We’re back to Saturday night racing this week, as the Sprint Cup Series visits historic Richmond International Raceway for the first time in the 2012 season. Richmond is a 0.75-mile D-shaped race track that is comparable to Auto Club Speedway (in terms of banking) despite being less than half the length. 400 laps means we will be going 300 miles under the lights on Saturday.
Fact Of The Track: In the last five years at Richmond–ten total races–the pole winner has gone on to win the race 20% of the time. The average starting position of the race winners during that span has been 9.8, and the average finish of the pole winners has been 12.9.
During The Last Race At Richmond…Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards had the best cars all race and led a combined 315 laps out of the 400 ran that night. They finished 1st and 2nd, respectively. Jeff Gordon ended up 3rd with David Ragan and Kurt Busch rounding out the top 5.
Practice Schedule…I really don’t understand how the practice sessions are going to help the drivers this week, but I don’t own the track so I didn’t make the schedule. There are two practices on Friday at noon and 2:30 pm. Qualifying will then be held at 5:30 that night, and then the race is set to begin around 7:15 pm on Saturday, meaning the cars really won’t be on the track during race conditions in practice. All times are in Eastern Time. Note to those who play Yahoo! Auto Racing: rosters lock early Friday morning, meaning we have to set them before seeing the cars on the track.
Top Fifteen Ranking Entering The Sprint Cup Series 400:
1. Kevin Harvick – When you look at the stat sheet, Harvick isn’t the flat-out, number one pick in most people’s minds, but he is in mine. When you combine history at Richmond along with how each driver is running this year, I believe Harvick is the safest bet, and for that reason he gets my vote. Also, as I said before, “Happy” is the most recent winner here, and he led the most laps at Phoenix earlier this year (which, if you pay attention to ifantasyrace.com, Ryan Rantz thinks is a reversed Richmond). In the last fourteen races here, Harvick has finished inside the top 10 on ten seperate occasions, and that includes five top 5s. Statistically, this is the fourth-best track on the circuit for Kevin, and his average driver rating of 110.1 in the last two years here is third-best in the series.
2. Jimmie Johnson – When you look at average finish, Jimmie Johnson probably wouldn’t be on the top of your fantasy lists this week. However, you have to look at more than just that. Yes, in twenty career starts at Richmond Five Time has averaged a finish of 17.2, but he has also had three visits to victory lane and led 414 laps. Last fall, Jimmie finished 31st, but he led 38 laps that day and was a top 5 car until Kurt Busch put him into the wall. Furthermore, in the last five Richmond races, that is the only event that he hasn’t finished inside the top 11. Also, let’s not forget that the #48 team has had great cars week in and week out and Jimmie hasn’t finished worse than 12th since Daytona. Go against him if you want, but I know I won’t.
3. Denny Hamlin – What’s not to like about Hamlin this weekend? He’s coming off his second win of the season and heading to one of the best tracks on the circuit for him. In twelve career starts at Richmond, Denny has finished inside the top 5 in half of them and notched two victories along the way. His worst finish here is 24th–although he led 93% of the laps ran in that race (flat tire)–and he has completed 4,806 of the 4,810 laps ran in his twelve starts here. Hamlin has also led 1,188 laps in his career here, which is better than everyone not named Jeff Gordon. The #11 should be a force once again on Saturday.
4. Kyle Busch – I actually found it very difficult ranking these next two drivers like I did. However, it’s hard going against numbers like these two have. We’ll start with Rowdy Busch. Richmond is Kyle track, plain and simple. His average finish of 5th here is, by far, the best in the series, and he’s tied with just a handful of others with the most wins at this track (3). In fourteen starts here, he’s never finished worse than 20th, and Busch has eleven top 5s to his name. He has led 859 laps in his career here and has completed 100% of the laps ran (how impressive is that?). Unless a freak situation happens like in Bristol, I fully expect Kyle to be a top 5 car on Saturday night.
5. Jeff Gordon – Gordon’s record isn’t as stout as Kyle’s at Richmond, but it’s still good nonetheless. In thirty-eight career starts at this track, Jeff has visited victory lane twice and amassed twenty-four top 10s (fifteen of them being top 5s). Gordon has led a series-best 1,413 laps here and has the fifth-best average driver rating (104.8) in the last two years at this track. He’s going to stop having bad luck sooner or later, and the last time we were at a short track, Gordon absolutely dominated (Martinsville). He also finished 8th at Bristol despite starting 30th. Also, nine of the last ten Richmond races have ended with Gordon in the top 12.
6. Tony Stewart – Here’s a real wildcard for the weekend. Smoke is pretty good here (three career victories) and owns the fourth-best average finish in the series on this track, with a 10.9 in twenty-six career starts. Statistically, this is Stewart’s fourth-best track on the circuit, behind Watkins Glen, Indianapolis, and Chicago. He finished 9th and 7th here last season but has led just two total laps in the last six Richmond events. Despite struggling here in 2010, Smoke still has seven top 10s in the last ten races here, and has completed all but two laps during that span. His 817 laps led here is sixth-best among active drivers.
7. Carl Edwards – This team is making strides, they just need to finally break through. The good news is that Edwards led his first lap of the season last weekend in Kansas, and he’s been pretty good here at Richmond lately. Carl is one of only two drivers (the other being the man ranked #3) to post top 10 finishes in each of the last four races here. Edwards also has led a total of 221 laps during that span and has averaged a driver rating of 108.1 (fourth-best in the series). Carl hasn’t finished worse than 11th in the last month and I wouldn’t expect that to change on Saturday night.
