The Monster Energy Cup Series will head to Richmond, Virginia this week for the Toyota Owners 400. This will be the first Saturday night race of the season. The track is a .75-mile D-shaped oval that usually provides some exciting racing. The race can be seen Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. ET on Fox.
NASCAR will have a condensed schedule this week. There were two MENCS practices and one Xfinity Series practice for two-hours Friday. Qualifying for both series will be Friday evening. That is a lot of on track activity. And to promote their sport NASCAR decided not to televise any of the practice. No wonder the seats are empty.
Goodyear brought a new set of tires to Richmond. They will be used in both the Xfinity and MENCS races. Richmond is one of the higher tire wear tracks on the circuit so Goodyear wanted a tire that would put rubber on the track and last the full length of a long green flag run. Each team will get 3 sets of tires for practice, 1 for qualifying and 10 sets for the race.
Fox Sports 1 had a list of the top 5 pit crews this season on their RaceHub show. There will likely be at least 10 pit stops Saturday night and teams who can pick up .2 a second on pit road can gain a lot of track position. Here are the fastest pit crews this season…
The MENCS will use the 750 Horsepower engines with the 2” spoiler and 8” spoiler and no aero duct. This package has been used at Phoenix, Martinsville and Bristol. Only 3 drivers have finished each of the 3 races using this aero package in the top 5. They are Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Blaney.
* NASCAR will have a prerace inspection Saturday at 1:30 p.m. ET (It should be complete by 3:30 p.m. ET). Any cars who fail will go to the back and be scored from the back because their qualifying time will be disallowed. If I need to update my picks I will repost them Saturday evening.
Chase Elliott: The Hendrick Motorsports cars have found some speed since the series returned from the west coast. Elliott has an 8.6 average finishing position since the West Coast Swing ended. Now he competes at a track where he had a lot of success at last year. Elliott finished 2nd in the spring and 4th in the fall at Richmond. Elliott told his team, “I ran it for a while and it feels pretty decent. I could use a little more cut through the center of the corner.”
Jimmie Johnson: The No. 48 team will have some momentum after back-to-back top-10 finishes (5th at Texas and 10th at Bristol). Richmond ranks as the 3rd-best track for Johnson since 2014. He has an average finishing position of 7.4 in his last 9 races at the track. Johnson told his team, “It is doing that angry triangle thing that I was telling you about.” They told him to bring it in and they would make changes. Johnson kept complaining about not having any grip with the rear tires. After his final run Johnson said, “Good changes.” Kevin Madering told him, “Yeah, I think we looked real competitive on that run.”
Alex Bowman: Bowman runs well at Phoenix and you would think that would translate into success at Richmond. That has not been the case. Bowman has a 25th-place average starting position and a 27.5 average finishing position at Richmond. His best finish at Richmond is 12th. Bowman said, “I am too tight in the center and I have a bit of brake shake in the center.” They brought the No. 88 car in and made some changes. After his last run Bowman said, “The car is getting better. It is not bad but not the fastest. I think we can work with it though.”
William Byron: Byron has been good at qualifying recently but he has not been very good once the green flag is waived. Byron has a 13.1 average starting position and a 17.1 average finishing position this year. Byron ran 2 races in the 24 car at Richmond last year. He finished 12th in the spring and 20th in the fall. Byron told Chad Knaus, “The front tires slide through the turn. It has no front grip at all.”
Kyle Larson: Richmond is a good track for Larson. He has the 5th-best average finishing position and the 6th-best driver rating in the last 4 races at the track. Larson is in a slump though. He has an average finishing position of 22nd since the series left Phoenix. The good news is that he finished 6th at Phoenix and that track is a similar in size and shape as Richmond. Larson went to the top of the leaderboard in the morning practice and then they put the car on 4 jack stands and completely changed the suspension. Larson said at the end of practice, “Is is a tad tight but really it feels fast compared to the rest of the cars out here.”
Kurt Busch: Busch is off to a hot start in 2019. He has 6 finishes in the top 10. His only problem is qualifying. If he ever starts up front Busch will probably win more races. Last year Busch led 98 laps, scored 7 Stage points and finished 11th in this race. He is running as well now, if not better than he was at this time last year. He should be a driver who spends a lot of time in the top 10 Saturday night. Kurt told his team, “The front left is really bouncing on the track.” The team made a shock adjustment. After his final run Busch said, “I am not going to complain about it. It is good.” The No. 41 team has the lead engine from Martin Truex Jr.’s team from last year. He really knows how to set up cars for this track.
