PREVIEW: Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway

by April 24, 2014

Photo Credit: John Harrelson – Pool/Getty Images

RICHMOND, Va. –  After taking this past weekend off for Easter, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will take to the track at Richmond International Raceway for the Toyota Owners 400 on Saturday night.

At Darlington Raceway two weekends ago, the series saw the first repeat winner of the season when Kevin Harvick drove his No. 4 Budweiser Chevrolet SS to Victory Lane in the Bojangles’ Southern 500. Will there be another repeat winner this weekend at Richmond? Who knows, but I think there’s a real possibility.

My pick for Saturday night’s Toyota Owners 400 is none other than this year’s Daytona 500 winner, Dale Earnhardt Jr. He has three (‘00, ‘04 and ‘06) NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victories at Richmond. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his No. 88 crew currently sit fourth in the points standings with one win, and five top-five and top-10 finishes. If it wasn’t for a couple of cautions in the closing laps at Darlington Raceway, then Dale Earnhardt Jr. probably would have a second win this season. However, with Richmond being a fairly decent track for Earnhardt Jr., I’d certainly look for him to be a contender Saturday night. In 29 races at Richmond, Earnhardt Jr. has finished within the top-10 on 12 occasions. His average finish is 13.8 at Richmond.

“We’ve had a good start to the season, and I’m looking forward to getting back in the car,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. says. “It was nice to have a weekend off and enjoy some time with friends, but I’m excited to get to the track and in the car for practice and see where we are at. On Saturday, everybody’s going to be hunting for the bottom line. The guys that get through the middle, can keep that left-front working that line, are going to have good runs. If you get off the bottom, it’s just so slick, you can’t really make any ground up there.”

Raymond Sides from The Fourth Turn podcast show chose Kevin Harvick for this weekend’s Toyota Owners 400. Harvick and his Stewart-Haas Racing team have absolutely been on fire this season and with Harvick having three wins (‘06, ’11 and ’13), seven top-five and 16 top-10 finishes at Richmond, look for the No. 4 team contending for the victory. Harvick has an average finish of 11.3 and ranks third best when it comes to average running positions at Richmond. Despite being the only driver with two victories this season, Harvick currently sits 22nd in the points standings. Along with the two wins, he also has two top-five and three-top-10 finishes this season, but it’s the two DNFs in only eight races that has him mired so far back in the standings.

“I grew up racing on a lot of really flat racetracks and Richmond is one of those tracks where the tires wear out a lot and it’s very line-sensitive,” Kevin Harvick says. “You’ve got to work on running well against the bottom of the racetrack, and trying to find grip for the front tires to turn and find grip on the exit of the corner, as well. It’s just a track that really fits my driving style.”

Chris Neal, The Fourth Turn’s Editor-In-Chief thinks Jeff Gordon will visit Victory Lane for the first time this season on Saturday night. Strangely enough even though Gordon has been extremely success at Bristol Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway, he only has two (’96 and ’00) victories at Richmond, and neither of them have even been in this decade. But, Jeff Gordon is currently experiencing one of the best starts he has ever had to a season. He’s the current points leader with three-top-five and six top-10 finishes. His average finish at Richmond is 14.1, and he  has 16 top-five and 26 top-10 finishes along with six poles, so even though he has only visited Victory Lane twice at Richmond, Gordon is a serious contender for Saturday night’s Toyota Owners 400.

“Richmond always presents the teams with a challenge because it’s a guessing game,” Jeff Gordon says. “We do our race runs and our qualifying practice runs during the day, but qualifying is later into the afternoon on Friday and the race is at night on Saturday. You know the track will change before qualifying starts on Friday, but how much will it change? And how much will the track have changed Saturday night compared to Friday?”

Whether these three drivers reach Victory Lane or not, Saturday’s race is bound to be one of the most entertaining events of the season. With NASCAR’s new requirements to reach the Chase, you can bet to see drivers go all-out in order to get a win. Who knows, maybe there will be another team order/intentional spin to change the entire outcome of the event. Doubtful, but I guess it could happen again. You can catch the Toyota Owners 400 live on FOX at 6:30 p.m. Saturday night. The race will also be aired on the Motor Racing Network. Be sure to keep checking @TheFourthTurn on Twitter for breaking news. Check out TheFourthTurn on Facebook, as well.