8. Martin Truex, Jr. – I think this week is going to be a real test for this team because Truex hasn’t been good at all in his career at this track. In twelve career starts here, Martin owns an average finish of 24.3 and just four finishes inside the top 20. As I said last week, though, Truex is sort of like the 2011 Brad Keselowski–you just throw out past history for now. He has top 5s in both short track races thus far in 2012, so that’s a little re-assuring. Truex has also qualified in the top 10 in 42% of his starts at Richmond.
9. Clint Bowyer – One of the most surprising things to me this season has been that Clint Bowyer has consistently had the worse car in the Michael Waltrip Racing stable week in and week out. There are a couple things that I like about Clint this week, though. First, he has top 10s in both short track events in 2012 (10th at Martinsville and 4th at Bristol). Also, he has the third-best average finish (10.5) of anyone in the series at this race track, despite only having only one top 5 finish, which was his win in 2008. However, Clint has three 6th-place finishes to his name in his last five starts here, and he has qualified in the top 5 in each of the last three Richmond races. His average driver rating of 104.3 in the last two years here is sixth-best in the series.
10. Ryan Newman – The Rocketman should be one person that is real happy to get away from the intermediate tracks for a week. His success at Richmond is pretty consistent, although, like many people, he has had a few bumps along the way. In twenty career starts at this track, Ryan has compiled twelve top 10s and an average finish of 11.7. He also has just two finishes outside of the top 20. Want to know what I really like about Newman this week, though? His last eight finishes in the spring race here: 20th, 8th, 4th, 6th, 6th, 8th, 3rd, 9th.
11. Greg Biffle – If there’s any track type that you can say Greg Biffle has struggled at this season (I use that term loosely, by the way), it’s the short tracks. In case you forgot, The Biff won the pole in Bristol and ended up finishing 13th, and at Martinsville he wound up 13th as well after starting 26th. On Saturday night, I think Greg could easily challenge for a top 10, but I’m thinking he gets a top 15 finish. In nineteen career starts here, Biffle owns an average finish of 16.6, and he hasn’t finished better than 13th at Richmond since 2006. It’s hard to against a guy when he’s this hot, but you probably should stay away from the #16 this weekend.
12. Mark Martin – Martin hasn’t really ran a short track this season for Michael Waltrip Racing, unless, of course, if you count Phoenix, where he put the #55 Toyota on the pole and finished 9th. However, with Brian Vickers behind the wheel, this car has looked very impressive on the short tracks, especially at Bristol where “The Sheriff” brought it home in 5th. Mark has made a whopping 52 career starts at this 0.75-mile race track and has recorded twenty-eight top 10s and grabbed four poles.He struggled here in 2010, but during the 2011 season, Mark finished 14th and 10th at Richmond and qualified in the top 5 in both races.
13. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – This ranking will probably end up being too low for Junior, but I can’t stop looking past the fact that in the last six races here, NASCAR’s golden boy hasn’t finished better than 16th and has an average driver rating of 63.4. The good news is that Earnhard finished 15th at Bristol and 3rd at Martinsville earlier this year, and I think he should, at least, finish top 15 on Saturday. Junior has three victories at Richmond (in 2000, 2004, and 2006), and actually had more consistent success here before joining Hendrick Motorsports (data here).
14. Matt Kenseth – Like his team mate, I think you would be better off leaving Kenseth on the bench this weekend. Once again, it’s not a firm avoid, but I just think there are too many other options that are better than wasting your time and taking a risk with Kenseth. He was pretty good here from 2002 to 2004, but since then the single-digit finishes are few and far between. In the last nine Richmond events, Matt’s best finish has been just 13th, and he has finished on the lead lap in just 56% of those starts. One thing to take note of, though, is Kenseth has top 5s in both short track races thus far in 2012 (Bristol and Martinsville).
15. Juan Montoya – I don’t know about you, but I was very impressed–and surprised–with Montoya’s 12th-place finish in Kansas last weekend. He started in the back and was on my Avoid list for the race but that #42 Chevrolet was actually pretty good. Hopefully that will give JPM some momentum, which he obviously needs, as he has just one top 10 finish on the season. I think the problem with this team is that they are absolutely horrible at qualifying. Anyway, at Richmond, Montoya has had some good runs and some bad runs as well. In ten starts, he has four finishes of 15th or better along with four finishes of 29th or worse. He sat on the pole for this event last season and Juan is going to be my dark horse of the week for Richmond.
Just Missed The Top 15…Brad Keselowski, A.J. Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose
Those To Avoid Entering The Sprint Cup Series 400:
Greg Biffle – This isn’t an “avoid like the plague” title for the Biff this week–obviously, as I have him ranked above–but if you’re in an allocation league, I wouldn’t start him unless he looks absolutely unstoppable in practice (which is a possibility with how they have been running). There are too many intermediate tracks the rest of the way for you to use the #16 this weekend.
Paul Menard – You don’t have to look at the stat sheet too long to realize that Paul Menard simply is not good here. He finished 16th here in his first start, but in the nine events since, Paul hasn’t ended up on the lead lap once and also hasn’t notched a finish better than 26th. In the last three races here, Menard has qualified 15th, 10th, and 7th, but finished those events in 34th, 37th, and 26th, respectively.
Kurt Busch – I’m starting to trust this team a little more on the intermediate tracks, but the short tracks are a different story for Kurt Busch. He may have finished 5th here last fall, but let’s remember that was when he was still with Penske. In the three races before that at Richmond, the elder Busch brother never finished better than 18th. At the two short track races ran so far in 2012 (Bristol and Martinsville), Kurt has finished 18th and 33rd, respectively.