Kevin Harvick: Harvick should be one of the drivers to beat if you simply go off of the stats. He has finished 5 of his last 6 races at Richmond in the top 5. The problem is that the No. 4 car has the speed to run in the top 5 but not win the races. Mistakes in the inspection line and on pit road do not help either. Maybe this is the week they put it all together. Harvick made a 28 lap run in practice and the team told him, “If it is good you can bring it back to us.” Harvick said, “I have no complaints about it.”
Clint Bowyer: Bowyer looked like he had a real chance to win last week at Bristol. The No. 14 team is starting to put it all together. Bowyer finished 7th at Martinsville (but had a car fast enough to win), 2nd at Texas and 7th at Bristol (had a car fast enough to win). Last year Bowyer finished 9th in the spring and 10th in the fall at Richmond. Bowyer was not happy with his car. He said, “I don’t know man… It just seems like I have to put too much brake into it to get it to turn.”
Daniel Suarez: Suarez is one of the surprise stories of the 2019 season. Most people did not pick him to be a top 10 driver but he has 3 consecutive finishes in the top 10 entering Saturday night’s race. Last year Suarez finished 10th in the spring and 17th in the fall at Richmond while driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. He should be better than that Saturday night.
Aric Almirola: Almirola had his streak of 6 finishes in the top 10 broken at Bristol last week. It had a lot more to do with bad luck than a bad car though. Almirola finished 4th at Phoenix earlier this season and that should translate into a good run Saturday night. Almirola qualified 6th, score 9 Stage points and finished 5th in the last night race at Richmond. Almirola made some long runs and told his team, “I can’t think of much to do to it now. We kind of got what we got. It feels pretty good for the start of the race. We will just need to make sure we keep up with the track tomorrow.”
Brad Keselowski: Richmond ranks as the 6th-best track for Keselowski but he only has 1 win at track (night race in 2014). He has a 6.8 average finishing position in his last 5 races at Richmond. Team Penske has been running well this season so I expect the No. 2 car to be near the front Saturday night. Keselowski told his team, “It takes about 3 laps to build up speed and then it gets pretty good. It is really good after ten laps and then builds tight.”
Joey Logano: Richmond ranks as the 3rd-best track for Logano. He has 2 wins (2014 and 2017) and he has a series-high 5.25 average finishing position in the last 4 races at the track. Logano will have some momentum after his 3rd-place finish at Bristol. Logano made some long runs and said, “The car is OK. It is a 7 out 10 right now.” Logano made another long run and said, “We are closer to a solid 9 now. Just need some fine tuning.”
Ryan Blaney: Richmond is typically a good track for Team Penske but Blaney has not had any success. His average starting position is 13.7 and his average finishing position is 27th. His best ever finish at Richmond is 18th in 2017. The good news is that Blaney has been the 3rd-best driver in the aero package they will use Saturday night (750 HP, no aero ducts and large splitter and spoiler). The No. 12 car started practice with the same setup as the No. 22 car. Blaney said, “It feels pretty snug at the bottom but gets tighter at the middle of the track.”
Paul Menard: Menard is another driver who typically does not run well at Richmond. Since the night race in 2015 Menard has a 26.7 average finishing position at the track. None of those races resulted in top 20 finishes. Menard was fighting a tight racecar that “pushes up the track” in practice.
Kyle Busch: Should we just give the trophy to Busch won so we can all get to bed early Saturday night? He is blazing hot this season. Busch has 3 wins this season, finished every race in the top 10, won the race at Phoenix (most similar track to Richmond) and he won the last 2 races at Richmond. This is as close as we will get to having a lock to win a race this season. Busch was quiet on the radio in practice. He made a lot of long runs so that tells me they are pretty happy with the car.
Erik Jones: Jones is working on a contract extension with Joe Gibbs Race but if he wants to keep his seat he better pick up the pace. Jones only has 1 finish in the top 10 since Atlanta. His average finishing position in his last 5 races is 21.2. Last year Jones finished 13th in the spring and 11th in the fall at Richmond. Jones was sent out on the track to follow Kyle Busch and learn his line. Jones said, “I cannot cut the corner the way the No. 18 does.”
