It’s time to change directions as Sprint Cup drivers go from restrictor plates to hoping they have really good brakes on Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway for the Crown Royal Presents the Heath Calhoun 400 in Virginia.
Short track racing is some of the best of the season, and after two early-season rumbles in Bristol and Martinsville, there’s bound to be plenty of drivers who'll get hot under the collar at Richmond.
Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson are continuing to point fingers after they’re latest run-in at Talladega. Neither driver is very appreciative of how the other is racing him, and if that’s the case, they’re going to have plenty of problems with other drivers on Saturday, where the racing is nothing but beating and banging.
Defending Crown Royal/Calhoun 400 champ Kyle Busch is ready to beat his way into victory lane. Busch hasn’t celebrated a NSCS win since August at Bristol, and after dominating this event a year ago on his birthday, he might be the hungriest driver to make it two straight.
But in order for Busch, or any of the other 41 competitors vying to take home the checkered flag, they may have to beat home-state heroes Jeff Burton and Denny Hamlin.
Burton has had all the bad luck in the world thus far in 2010, leading the most laps in multiple races, only to come up empty and finish no better than 20th in four of his last six races.
Hamlin, on the other hand, has two wins already this season, and he won the last race that was held at Richmond. No driver gets more excited to race at his home tracks than Hamlin, and he’ll look to make it 2-for-2 on the year with victories in Old Dominion.
While the racing is guaranteed to be exciting, just think back to the finish in 2008, when Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. got together, and it’s never too early to think about points.
Johnson is still the point leader, and chasing his fifth-straight Sprint Cup title. Richmond will be of importance to many drivers this weekend, because the next time they visit this track will be September, their final chance to make the Chase.
Drivers that will be taking studious notes Saturday night will be those currently on the outside looking in. The likes of Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, and Jamie McMurray, all need decent runs at Richmond to propel them into the Chase, so they won’t have to worry 17 races from now.
Points are not what our "Creatures" prognosticators care about. They’ve been on a three-race losing streak and have seen valuable bonus point’s slip away. However, they’re not giving up, and are back at it for another week as they look for the driver to complete 400 laps around Richmond before 42 other ones.
Here’s who they believe will be the first to the finish line in the Crown Royal/Heath Calhoun 400.
Misan Akuya: Tony Stewart
Saturday is May 1—May Day — and what is the importance of that, other than blooming flowers you ask? Well, this is the time of year that Tony Stewart picks up the pace, wins everything in sight, and starts a serious bid for the championship.
Richmond is Stewart's favorite track, and the stats don't lie, with three wins here, and since 2005 he has only finished outside top 10 here twice, and outside top five four times. Stewart got his first win here in his rookie year, leading 331 of 400 laps. Expect Stewart to dominate Saturday night.
James Broomhead: Denny Hamlin
OK, ignore the knee, Texas a fortnight ago proved that it's pretty much a non-factor, so Denny should be back to his best, and his best is short, flat tracks. And Richmond is what class? Yes, a .75-mile bull ring, with relatively low banking. Need I say more?
Kelly Crandall: Denny Hamlin
There is just something about racing in Virginia that gets Denny Hamlin pumped up. After winning one of his home state races in Martinsville in March, he's now looking for another, as well as his third win of the year. While I’m sick of hearing about his knee every time he’s talked about, it doesn’t seem to be slowing him down. And if everything goes well on Saturday, it won’t be surprising to see Hamlin contending for the win.
Billy Fellin: Kyle Busch
As much as it pains me to write that, Busch is money at RIR. I think he will break out of his slump and have a strong showing.
Adam Heasley: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
I just have that feeling that he is going to break into the winner’s circle soon, very soon. I think Richmond would be a good start!
Christopher Leone: Kyle Busch
I’m going to bet the farm on Kyle Busch this weekend, if only because the pick seems too good to be true. He has eight top fives in 10 Richmond starts. Yes, that’s right, eight top fives. His average finish is a Jimmie Johnson-esque 6.0.
