NASCAR: 7 Bold Predictions for Saturday Night's Race in Richmond
Richmond International Raceway is known for producing thrilling excitement on the track. At three-quarters of a mile, it is the third-shortest track on the Sprint Cup circuit and there is always action going on somewhere.
Like the other short tracks, Richmond tends to be a track that certain drivers get dialed in and proceed to dominate for several races. Dale Earnhardt Jr. had two wins and a runner-up during a five-race stretch from 2004 to 2006. Jimmie Johnson won three of four races in 2007 and 2008.
Lately, it's been the Joe Gibbs drivers dominating, with Kyle Busch winning the last two spring races and Denny Hamlin the last two fall events.
What will happen at Richmond on Saturday night? No one knows, but here are my best predictions at what to expect.
A Joe Gibbs Driver Will Not Win the Race
Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin have combined to win the last four Richmond races, with Busch sweeping the spring events and Hamlin winning the races leading into the 2009 and 2010 Chases.
Meanwhile, Joey Logano posted a personal-best Richmond finish of fourth last fall. He was actually the fastest car on the track for the last 50 laps or so.
However, the streak of JGR drivers winning at Richmond will come to an end. Hamlin has been terrible all year, with just a single top 10. His team will need to start running better before Hamlin will be in position for wins at any track, even one where he's been dominant the last few seasons.
Logano has also struggled this season. Any edge his team gained from a strong run last fall has long since fallen by the wayside.
Busch has been the lone bright spot for JGR this season. He's led nearly 500 laps and has the team's only Cup win. However, his streak of winning the spring races at Richmond is bound to come to an end sooner or later. For all his success at the track, he's led only 624 laps, despite having 10 top fives.
Odds are he won't be the one in front when the checkered flag waves.
Jeff Burton Will Rebound, Kevin Harvick Will Struggle for RCR
Both RCR drivers have good overall stats at the three-quarter mile Virginia short track. Burton has nine-career Richmond top fives in 33 starts, while Harvick has five in 20. Each driver has one Richmond victory.
Burton has been strong at Richmond lately. He has three top sixes in the last five races. Along with his win, he's led 928 laps at the track in his career. I expect him to turn around his season with a strong run Saturday night. Whether or not it's too late to make a run at the Chase is another issue entirely for Burton, who's been plagued by bad luck all season long.
Harvick has also been strong at Richmond lately. With this prediction, I'm more going on a hunch than anything else.
Harvick is due for a letdown. Sure, he won the last short-track race (Martinsville), but he barely got his car where he needed it to be in time. That's not a long-term recipe for success. Same with his California win; he led just the final lap of the race.
He's led just 59 laps all year, and Richmond is a place where it can be dangerous to be in a hurry, which Harvick will be if he starts near the back. His average start is 18.1, which doesn't bode well.
Then again, he'll probably get a top five and prove my hunch wrong while Burton runs like junk yet again this season.
Paul Menard Will Come Back to Earth
The Paul Menard Show will come back to earth at Richmond.
All season long, the Wisconsin driver has been outperforming expectations. The one exception so far was Martinsville, where Menard finished 38th following a crash.
His average finish at Richmond is 27.25. He has just one top 20 in eight-career starts, a 16th in his first Richmond start ever. He has yet to finish higher than 26th since, and he's led only one lap at the track.
Those facts suggest that Menard will likely struggle on Saturday night. If he does, he'll likely drop out of the Chase zone for good, especially with Darlington looming on the horizon (Menard has finished 30th or worse in three of four Darlington starts).
But if Menard pulls off another shocker and finds his way into the top 10 by the waving of the checkered flag, he will go a long way toward proving his legitimacy as a candidate for being a Chase-caliber driver.
Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson Will Fight for the Win
Just as they did at Talladega two weeks ago, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson will battle for the win at Richmond Saturday night.
Gordon has the second-best average finish in the last four Richmond races at 6.25. Surprisingly he has just two Richmond victories, and the last of these came in 2000. But he's been stout at the 0.75-miler lately. Before a 12th-place result last fall, Gordon had seven-straight top 10s, including four top fives.
Johnson has three career Richmond wins, all in 2007 and 2008. Since then, he's led only seven laps, but finished worse than 11th only once. Johnson and the No. 48 team are getting rolling after a sluggish start to the year and they should be in the mix at the end.
Last fall, Johnson finished third behind Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, and the JGR drivers have been struggling this season—Hamlin especially. Their difficulties could open the way for different drivers to win at Richmond for the first time since 2008. Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon figure to be right in the mix.
The Race Will Be Better Than Last September's Show
Most of the excitement as the laps wound down last September at Richmond involved watching Kyle Busch fail in his attempts to pass Denny Hamlin for the lead. Other than that, the most interesting speculation was that if the race had been about 100 laps longer, Joey Logano could have threatened for the win, as he had the fastest car on the track.
The rest of the race was fairly humdrum as well. There were only a few cautions. Michael Reutimann was spun out by Kurt Busch, but no one else was involved. There was also a caution for rain which lasted less than 10 minutes.
Richmond is known for putting on great racing shows and exciting finishes. The odds of two sub-par races in a row are very small, and fans can expect racing excitement up to the usual standards on Saturday night.
Ryan Newman and Clint Bowyer Will Run Top 5 and Threaten for the Win
Clint Bowyer has the third-best average finish of any active driver at Richmond at 9.8. Only Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin have better averages.
Bowyer won at Richmond back in 2008, the only driver other than Jimmie Johnson to win from 2007-2008. He's never had a DNF in 10 races.
The runner-up in the last two Sprint Cup races, Bowyer is hungry for a win. He'll be doing all he can to find Victory Lane for a second Richmond victory.
Newman, meanwhile, is the owner of the fifth-best Richmond average finish at 11.75. He's led 437 laps at the track and has one career victory at the track.
Newman has no DNFs in 18 Richmond races and hasn't finished lower than 11th since 2008. I expect him to run up front and potentially challenge for his first win in over a year.
Losing Streaks Will Continue
Richmond won't see the end of any long losing streaks. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton, Kasey Kahne and Mark Martin will not reach Victory Lane to end 50-plus race winless streaks. Nor will Brian Vickers, Joey Logano or Brad Keselowski.
Of that bunch of drivers, Logano might have the best shot after running a strong fourth in last fall's Richmond race, but JGR has been down this year and Logano is mired in 24th place in the standings with a single top 10. He'll need to show consistent improvement before hoping for a win.
Junior has been strong at Richmond in the past and has three career wins here, but he has finished outside the top 20 in the past four races.
Burton has been better, with top fives in the last two spring Richmond races, but he has struggled mightily this season and it's been 13 races since his last Sprint Cup top 10.
Martin, Kahne, Vickers and Keselowski have also been struggling this year, and their teams will have to pick it up before they can expect to break their winless streaks.
Enjoy the race!