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Complete Preview and Prediction for 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Richmond

Bob MargolisContributor IIApril 24, 2014

Complete Preview and Prediction for 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Richmond

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    Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    There is one thing that NASCAR fans and competitors agree on: Short track racing rules!

    And it doesn’t get any better than at the place they call “The Action Track,” Richmond International Speedway.

    Ask a Sprint Cup driver to describe the perfect race track and they’ll likely say, “That’s easy, it's Richmond.”

    Richmond’s three-quarter-mile speedway, located on the state fairgrounds in the capitol of Virginia, has produced many of the more memorable moments in NASCAR history. Most recently, it was the scene of one of NASCAR’s worst scandals, which some have called "Spingate," and it involved several Michael Waltrip Racing drivers and some bad acting.

    But that was then and this is now. The Sprint Cup Series is in the midst of one of its most dramatic and competitive seasons in more than a decade.

    A new emphasis on winning, the broadening of rules that allows for creativity along pit road, official supplier Goodyear’s weekly stress test involving its tires and ultra-quick speeds on Richmond’s bullring make for a potent mix this weekend. Who will ride off into the cool spring evening on Saturday as the winner of the Toyota Owners 400?

    *All quotes in this slideshow are taken from official team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.

Some Important Stuff You Should Know

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    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    Toyota Owners 400

    The Place: Richmond International Raceway

    The Date: Saturday, April 26

    The Time: 7 p.m. (ET)

    TV: Fox Network, 6:30 p.m. (ET)

    Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN), Sirius XM Ch. 90

    Distance: 300 miles (400 laps)

    Youngest Pole Winner: Brian Vickers (05/15/2004—20 years, 6 months, 21 days)

    Oldest Pole Winner: Mark Martin (04/28/2012—53 years, 3 months, 19 days)

    Youngest Winner: Richard Petty (04/23/1961—23 years, 9 months, 21 days)

    Oldest Winner: Harry Gant (09/07/1991—51 years, 7 months, 28 days)

    Races Won from Pole: 22

    Last Race Won from Pole: Kyle Busch (05/01/2010)

    Race Record: Dale Jarrett 109.047mph (09/06/1997)

    Qualifying Record: Jeff Gordon 130.599mph (09/07/2013)

    All-Time Race Winner (active): Kyle Busch (4)

    Weather for Richmond, Virginia

    Things to do in the Richmond Area

Storylines to Follow

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Pit Road Perfection

    A short track means a very tight pit road. Expect to see multiple caution flags during Saturday night's race, meaning pit road will get very busy, first with cars on the lead lap and then with those a lap or more down from the leaders.

    There’s always pressure for the over-the-wall pit crew to perform their "dance" quickly and without mistakes. At Richmond, the pressure will be higher than at most other tracks. One mistake on pit road and a team can recover; two would be disastrous. Also, watch for a lot of two-tire stops as crew chiefs gamble on track position. 

     

    Tired of talking about tires?

    Don't be, because tires will be an issue at nearly every track the Sprint Cup Series goes to this season. Why? Because crew chiefs like to underinflate and lean on their Goodyears in an effort to gain mechanical grip to make their car go faster.

    Look for right front tires to fail. Drivers hammer the brakes as they fly into the corners, making the front brake rotors glow at night. This heats up the entire wheel and causes the tires to melt near the wheel and fail. More than one driver will hit the wall coming out of either Turn 3 or 4 because of this.

    Hopefully it won't be your driver.

    Goodyear brings a new left and right tire combination to RIR this weekend. The right-side tire is one of Goodyear's multi-zone tread tires, which combines two distinct tread compounds on the same tire. The outboard 10 inches of tread surface (traction zone) is based off the compound that was run on the entire right-side tire at Richmond last season.

    The inboard two inches of tread surface (endurance zone) features a slightly tougher, more heat-resistant compound. Compared to what was run at Richmond last year, the new left-side tire features a compound change to give the cars more grip.

    This new tire combination is the result of a tire test last October 22-23.

     

    Short versus long

    There are generally a lot of cautions at Richmond. The most is 15, which has happened three times, with the last time being in 2011. You can count on having a caution sometime in the final 30 laps and, more than likely, closer to the finish.

    Having a car that’s good on long runs is OK for the middle part of the race, but when the hammer comes down with 30 laps to go or less, drivers will want their cars to still turn great in the corners and have some decent brakes so that it doesn't take five or more laps to be competitive.

    The driver who can achieve that will likely be up front for those final laps.

