite picking up a strong seventh-place finish in his last Richmond start, we have to suggest leaving Truex on the bench this week. The struggling Furniture Row Racing driver has only three Top 10s in 16 career starts at Richmond for a lowly 19-percent rate. Truex has yet to crack the Top 10 this year with his new team through the first eight races, so chemistry has been slow to build in the No. 78 team. With only one Top-20 finish in his last five races, we have to consider that this is a struggling driver visiting one of his least performance-driven tracks in the Sprint Cup Series.

Brad Keselowski -
Keselowski has been great in his first five seasons of action at NASCAR's top level, but he still has his tracks where he struggles. The Penske Racing star has done just that at Richmond International Raceway. In nine career starts he has only two Top-20 finishes, and that's despite close to 150 laps led. He registered 33rd- and 17th-place finishes at RIR last season, so even this far into his career Keselowski is still struggling to solve the three-quarter-mile oval. With no Top-0 finishes in his last five races entering this weekend, we have to suggest staying clear of the No. 2 Penske Racing team this week.

Danica Patrick -
While the Stewart Haas Racing driver has shown some improvement through the first eight races of the season, it's not come easy on the short tracks. Patrick has finishes of 36th-, 18th- and 32nd- at ovals one-mile or less in length. Her two career Richmond starts were pretty forgettable with 29th- and 30th-place finishes last season. While Patrick was running at the end of those races, she did finish four laps down to the leaders in both events. The variables are just not very good for the SHR No. 10 team this weekend, so it's best to pass on Patrick at Richmond.

Kasey Kahne -
Kahne has been less than dazzling to start the 2014 season. Eight races in and he has only two Top-10 finishes and sits a lowly 23rd in the overall driver standings. After a crash and DNF in the team's last start at Darlington, it's just clear that luck is not on Kahne's side right now. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet's Richmond resume is less than reassuring. Kahne has only seven Top-10 finishes in 20 career starts (35-percent). Only one of his last five trips to RIR has netted a Top-10 result. All indicators point to a finish somewhere around his career average of 18.0 at this facility. That's well short of our expectations for this driver and team.