Ranking the Best Short-Track Drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
Driver Denny Hamlin had hoped to make a dramatic return to the Sprint Cup Series this Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway, and who could blame him? When it comes to short-track racing, Hamlin ranks amongst NASCAR’s best.
He’s won twice at Richmond, a .75-mile test that frequently produces some of the most exciting events in Sprint Cup. Hamlin also has claimed two poles at the track, along with registering seven top-five and nine top-10 finishes in 14 career starts.
Alas, Hamlin will not be in the 43-car field under the lights this Saturday. He’s still recovering from a compression fracture suffered in his lower back during a last-lap wreck in the Auto Club 400 at Fontana. With Hamlin out of the mix, there are plenty of other quality short-track racers poised to make their own runs at Victory Lane in Richmond, including several of the biggest names in the sport.
10. Carl Edwards
Carl Edwards has never won at Richmond, but it seems it’s only a matter of time. He thought he had put himself in position to win there last April, but NASCAR ruled that he jumped the restart with 85 laps to go in a controversial decision that took him from the lead to 15th after a penalty was enforced.
He couldn’t recover, wiping out his chance at victory on a night when he appeared to have the best car and led for 206 laps. He eventually had to settle for a disappointing 17th-place finish.
The performance, if not the finish, was indicative of an upward trend for Edwards at NASCAR’s short tracks, where he frequently struggled earlier in his career.
In his first 11 career starts at Richmond, for example, Edwards never finished higher than sixth, had only three top-10s and was 21st or worse five times. Edwards does have a pair of wins at Bristol and has run well at Martinsville at times, but does not yet have a win there either.
9. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Richmond is Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s favorite short track—and with good reason. He’s won three races there, leading a total of nearly 500 laps at Richmond International Speedway (RIR) in his career (per Racing-Reference.info).
When his car is really good, it tends to be really good, and he knows how to manage the variable banking that measures 14 degrees in the corners, eight degrees on the front stretch and just two degrees on the relatively flat backstretch. But when his car seems off from the start, he often struggles and finishes poorly. There seems to be little in between for him.
“I’ve had some really good runs, and won some races here,” he told the media at RIR Wednesday. “Then I’ve had some unexplainable poor runs; just had cars where I couldn’t get around the track.”
Earnhardt also has one win at Bristol in his career. But he’s always come up empty at Martinsville, NASCAR’s other short track. His driving style suits Richmond best, where there is more room to race, and it’s a faster track as opposed to the tighter quarters that require more bumping and banging at Bristol and Martinsville.
8. Clint Bowyer
Two of Clint Bowyer’s eight career victories have come at Richmond. Although he has yet to win at either Bristol of Martinsville, Bowyer is quickly gaining the hard-earned reputation of a driver who can win at all types of venues—and short tracks are no exception.
He calls Richmond “the perfect blend of speed” and “short-track racing at its best.” He told the media during a teleconference call last Tuesday that he wishes there were "five more tracks just like it across the country. “
"A fan can see us rooting and gouging and beating and banging on each other and really putting on a good show. …I grew up racing short tracks. I enjoy the short tracks. I’m relatively good on them, and that’s why I like them,” he added.
7. Kurt Busch
He really loves Bristol, baby. That’s where he’s won five times—two more than at any other track in the Cup Series. But he also has one Cup win apiece at Martinsville and Richmond, so he obviously knows how to get around a short track. That’s no surprise, given the training he and his younger brother, Kyle, received growing up.
Their father used to put them in go-karts and have them go at it against each other in a cul-de-sac near their Las Vegas home. When they got a little older, they cut their racing teeth at The Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway—one of the nation’s legendary dirt short tracks.
When the brothers wrecked each other during the 2007 Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, they didn’t speak to each other for months until their grandmother finally intervened at a family Christmas gathering. No word on if they settled things that day by heading out to the nearest cul-de-sac and climbing back into go-karts.
6. Tony Stewart
Richmond International Speedway is one of eight tracks where Tony Stewart, a three-time Cup champion, has won at least three races in his storied career. But it’s unlike any of the others, short track or otherwise, in his mind.
“It’s not one of my favorite tracks; it IS my favorite track,” Stewart told the media at RIR this week. “It’s the perfect-sized track for a Cup race. The other short tracks we run—Bristol and Martinsville—they’re cool in their own right, but there’s a lot of congestion at those two tracks.
