So here we are NASCAR fans, headed to the short track at Richmond. After an Easter weekend off, what will the cards hold for this small track race? Well the short answer from the Racing Nation is, 'who knows'?! Who could have foreseen last year's results that set the grid for another #48 championship? I mean, really? You have arguably one of the best drivers in the sport, Clint Bowyer in the middle of a banner year 'accidentally' spinning himself out for a caution flag which was coincidentally very helpful to his teammate. You had a driver who almost never calls anyone out (Dale Earnhardt Jr) calling it intentional on national television while shaking his head. You had drivers diving to the pits to help move a teammate into a Chase position. This was all happening while still others were cutting deals on the radio to allow passes for desperately needed points. And let's not forget the fall out was so severe it caused NASCAR to add a special 13th spot in the championship chase for Jeff Gordon just to set things right! Jeff Gordon, who no matter your personal feelings, handled the entire situation with unmatched class. Even further down the road the fallout would derail a banner season for MWR and Clint Bowyer and send them dizzying fight for their lives in the sport. Richmond last year may have been one of the most defining races for the leadership of NASCAR since Dale Earnhardt was killed at Daytona. They were sent scrambling as it became apparent to the casual fan that the 'honor system' which The Chase format called for everyone to operate, was a veil thinner than a Chinese paper lantern... and it was becoming twice as flammable!
Eventually things would settle down and we would have a great Chase. However the format of every Chase to follow would be necessarily changed to protect NASCAR's image and to give everyone else a better shot at the #48 team.
So, who can we expect to be great THIS weekend? Well, no surprise I'm going to say Kevin Harvick. After all, he won this race last year and is the only driver to repeat as a 2014 winner so far. The proverbial momentum brought on by winning The Southern 500 last week should carry through, that's if the gremlins he has been battling don't show up in force yet again. Of course Carl Edwards won the tumultuous fall race at RIR, but I wouldn't count on him anywhere in the top 15 given the last few weeks he's had. That 99 team just can't seem to get it together on a consistent basis. Kyle Busch has won four races since 2009 here, and has been quietly consistent in a way no one has ever seen him in 2014. With an average finishing place of 7.2 he is the leader among all active NASCAR drivers at this track.
Jimmy Johnson in his 24 race history at Richmond, has but eight top tens, five top fives and three wins, however I will be keeping him on my fantasy teams this weekend. He has something burning in him I haven't seen at the start of the season for a while, actually in the entire 48 team. It's something they usually reserve for The Chase. It's a fire in their eyes for a win. He has been so close so often and come up empty thus far. I think he and his team will be looking to silence the critics in a real way. However that being said, this is one of the few tracks you can legitimately say he may have to go through Dale Earnhardt Jr to get that win.
With the same number of wins as the 48, Jr has a dozen top tens and nine top fives and has been competitive in almost every race at Richmond year in and year out. Combine that with his relationship with his crew and crew chief blossoming and his luck evening out and he has a real shot at dominating this race if they unload even close to the mark. Add to that combustable mix a drive to win like I have never seen in Mr Earnhardt's career and you have an something special waiting to happen. Then there are drivers that performed well at the last short track in 2014, Martinsville.
Drivers like Kurt Busch, who showed some real patience and talent at Martinsville, but has also displayed an inability to get out of his own way over his bumpy career. The fact that he seemed livid with Clint Bowyer last week at Darlington after Clint seemed to give him the boot when he let off the gas on the straight away toward the end of the race, could mean there is a real chance of of the two tangling and Kurt taking himself out of contention. Also, let's not forget to mention the fact that another driver who fancies himself a bad boy, Brad Keselowski will no doubt be looking for an opportunity to pay back the self proclaimed 'Outlaw' after their run in earlier at Martinsville. The irony that these two are cut from the exact same cloth seems lost on them but may be fun to watch if they find themselves in the same zip code come race day.
Also on my list of drivers to watch you would have to find Denny Hamlin. Denny has been quiet this year so far, however has been fast and competitive. He just hasn't found victory lane. Denny has a history of good solid finishes and contending for wins here, having placed in the top five seven out of the fifteen races he has buckled in for at RIR. He's also gotten the Gatorade shower twice.
And let's not discount the owner of a really hot race team this season who has yet to put a check mark in the win column for himself, Tony Stewart. Tony is consistently good at Richmond, though not consistently good this season. Look for Stewart to be a dark hose for a turn around at this race. One thing is certain. Whenever you find the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at a short track, you better set the DVR. True fans are going to want to rewind to check out the action, possibly in super slow motion.
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