Can the cleanest short track on the circuit provide quality competition on Sunday?
Richmond Raceway's 0.75-mile oval isn't your typical short track. In fact, you can say Sunday's Toyota Owners 400 (3 p.m. ET, FOX) will look more like a race at a track twice its size, located a few hours down the road: Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Long green-flag runs are expected at a place that's had just five spins in the last four NASCAR Cup Series races held here. In fact, the average green-flag run to end the race is a whopping 113 laps, causing tire falloff and handling to take center stage.
Atlanta is revered for that type of competition, touted as one of the sport's best cookie-cutter ovals with aging pavement that rips Goodyears apart. So why are fans excited about racing there while Richmond brings up the dreaded racing "b" word: boring?
The answer comes in how fans perceive these types of tracks. At Martinsville Speedway last weekend, there were a season-high 15 caution flags as tempers flared and fenders rubbed at the sport's smallest oval. Teammates James Davison and Cody Ware even spun each other out as Martinsville's mayhem was defined by on-track contact.
It's what fans look forward to at smaller tracks, the ability for cars to slam together with less risk. A bump like that at Talladega Superspeedway could wreck half the field and cause serious injury. At Martinsville? It's more likely to give you a middle finger, some ruffled feelings but the cars are often no worse for wear.
You don't get Martinsville action at Richmond, though where wide grooves provide plenty of room for racing like Atlanta. It's led to mostly clean competition over the past several years, with the biggest incident in one 2014 race a fan trying to climb up the catchfence.
A move to Sunday afternoon might change the dynamics a bit as teams adjust to a slicker track in the daytime. Richmond's playoff status in the fall should also get championship contenders revved up to do well here. Expect them to head to the front and pay attention to how they shake out: the four worst postseason finishers from last September's race (Cole Custer, Matt DiBenedetto, Ryan Blaney and William Byron) all failed to advance to the Round of 12.
Sunday's event should wind up competitive, with plenty of side-by-side action throughout. But if bumping and grinding is your thing? Rivalries and spinouts? That type of competition was left somewhere in the hills of southwest Virginia.
Toyota Owners 400
Date: Sunday, April 18
Time: 3 p.m. ET
Track: Richmond Raceway (Richmond, Va.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Martin Truex Jr.
Truex ran down and passed teammate Denny Hamlin with 16 laps to go at Martinsville to become the first driver with two wins in 2021. Truex has been phenomenal at short tracks lately after a 0-for-80 start to his Cup career, winning five of his last 11 starts.
He's also leapfrogging Kyle Busch as the biggest threat to Hamlin's first Cup title within JGR. Crew chief James Small, in his second season with Truex, is learning how to finish races for his driver after a bunch of near-misses down the stretch last season.
Who's at the Back: Michael McDowell
This year's Daytona 500 Cinderella has seen the glass slipper start to crack. A multi-car crash at Martinsville led to McDowell's first DNF of the season Sunday, dropping him to 16th in the standings, the worst of any Cup winner. McDowell has now gone five races without a top-10 finish with a position differential of -33 during that stretch. Yikes.
The only upside for McDowell lately is the emergence of the sport's big names back in front of the field. More than 16 winners during the regular season appear less likely after the past two weeks, keeping McDowell in a solid position to earn a playoff spot.
Two teammates are feuding after some hard racing at Martinsville led to on-track contact. Australian James Davison, who earned a career-best finish of 22nd in Sunday's race, upset Cody Ware to the point his Rick Ware Racing teammate spun him out. Ware then said on the radio, "Anytime [Davison] is ahead of us, he's getting turned" which led to Davison criticizing Ware's history of mental health issues and claiming his father should pull him off the track. The drama led to a confrontation over the weekend that remains unresolved heading to Richmond.
NASCAR's push to return to the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway has hit a snag. The commissioner of the Nashville Fair Board made clear construction at the facility would not be complete in time for the 2022 racing season. That opens the door for 1.33-mile Nashville Superspeedway, back on the schedule this summer, to become more than a one-year stopgap for this region.
Toyota prospect Harrison Burton will be making his Cup Series debut next weekend at Talladega. The 20-year-old Burton will drive Gaunt Brothers Racing's No. 96 Toyota with Dex Imaging sponsorship, replacing Ty Dillon behind the wheel. The son of NBC Sports analyst and former Cup driver Jeff Burton has four career NXS wins running full-time for Joe Gibbs Racing.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Laps led by Denny Hamlin this year to lead the Cup Series. He's already eclipsed his laps led total for the entire 2018 season, his last before crew chief Chris Gabehart came on board.
Laps led by Kyle Busch this year, his worst total through eight races in a 17-year Cup career.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Playoff drivers from last season swept Richmond's top 10 in the race held here last September. The runner-up finisher then was Martin Truex Jr. and he'll be a trendy pick after the way he's heated up the past month. But I'd keep an eye on Joey Logano. Third in that fall 2020 event, Logano has five top-5 finishes (including a win) in his last seven Richmond starts. The winner of the Bristol Dirt Race has put together a solid 2021 campaign that has him third in the Cup standings through eight races.
September Richmond winner Brad Keselowski will be looking for back-to-back victories here as he looks to get on the board in 2021. With 379 laps led in his last four Richmond starts, you can do much worse: Keselowski hasn't finished lower than 11th at this track since 2015.
Austin Dillon is who everyone's pointing to as the Richard Childress Racing driver had one of the best runs of his career at Richmond last fall. Leading 55 laps, he wound up fourth in a performance that catapulted him into the next round of the NASCAR playoffs. But buyer, beware: Dillon never led here in 12 previous starts before that breakthrough and has a career average finish here of just 17.5.
Aric Almirola continues to slog through a springtime slump with a 20th-place finish at Martinsville, leaving him 28th in the standings. Can Richmond turn his season around? A cheap price plus two top-10 finishes the last four races here makes him an intriguing addition to your roster.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has had a solid start, sitting in playoff position eight races in with JTG Daugherty Racing. His Richmond track record isn't outstanding, but it also is fairly consistent: runs of 13th, 16th, 15th and 18th his last four starts make him worth a shot.
Rookie Austin Cindric is a dark horse this weekend, starting shotgun on the field for Team Penske. The reigning NASCAR Xfinity Series champion has four top-5 and five top-10 finishes in that division at Richmond and can only gain you positive position differential points.
What Vegas Thinks
Martin Truex Jr. is the Richmond favorite, posting 4/1 odds according to vegasinsider.com. Brad Keselowski is at 6/1 followed by Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano at 13/2.
How badly do you believe in Austin Dillon? He's the best longshot out there with odds of 35/1.
What I Think
Brad Keselowski comes forward and earns his first victory of 2021, leading the way for Team Penske as all four of their Fords (add Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney and Austin Cindric) finish inside the top 10.