Denny Hamlin: Hamlin will be looking for his 4th win at his home track this week and his 3rd win of the season. Hamlin is off to a hot start in 2019. He has finished every race in the top 11 and he has finished 5 of the last 6 races in the top 5. Hamlin has a 5.7 average finishing position in his last 7 races at Richmond so he should be up front Saturday night. Hamlin really liked his car in practice. They brought it in the garage and only made some air-pressure adjustments. Hamlin also spent a lot of time working on pit road speed.
Martin Truex Jr.: Truex dominated 3 of the last 4 Richmond races. He led 163 laps last September, 121 laps last April, 198 laps in the fall of 2017 and 193 laps in the fall of 2016. Truex also finished 2nd at Phoenix this year (similar track to Richmond). This could be the breakout race for the No. 19 team. Truex seemed happy with his car. The team told the MRN reporter that they were more concerned with their night time speed that at the start of the race. That is what they spent the practice sessions working on.
Matt DiBendetto: DiBenedetto will have some momentum after his strong run at Bristol. He hasn’t had much success at this track before but his car will be a lot faster than what he drove in the past. Also, crew chief Mike Wheeler has had a lot of success at this track so his car should be able to adapt to the changing track conditions Saturday night.
Daniel Hemric: Hemric is a rookie but he did drive in the MENCS race at Richmond last year. Hemric qualified 22nd and finished 32nd. He should be a lot better than that with his full-time team this week. Crew chief Luke Lambert is known for steeling track position by using strategy in this race. I expect the No. 8 team to do that Saturday night.
Austin Dillon: The No. 3 car has had speed this year but Dillon has had a problem bringing it home in the top 10. His average running position is 11.2 and his average finishing position in 15.9. Dillon did run well in the last night race at Richmond. He qualified 26th and finished 6th. He said on Fox Sports RaceHub this week that he learned a lot a Richmond last year so he enters the race Saturday night with a lot of confidence.
Ty Dillon: The No. 13 team is showing some improvements this season, especially on the short tracks. Dillon has a 14.3 average finishing position on the tracks less than 1.5-mile. I would not worry about his past stats at Richmond because this team is a lot faster since they moved their shop next to Richard Childress Racing. Dillon is the best bargain in DFS this week. Dillon was “Too tight in the corner.” Crew Chief Matt Borland told him, “I have some ideas. Bring it in.”
Ryan Preece: Preece has never run a MENCS race at Richmond but he does have 3 races in the Xfinity Series at the track on his resume. Preece finished 18th, 26th and 23rd in those 3 races. Preece did not have any luck at Phoenix either this season. He qualified 21st and finished 34th.
Chris Buescher: Buescher has not been very good at Richmond but I am not worried about his past stats. His stats at Bristol were not very good but he ran most of the race around the 10th position. The No. 37 team has been overachieving all season. They should continue to do so Saturday night. Buescher said, “The car is good on entry and exit but it is pretty lazy through the center.”
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: Stenhouse has not been very good at Richmond in his career. He only has 1 finish in the top 10 in his last 10 races at the track. Stenhouse also has not finished in the top 10 since the race at Las Vegas (5 races). He started out the season running well but has really cooled off over the last month. Stenhouse told his team, “It is a 15 out 10 tight.”
Ryan Newman: Newman has always been good at fast flat tracks. Phoenix and Richmond rank as 2 of his best tracks. He finished 3rd and 7th at Richmond in 2017 but came back and got involved in accidents in 2018. Newman finished 12th at Phoenix earlier this season and that is typically where he finishes at Richmond. Newman made a long run and told his team, “I did not go up the track on purpose. Just know that. It is the car going up the track. It is too tight.”
David Ragan: Ragan was really happy with his car. He said, “This is the best hot rod we have had all season. Good job boys.”
Cars that looked good in practice: Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano
Good Sleeper Picks: Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson, Jimmie Johnson, Arik Almirola, Ryan Blaney, Daniel Suarez, Chris Buescher, Ty Dillon and David Ragan
MENCSl Practice Speeds
Best 10-Lap Avg. Speed
* Final Practice was canceled because of rain.
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