The 2019 Toyota Owners 400 is the third Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series short track race on a track a mile or less in the first nine events. It’s typically a prime stretch for a driver who doesn’t have the speed at intermediates, the bread and butter of NASCAR’s schedule, to steal a win. But as we head into the first Saturday night race of the season we’re still looking for that surprise driver to make an appearance.
Only two teams this season have won at the Cup level this year: Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing. They’ve already earned one win apiece at the other short track events, each with a driver that had won previously in 2019. Brad Keselowski flat out dominated the race at Martinsville, leading 446 of 500 laps in a race that offered few if any challengers. Then, just last week, Kyle Busch used late-race pit strategy to fight back from a Lap 2 spin and pull off an unlikely victory over his brother Kurt at Bristol. It was his tenth win in 16 NASCAR starts across the sport’s top three series this year.
Can anyone stop the freight train this weekend? So far, it seems like there’s an opportunity for someone else to break through. I’d hardly call pole sitter Kevin Harvick an underdog but his Stewart-Haas Racing team has yet to win this year. Harvick had perhaps the fastest car at Bristol before failing pre-race inspection three times and forced to undergo a pass-through penalty right after the green flag. He still wound up 13th, on the lead lap after falling as many as four laps behind during the race.
Chip Ganassi Racing has also showed some strength with Kyle Larson putting up the second-fastest speed during the first round of qualifying before ultimately winding up 14th. Teammate Kurt Busch wound up earning the third starting spot after being Kyle’s main competition down the stretch at Bristol. Both have won here in the past and have the experience to deliver Chevrolet’s first 2019 victory after starting 0-for-8.
But perhaps the biggest name to watch is Martin Truex Jr. Truex is still searching for his first career short track win and no track has broken his heart along the way than Richmond. In the past three races alone, he’s led 482 laps and more than 100 in each one. Truex has won three of the last six stages here but has been unable to put himself in the right position during the last one. Fall of 2017 was perhaps the biggest gut wrencher; he was leading when a caution for a backmarker came out with two laps to go. Truex lost the race off pit road, then wrecked his car on the ensuing restart.
Can he, crew chief Cole Pearn and their new No. 19 team put it together this time around? There’s been an adjustment since leaving the comfy confines of Furniture Row Racing out in Denver. While Truex is a strong postseason contender, only 14 laps led show how he’s fallen a step behind new teammate Kyle Busch. Richmond would be the perfect place to catch up.
Of course, if Truex wins, JGR will once again add a win to its resume and a third organization will fail to break through. But at least a new driver will visit Victory Lane this season!
Toyota Owners 400
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Track: Richmond Raceway (Richmond, Va.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Team Penske
No, they didn’t win Bristol. But it’s hard to find an organization that has this much quality from top to bottom in any form of racing these days. All three Penske drivers sit inside the top six in the Cup Series point standings. Both Keselowski and reigning champion Joey Logano have already won while Ryan Blaney has now led 353 laps. That’s third best in the series behind his teammate Keselowski and Kyle Busch. It’s an impressive start to a year in which they’ve wrested the title of top Ford team (at least for now) from Stewart-Haas Racing.
Who’s at the Back: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Richmond is an important race for Stenhouse, hitting a speed bump after a strong 2019 start. A 25th at Martinsville was followed up by slamming into Kyle Busch’s rear bumper at Bristol before Lap 2 was even complete, resulting in a 33rd-place finish at one of his best tracks on the circuit. That’s an ugly 29.0 average finish thus far on the short track portion of the schedule.
It’s also a margin of error Stenhouse and middling Roush Fenway Racing doesn’t have when it comes to making the postseason. He’s down to 16th in points, sitting on the bubble and just one point ahead of Erik Jones. A strong run is needed to right the ship before Easter break.
Young Natalie Decker will be adding six races to her NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series schedule this year. That means the rookie will run a total of 17 events with DGR Crosley as she seeks to move up to full-time competition in 2020. Decker has two career ARCA top-5 finishes but has yet to win a stock car race in one of the sport’s top-tier divisions.
Clint Bowyer has a new four-race primary sponsor in Toco Warranty Corporation. The vehicle services contract company will be on board the No. 14 Ford beginning with the April 28th race at Talladega Superspeedway.
Joey Gase may be running near the back of the field this weekend but he’s at the front of the line in terms of paint schemes. A special tribute to Sam Bass adorns the side of the No. 66 Toyota this weekend to honor NASCAR’s commissioned artist who died of kidney illness earlier this year at the age of 57.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Drivers from the 2018 playoffs that wouldn’t be postseason eligible for the 16-driver field if the season ended today: Austin Dillon, Erik Jones and Alex Bowman.
Top-10 finish for the sport's crop of Cup Series rookie drivers to date. No one has finished that high, in fact, since Ryan Preece avoided the wreckage and brought home an impressive eighth-place effort in the season-opening Daytona 500.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kyle Busch is obviously hard to ignore at this point. A fifth-place starting spot at Richmond puts him in perfect position to defend the race he won last spring. But Truex will certainly be a strong contender (see the open) and is a good alternative if you’re burned out on Busch.
How about Denny Hamlin, too? This tracks serves as one of his hometown favorites (along with Martinsville further south). He’s starting a season-worst 18th, giving you more of an opportunity to score bonus points in daily fantasy sports lineups as he moves up. And he’s won at this track as recently as the fall of 2016, scoring six top-six finishes in the last seven races along the way.
Kurt. Kurt. And more Kurt Busch. Not only has he shown speed already this weekend, was runner-up at Bristol and been the fastest Chevy thus far in 2019... Busch runs Richmond well. He has two career victories, the last of which came in 2015 and led 98 laps here as recently as last spring.
I’m hopping aboard the Daniel Suarez train after the speed he’s shown the last few weeks in his new No. 41 ride at Stewart-Haas Racing. Suarez has never led a single lap at Richmond but don’t be fooled; he’s also never run worse than 17th. A top-15 finish or better with his pricing would be perfect for daily fantasy lineups.
It’s a bit of a stretch, I admit, but for some reason I like Bubba Wallace Saturday night. The No. 43 team has run well here in the past with Aric Almirola and is overdue for an overachieving style performance. It’s been a miserable 2019 and Wallace needs to right the ship in some way; he was 25th and 27th at this track, though last year with what used to be a top-10 Richmond car.
Michael McDowell qualified 25th but there’s plenty of upside to Saturday night’s race with Front Row Motorsports. Teammate Matt Tifft, a rookie who has struggled in 2019, qualified ahead of him in 20th. That shows the organization has speed. But McDowell is in the best position to turn that into sustained success during the race. He’s run as high as 12th here with Leavine Family Racing and can easily put together a similar run with FRM; remember, they’ve earned top-10 finishes on short tracks before with David Ragan.
What Vegas Thinks
Get this: Kyle Busch has just 2/1 odds to win Saturday night’s race at Richmond. That’s a number you rarely see when there’s 37 drivers who start with a chance to win. Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick are a distant second at 6/1.
What I Think
I’m going to stick with what I said in the open and go with Martin Truex Jr. to earn his first career NASCAR short track win. The sport will go into Easter break with a feel-good story after Truex and Cole Pearn finally make a mark at their new home.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.