At Richmond, it just seems that extra quarter-mile, and that three-quarter-mile shape and how wide the groove gets there, allows for good racing. It seems like we have to race ourselves and race the race track versus racing each other a lot of times.
You do have to race each other, obviously, but there are a lot of times during the race when you have the flexibility to move around on the race track and try to find a spot your car likes better than somewhere else. A lot of times on a short track, you don’t have that flexibility.”
5. Kevin Harvick
Kevin Harvick is the kind of racer with an edge who thrives on the beating and banging that goes into running a long race at one of NASCAR’s short tracks. He’s won at all of them, with one victory each at Bristol and Martinsville and a pair of triumphs at Richmond International Speedway (RIR).
Harvick also is a master at playing the game of attrition well at the short tracks. He knows to be in it to win it at the end, you first have to make sure you make it there in one piece. So even though it’s hard to bide your time in the close quarters of a short track, Harvick frequently seems able to do it and then emerge at the end to contend for the win.
Just ask Dale Earnhardt Jr. Harvick came out of seemingly nowhere to steal a victory from Junior at Martinsville in the spring of 2011—disappointing the legions of Earnhardt fans who thought their hero was about to win and giving Richard Childress Racing the organization’s first win at the track in 15 years.
4. Jeff Gordon
Obviously, he’s not what he once was at the short tracks or anywhere else. But Jeff Gordon can still get it done at virtually any given venue on any given day. That especially includes road courses and short tracks.
Richmond is actually the weak link in Gordon’s short-track resume. He’s won only twice at the venue—as compared to seven at Martinsville and five at Bristol. Combine the three, though, and he’s had the staggering totals of 58 top-five finishes, 80 top-10s and 17 poles to go along with his 14 victories.
He’s generally as polite and as patient as he needs to be to stay out of trouble in the early to mid-stages of the races, but willing to move people out of the way to get to the front toward the end. And once he’s out front, he usually closes the deal.
3. Kyle Busch
People tend to forget how young Kurt’s younger brother, Kyle is. Even though he’s in his 10th season as a Cup driver, he won’t turn 28 years old until May 2.
And yet, he’s already piled up some impressive numbers on NASCAR’s three short tracks: five wins, eight top-five and 12 top-10 finishes in 17 starts at Bristol; eight top-fives and nine top-10s in 17 starts at Martinsville—the only short-track venue where he has yet to win; and four wins, 12 top-five and 13 top-10 finishes in 16 starts at Richmond.
You’ve got to be fast, you’ve got to race with an edge and you’ve got to be willing to do whatever it takes at the end to get to Victory Lane. In short, you’ve got to be fearless. It helps to be young AND fearless.
2. Denny Hamlin
Denny Hamlin’s injury, suffered on March 24, is supposed to keep him sidelined at least six weeks. But Hamlin has been holding out hope that he will return sooner than expected.
He had even hinted in recent days that he might be able to get back in his No. 11 Toyota by this weekend, but doctors did not give him the clearance he needed (per www.crash.net), costing him a date at one of the tracks he enjoys racing at the most.
He already missed a great chance to score a short-track win when he had to sit out the April 7 race at Martinsville Speedway, the paper-clip-shaped venue that measures .526 miles.
Hamlin has four victories there—the most he’s had at any track, equaled only by the four he also has registered at Pocono—as well as 12 top-10 finishes and nine top-fives in 15 career starts. He also has one win at Bristol, giving him a clean career sweep of NASCAR’s three short tracks.
It’s all enough to make you wonder if any of his fellow competitors dispatched sincere get well wishes for this weekend. They’d probably prefer that he makes his return on another type of track.
1. Jimmie Johnson
Who else but "Five Time?" While it’s true that earlier in his career he admittedly was baffled by Bristol, that moment of self-doubt has long since passed.
Now that he’s added a win at Bristol to his racing resume—his only one at the .533-mile track came in the spring of 2010—it can be safely argued that no one currently runs better more consistently at the three short tracks.
He’s finished fourth or better in five of the last nine Bristol races, including ninth or better in seven of those nine.
And he’s much better at Martinsville, where he’s won eight times and finished in the top five in 16 of 23 career starts, as well as at Richmond, where he’s won three times. And it’s not just the wins.
No one is better at taking a car that should finish 15th and finishing in the top five or seven with it. That aids his mastery of the short tracks and is why he’s a five-time Cup champion.