     

    Revenge

    If you’re a driver with a score to settle, Richmond’s short track is as good a place as any to resolve your issue.

    There are a few unresolved "issues" floating about in the Sprint Cup garage. If Kurt Busch isn’t too busy thinking about the Indy 500, he might remember this from Martinsville.

    And while it's not really revenge, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s Ford seems to often hit girlfriend Danica Patrick's Chevrolet during a race. It's happens because they're usually racing near each other. Let's see if it happens again. 

Drivers to Watch

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    Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

    Denny Hamlin

    Statistics say that Hamlin is the best driver at Richmond when you use wins, finishes, top-15 finishes, average running position while on lead lap and four other criteria to draw your conclusion. But stats are just that: stats. In reality, Hamlin's 2014 record says something else: He is 15th in points with no wins, one pole and one top-five finish. 

    Still, Richmond is his home track, which may be why he’s got two wins, two poles and seven top-fives there on his resume. You have to believe that Hamlin’s Darian Grubb-led FedEx team has this race circled on the calendar as theirs to lose.

     

    Jimmie Johnson

    You almost have to consider Johnson a threat to win at every track the Sprint Cup Series visits. It wasn’t that way at Richmond until recently—2007, to be exact. Richmond was one of his worst tracks, in fact, with only one top-10 in 10 races from 2002-2007. Now it’s one of Johnson's best, as he has two poles, three wins and five top-fives.

    The No. 48 team enters strange territory this weekend, as it comes to Richmond winless this far for the first time in two years. Expect crew chief Chad Knaus to have his team focused on turning that situation around from the moment the race car is rolled off the trailer and its wheels hit the ground at RIR.

    "Even though we haven’t won, it's still a confidence booster that we are running well," said Johnson in a media release. "The off-weekend was great for everyone, especially my guys, to recharge their batteries so we will be ready to roll at Richmond."

     

    Jeff Gordon

    Watch Jeff Gordon the next time he’s being interviewed on television. He’s not a particularly happy guy at the race track right now. That’s because while his race cars are fast and he’s driving better than ever, his team still hasn’t won a race.

    The frustration may show on his face, but as a veteran, he knows how to use it to his advantage and drive away from Richmond Saturday night with the winner’s trophy.

    The four-time Cup champion has six poles, two wins and a whopping 16 top-fives at Richmond.

     

    Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    Junior knows this place well, with three wins, one pole and nine top-fives. 

    “I’m excited to get to the track and in the car for practice and see where we are at,” he said in a pre-race release. “On Saturday, everybody's going to be hunting for the bottom line. The guys that get through the middle, can keep that left-front working that line, are going to have good runs. If you get off the bottom, it's just so slick, you can't really make any ground up there.”

    Yeah, he knows this place well. If he’s got a good car Saturday, watch out.

     

    Tony Stewart

    Richmond is a special place for Stewart, who won there in his first full year as a Cup driver (1999). Ever since then, he’s rarely had a bad race at RIR.

    Stewart says the key to winning here is to race the racetrack. 

    “It just seems like a place where if you can get the balance right it makes it an extremely fun day,” he said. “With the two ends of the track being different like they are, it seems like you’re always fighting something, but that’s what always makes the racing good, too. 

    “You never really get anybody who gets their car perfect. Even the guy that gets the lead still isn’t happy with his car.”

    Stewart has three wins and 11 top-fives at the track.

     

    Kyle Busch

    Saving the best for last.

    Four wins, one pole and 12 top-fives. Busch’s mastery of Richmond International Raceway dates back to the spring race of 2009.

    He says the keys to a win here are brakes and handling.

    “The consensus of Richmond is of course just trying to get your car to turn, but yet having really good forward bite,” said Busch in a pre-race release.  “You have to be able to get off the corners at Richmond. You have to have good brakes as well, too, and be able to turn the center.”

Quick Picks

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    Jeff Curry/Getty Images

    Kevin Harvick

    Last time we saw Harvick, he was showering in Budweiser after winning the Southern 500 two weeks ago. He has three wins and seven top-fives at Richmond and is this race’s defending winner.

    Wait a minute! Could he become our first three-time winner this season?

     

    Matt Kenseth

    While it's not considered one of the Wisconsin native’s better tracks, Kenseth cut his teeth racing on short tracks and is always a threat to win at Richmond. One win, one pole and a big 12 top-10s. This team is looking for its first win of 2014 and is very hungry.

