Race Preview: Toyota Owners 400

NASCAR’s stretch of short-track racing has now brought the Cup Series to Richmond Raceway, the only ¾-mile track on the series’ circuit.

Richmond Raceway opened in 1946, just three years before the first NASCAR Cup Series season ran. The track hosted its first Cup Series race in 1953, which was won by Lee Petty on a ½-mile configuration of the track.

In 1988, the track was reconfigured into the .750-mile D-shaped oval, providing even more excitement. Richmond also hosted the last race of the regular season for the NASCAR Cup Series for a number of years before the second race date at the speedway was pushed back into the playoffs.

This year, Richmond’s first race marks the completion of the first quarter of the Cup Series season and will lead into the early summer stretch of chaos. Four of the six races that immediately follow Richmond come at Talladega, NASCAR’s biggest and perhaps most unpredictable track, Darlington, known as one of the hardest tracks in NASCAR, Circuit of the Americas, which we don’t know what to expect from since this will be the first race for NASCAR at the track, and Charlotte’s Coca-Cola 600, NASCAR’s longest race. These four races, with their unpredictable nature, make a win this weekend extremely valuable to teams, especially to those like Chris Buescher, Kurt Busch, Alex Bowman and others who are currently around the playoff cutline.

RACE AND TRACK STATS

Graphic by Joe Passero

Track: Richmond Raceway — Richmond, Virginia

Track Length: .750 miles

Race Length: 400 laps/300 miles

Pit Road Speed Limit: 40 mph

Defending Winner: Brad Keselowski*

Package: 750 horsepower, low downforce

First Race: 1953

First Winner: Lee Petty

Most Wins: Richard Petty, 13 wins (1961, April and September 1967, 1968, 1970, March and November 1971, February and September 1972, February and September 1973, February and September 1974, 1975)

Stage 1: 80 laps (ends on lap 80) 

Stage 2: 155 laps (ends on lap 235)

Final Stage: 165 laps (ends on lap 400)

*Because of the COVID-19 schedule realignment last season, Richmond Raceway only had one race, held in the fall, so while Keselowski isn’t the last person to have won a spring race at Richmond, he’s the speedway’s most recent winner.

FIVE TO KEEP YOUR EYES ON

Brad Keselowski

After being one of our picks for last week’s race at Martinsville, Keselowski had an underwhelming performance during the race. He finished 33rd in his first-ever DNF at the half-mile oval, not having the chance to show the strength he displayed at short tracks in 2020. Fortunately for the no. 2 team, they’ll have the chance to show that strength this weekend.

When the Cup Series last visited Richmond in the fall of 2020, Keselowski scored his second win at the track after leading 192 of the race’s 400 laps. The car he won in was so good that Keselowski drove it later on in the year and finished second to Chase Elliott at the championship-deciding event at Phoenix. Keselowski could join his teammates in the playoffs with a win this weekend, which would make Team Penske the first organization to get all of its drivers to victory lane in 2021.

Austin Dillon

Austin Dillon surprised many fans when he opened the 2020 playoffs with a pair of top-five finishes: a runner-up finish to Kevin Harvick at Darlington’s Southern 500 and a fourth-place finish after leading 55 laps at Richmond, where the series is heading this weekend. Dillon turned a lot of heads at the ¾-mile track, which isn’t regarded as his best. He only has 1 top-five and 3 top-10s in 13 starts at the track, and his first laps that he ever led at the track came during the last race!

With the promise and hope provided by that run, as well as the run Dillon had last weekend at Martinsville, where he ran in the top-10 before finishing 14th, could be an indication of success to come at short tracks. He wouldn’t be my winner pick for the race, but i wouldn’t write him off either.

Denny Hamlin

At this point, Denny Hamlin has made himself the easy week-in and week-out pick. With his third-place finish last week at Martinsville, Hamlin joined an elite group of former drivers to have seven or more top-five finishes through eight races. He became the eighth driver to accomplish the feat and the first since Rusty Wallace did it in 1993. He has a massive 76-point lead over second place in the championship standings heading into this weekend’s event at Richmond, a place he’s won at three times before with the most recent of his wins being in 2016. Hamlin has the speed, his team has the ability, but they just need to put that last piece of the puzzle in place to get back to victory lane. 

Kyle Busch

With six Richmond wins in the Cup Series, Kyle Busch is easily one of the best active drivers at the ¾-mile Virginia short track. Busch also has 18 top-fives and 23 top-10s in 30 starts at the track, which also puts him in the discussion of best-ever driver at Richmond in the Cup Series.

Busch’s 2021 campaign has been all over the place — 2 top-fives, 4 top-10s and a pair of finishes of 25th or worse. He had speed last week at Martinsville and ran at the front with teammates Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex, Jr. before severe damage forced him to fight through the field. He was able to fight his way back to a tenth-place finish, showing that the team has speed and determination. As one of Busch’s best tracks, Richmond would be a perfect place to get his first win of 2021 and to start building his way back to the top of the Cup Series standings.

Martin Truex, Jr.

Last weekend, Martin Truex, Jr. became the first repeat winner of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season, making his presence as a threat and an early championship contender known to his opponents. Prior to last weekend’s race, he had won two of the previous three races at Martinsville, a statistic that he also holds for Richmond Raceway. 

Truex’s two wins this season have come at Phoenix and Martinsville, two tracks where NASCAR has used the 750-horsepower/low downforce package that teams will use again this weekend. Those tracks also require brake management, another element of racing that Truex has proven himself to be very good at. When you add in the fact that he’s second in points and is virtually locked into the playoffs, there’s no reason that Truex can’t win his third race of the year, even if it takes gutsy strategic calls to get the job done.

BROADCAST INFORMATION

The Toyota Owners 400 will air live on Sunday, April 18 at 3 p.m. ET on FOX and MRN.

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