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Toyota Owners 400 (Richmond) NASCAR Preview and Fantasy Predictions

Toyota Owners 400 (Richmond) NASCAR Preview and Fantasy Predictions

Can Toyota turn their sagging 2022 season around at the first short track on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule?

The Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway is aptly named due to the NASCAR Cup Series manufacturer’s recent success. Joe Gibbs Racing Camrys have won eight of the last dozen races here; Martin Truex Jr. alone has won three of the past five.

If there’s any place JGR has an edge, it’s here, the beginning of the sport’s short track schedule. With Richmond, Martinsville and Bristol on the docket over the next three weeks, it’s an opportunity for them to reassert themselves as one of the sport’s main championship contenders.

“We have high expectations,” Truex said Saturday. “We have a lot of people at JGR that understand the track and understand what it takes to win here.”

What they don’t have yet is a full-on understanding of NASCAR’s new Next Gen chassis. Toyotas remain winless through the first six races and have just one of their six drivers (Truex) inside the top 10 in points. Denny Hamlin, coming off three straight Championship 4s, sits an uncharacteristic 22nd in the standings without a single top-10 finish.

“I don’t think we’ve been through this, for sure,” Hamlin said of his recent slump. “I think you can catapult up the standings really, really quickly – the way things are … if you have a couple solid weeks where we don’t get crashed or cause a crash, those things add up.”

Richmond, one of the cleaner short tracks on the circuit, shouldn’t cause that problem even though it’s a more difficult car for drivers to handle. The last six Richmond races have featured no more than five caution flags, instead producing long green-flag runs more typically seen on a cookie-cutter intermediate.

Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race continued that trend as only one caution flag flew outside of stage breaks. JGR also dominated in that event, winner Ty Gibbs and John Hunter Nemechek combining to lead 249 of 250 laps.

Can Hamlin, Truex, Christopher Bell and Kyle Busch follow suit with a season-defining performance on Sunday?

“We’re starting over from our perspective,” Hamlin said. “We’re trying to find a point we were are good… we are decent, but we are not where we have been for the last three years…

“For me, I’m anxious to see after lap two, did we guess right?”

Toyota Owners 400

Date: Sunday, April 3
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
Track: Richmond Raceway
TV: FOX
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Starting Lineup

Who's at the Front: Ross Chastain

Chastain earns a rare two straight weeks in this slot after earning his first career win at Circuit of The Americas. To do it, he pulled off a pinball-style move, slamming AJ Allmendinger into Alex Bowman to hold both drivers off as he slipped by over the final two turns of the race.

The victory completed a rise-from-the-ashes story for a driver who appeared to lose his full-time Cup opportunity not once, but twice. In the end, Trackhouse Racing Team landed young, impressive talent in Chastain and Daniel Saurez that has them positioned to match the early success of some of the heavyweights they’re competing against, like Hendrick Motorsports.

Who's at the Back: Kyle Larson

Last year’s reigning champion has hit his first bump in the road with Hendrick. A playoff-clinching victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last month has been followed by three runs outside the top 25, including two DNFs. Some of that is simple bad luck but Larson hasn’t exactly been running up front, posting just three laps led during this stretch while spinning out all on his own at COTA.

News Briefs

Another Cup crew chief is sitting on the sidelines for a month after a loose wheel popped off on the racetrack. This time, it’s Bootie Barker, Bubba Wallace’s head wrench who pays the price for a loose wheel that came unglued during the race at COTA. Barker, jackman Caleb Dirks and rear-tire changer Adam Riley will all sit out the next four weeks while performance director Dave Rogers will fill in on top of the pit box.

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NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Brandon Brown remains in search of full-time primary sponsorship after the infamous “Let’s Go Brandon” chant was connected to his win at Talladega Superspeedway last fall. A cryptocurrency deal has fallen through for the No. 68 team, leaving them back on the market, although they recently landed a deal with Zero FG Energy Drink.

Ty Gibbs used a last-lap pass on John Hunter Nemechek to triumph in the Xfinity race. Gibbs, just 19 years old, now has seven career wins in his first 25 NXS starts, sparking speculation he’ll be put in a full-time Cup ride as early as 2023.

NASCAR by the Numbers

4.7
Average start for Ryan Blaney through six races (and that’s before winning his season-best third pole at Richmond).

12
Straight races won in the Cup Series by a driver under 30. The last 30-something or older to win? Denny Hamlin last October at Talladega Superspeedway.

Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)

Top Tier

Will Joe Gibbs Racing finally put some early-season struggles behind them? All signs point to yes with all four JGR drivers qualifying inside the top 13. Martin Truex Jr. has the most recent success here, winning as recently as last fall. But you may be more cost effective picking a guy like Denny Hamlin to work his way to the front. Hamlin has back-to-back runner-up finishes at RIR, leading 404 of the last 800 laps run. His average finish of 8.8 includes three career wins and no finish lower than 24th in 12 starts.

Not trusting the Toyotas this time around? Joey Logano’s a pretty safe bet. Four top-5 finishes in the last five RIR starts have come with 146 laps led and a solid position differential of plus-20.

Related: Best Richmond Raceway Drivers for DraftKings

Middle Tier

Remember when Austin Dillon challenged for the win here during the postseason a few years back? Dillon’s Richard Childress Racing program has been one of the surprises of NASCAR’s Next Gen era, giving hope the No. 3 team will charge up from their 25th-place starting spot. Dillon has five top-11 finishes in the past six races here, including that fourth in the fall of 2020 where he led a career-high 55 laps.

Can Ross Chastain keep the momentum rolling? The sport’s most recent winner has struggled during his past Richmond starts, posting a dismal average finish of 24.8. But a seventh-place result last fall was combined with four laps led, providing hope he’ll keep turning things around after four top-5 performances in the year’s first six races.

Lower Tier

Richmond’s not a track that lends itself to underdogs. Erik Jones is out to change that after a stronger-than-expected start this season with Petty GMS Racing’s No. 43. He’s run 19th, 21st and 22nd in his last three RIR starts, posting a position differential of plus-16. A surprising fifth-place qualifying run has him positioned for much more.

Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., meanwhile, qualified a distant 32nd in the JTG Daugherty Racing ride. That may be just what the doctor ordered, though, for a driver who’s run 18th or better in five of the last six Richmond races. Look him up for a cheap option that fills out your roster and potentially allows you to add a second JGR entry along with him.

What Vegas Thinks

Points leader Chase Elliott, at +850 is posted with the best odds to win at Richmond according to vegasinsider.com. Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano are all next sitting at +1000.

Looking for a longshot? Last year’s defending winner, Alex Bowman, is sitting at +1800.

What I Think

I’ll say Gibbs gets their year kickstarted with Martin Truex Jr. rolling to his fourth win in six Richmond starts. Expect fresh faces to be competitive, though, with Ross Chastain and some of the young Hendrick drivers mixing it up in front.

— 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 tbowles81@yahoo.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.

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