     

    Carl Edwards

    Edwards' win here last fall is the only time he's won this race. Prior to that, he had one pole and 10 top-10s. But one win may not be enough. As Kenny Bruce of NASCAR.com says, "The positions (in the Chase) are filling up quickly. And there are plenty of capable teams still waiting in the wings." 

    This Jimmy Fennig-led squad is always in the hunt for another one.

     

    Clint Bowyer

    Newlywed Bowyer has two wins at Richmond and would love for fans to forget all about last year’s Spingate with a victory on Saturday night. 

     

    Ryan Newman

    When it's all said and done, the driver of the No. 31 car always seems to come out of nowhere to be in the Chase. Newman has done just that three out of the last five years. He’ll need a win to do it again this year. He has one win and a pole at Richmond already, so he knows how to get it done.

Dark Horse

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    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Kasey Kahne

    Kahne won his first career Sprint Cup race at Richmond in 2005 after a thrilling late-race duel against Tony Stewart. But 2014 has been a tough season for Kahne, who was once considered one of the best in the business on short tracks. He’s scored only two top-10s (Las Vegas and Bristol—eighth) this season.

    Longtime crew chief Kenny Francis is also one of the best in the business.

    So what is wrong with this picture? This team has been the “forgotten team” at Hendrick Motorsports, as his more visible (and successful) teammates have received all the headlines.

    The No. 5 team’s best performance this season came on the short track at Bristol.

    Kahne has been a late starter in previous seasons, usually showing his strength around the All-Star race. He could show it this weekend, a little early.

A Historical Perspective

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    Dale Jarrett
    Dale JarrettCraig Jones/Getty Images

    Like most of NASCAR’s race tracks, Richmond International Raceway has a long and colorful history.

    • Originally opened in 1946 as a half-mile dirt track, it was part of what was then called the Atlantic Rural Exposition Fairgrounds.
    • In 1953, the legendary Lee Petty won the first NASCAR Grand National Division race. This was the forerunner of the Sprint Cup Series.
    • The track remained a half-mile long and dirt until 1988. It was lengthened to .750-miles.
    • Lights were installed in 1991, and since then, events have been held under the lights.
    • Richard Petty has the most wins (13)

     

    *Courtesy of official media guide

Qualifying Report

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    Kyle Larson
    Kyle LarsonUSA TODAY Sports

    Rookie Kyle Larson will start from the pole for Saturday night’s Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway.

    Rain showers hit the track just as the Nationwide Series qualifying session ended, bringing a temporary halt to activities at the .750-mile oval.

    Sprint Cup qualifying was scheduled for 5:10 p.m. ET, but Mother Nature would have none of it. The starting lineup was determined by drivers’ best times in the first practice, which was held in the morning.

    Larson expressed doubt over whether or not he would have gotten the pole had qualifying not been rained out.

    “I don’t know if we would have gotten it had it not rained,” said Larson during a media session after qualifying was canceled. “We worked all second practice on qualifying runs. We were seven tenths slower than our lap that we laid down in first practice and almost two and a half tenths slower than the fastest guy in second practice. I doubt we would have been on the pole, but I will take it how we get it.

    Larson’s lap time was 21.280 seconds, 126.880 mph. The driver with the best 10 consecutive lap average was Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    Joining Larson on the front row is Brad Keselowski, who resumes a string of front row starts that was interrupted two weeks ago at Darlington, where he started fifth. 

    Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne and Kevin Harvick round out the top five.

    Missing the race were No. 95 Michael McDowell and No. 77 Dave Blaney.

    The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' Toyota Owners 400 is scheduled for Saturday night at 7 p.m. ET with live TV broadcast on the Fox network.

And the Winner Is...

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    MIKE MCCARN

    Kyle Busch

    Look at the Sprint Cup results from the past several years at Richmond International Raceway (RIR), and you'll see that one name shows up more than the others: Kyle Busch.

    His four wins at RIR puts him at the top of an exclusive list of winners, with names such as Johnson, Gordon and Harvick among them. (There’s also his four wins and 11 top-fives in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, where he’s on a list all by himself)

    The rap on Busch has been twofold: He’s tough on equipment and he’s not mature yet.

    Both issues are solidly in the past, however. Busch has shown in 2014 that he has the moves of a veteran while on track and in maintaining his equipment throughout the race. Away from the track, he’s displayed the style of a driver who has matured, one who appears ready to responsibly and respectfully deal with a misunderstanding, especially one that may or may not have been self-inflicted.

    Might this finally be the year in which Busch closes the deal?

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