Kara Martin: Kyle Busch
I was in Richmond last May when Busch swept the entire weekend; I have seen firsthand what he can do on that short track. He has not won a race since last August and is long overdue! This will be the race to break the streak and it is one of those rare opportunities that I will be cheering on Rowdy for the win!
Dustin Parks: Denny Hamlin
There's just something about being at your home track that brings out the best in a driver. I went between the Gibbs teammates trying to get the best option. But, eventually had to settle on the hometown boy.
Hamlin has run incredibly well at Richmond since 2008, dominating each race. But, the first three attempts always had something happen that kept him from victory. Finally, he broke through last fall, dominating AND winning at his home track. It was a long time coming.
I'm going with him again because the last time these cars were at a shorter track was Phoenix and Hamlin toughed out the entire race, even though he finished way back. Now, he's got confidence in himself and the team has become extremely confident in him.
Special delivery: The FedEx Toyota is going to back up his win.
Patti Rodisch: Jeff Gordon
For a driver who has been close to victory lane so many times this season already, Jeff Gordon will finally win on Saturday night. He has two wins at the track but his average finish is just 17.2. In his last two visits he has qualified in the top 10 and ran there for most of the race.
Gordon has been in the news recently with his run-ins with teammate Jimmie Johnson the last two weeks and there will be a lot of focus on them this weekend. Gordon should be hoping the focus is in victory lane with him and his team on Saturday night.
Sal Sigala Jr.: Denny Hamlin
Hamlin won at Richmond last season and since he has had the surgery his driving style seems to have changed. Hamlin already won once since coming off the surgery at Texas and the Toyotas so far have been strong this season.
Maybe it's because of the pain, he is feathering the brake pedal a little less lightly which is helping him to roll in and out of the corners more freely.
With Richmond being a track that requires a driver to be precise with how he handles his brakes going into the corners, this could play into Hamlin's strategy and hopefully get him into victory lane.
Rob Tiongson: Clint Bowyer
Continuing with the RCR revitalization that seems to happen every 2-3 years, I'm going with this two-time Chase entrant who knows how to win on the Cup circuit. While it's been two years since he last won, after seeing the joys and euphoria of teammate Kevin Harvick soaking in Victory Lane at Richmond, you have to think that this older but still young gun has what it takes to get back in the winner's circle.
David Yeazell: Jimmie Johnson
Who better than someone that just seems to have everything fall his way. He’s a three-time winner at Richmond and won at the short-track of Bristol earlier this year. It’s time for him to go back to victory lane and show that Jeff Gordon isn’t in his head.
Kara Martin (1,251) Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 13th (1)
Kelly Crandall (1,221) Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 13th (0)
Sal Sigala Jr. (1,200) Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 13th (0)
Dustin Parks (1,162) Jeff Gordon finished 22nd (1)
Billy Fellin (1,131) Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 13th (1)
David Yeazell (1,120) Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 13th (0)
Christopher Leone (1,110) Joey Logano finished 36th (1)
Rob Tiongson (1,043) Jamie McMurray finished second (0)
James Broomhead (1,037) Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 13th (1)
Patti Rodisch (1,007) Paul Menard finished 25th (0)
Misan Akuya (996) Jeff Gordon finished 22nd (0)
Adam Heasley (725) NO PICK SENT (0)
If there is any track besides Daytona and Talladega where the saying, "It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish," comes into play, it would be Richmond. Drivers have started in the front, in the middle, and in the back of the pack, and found their way to victory lane. Don’t be discouraged by a poor qualifying effort.
If there is one thing to look out for, it is the Fords. They haven’t been seen in victory lane since September 2005, when Busch won when he was driving for Roush-Fenway Racing. Since then, Chevrolet has won six-straight races, and Toyota won both events in 2009.
Summary of Picks
Denny Hamlin – 4
Kyle Busch – 3
Tony Stewart – 1
Jeff Gordon – 1
Dale Earnhardt Jr. – 1
Clint Bowyer – 1
Jimmie Johnson – 1