NASCAR at Richmond 2016: Preview, Prediction for the Toyota Owners 400

Brendan O'Meara@@BrendanOMearaFeatured ColumnistApril 20, 2016

NASCAR at Richmond 2016: Preview, Prediction for the Toyota Owners 400

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    The short-track circuit comes to a close Sunday as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series roars into Richmond for the Toyota Owners 400.

    It’ll be three-quarters of a mile done 400 times for this field, and defending winner Kurt Busch will attempt a repeat and stamp his passport to the Chase.

    Busch led 291 laps in a dominating performance in last year’s spring race.

    "It's a total team effort,” Busch said after the race in 2015. “And the way that everything came together, it just seemed like we were building, building and building towards a great finish like this.”

    Busch has been steady as they come in 2016, but can he overcome the sizzling-hot Joe Gibbs cars? Can he beat his own brother? It’s anybody’s guess, but that’s why we’re here.

    You know what to do. Click on through for this week’s preview and prediction.

By the Numbers: Richmond International Speedway

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    Toyota Owners 400

    Place: Richmond International Speedway

    Date: Sunday, April 24, 2016

    Pre-race Coverage: 10:30.m. (ET), NASCAR RaceDay, FS1

    Green Flag: 1:13 p.m. (ET), Fox

    Distance: 400 laps, 300 miles

    Defending winner: Kurt Busch

Current Driver Standings

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    1. Kevin Harvick, 287 points

    2. Carl Edwards, 286

    3. Jimmie Johnson, 271

    4. Joey Logano, 266

    5. Kyle Busch, 262

    6. Dale Earnhardt Jr., 250

    7. Kurt Busch, 247

    8. Brad Keselowski, 224

    9. Denny Hamlin, 222

    10. Martin Truex Jr., 214

    11. Austin Dillon, 213

    12. Chase Elliott, 205

    13. Jamie McMurray, 199

    14. AJ Allmendinger, 188

    15. Kasey Kahne, 185

    16. Ryan Newman, 182

    Bold denotes race winner

The Still-Too-Early-to-Watch Chase Bubble

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    The Two Above the Line

    Kasey Kahne

    Kahne…what can we say?

    Mr. Wrong Driver, Wrong Time, got into another tussle two weeks ago in Texas, this time with Greg Biffle.

    Kahne got in the way of Danica Patrick a few a weeks prior and now the Biff. What’s going on with the No. 5?

    "I felt really bad because we didn’t really need to do that,” Kahne said in Tom Jensen’s FoxSports.com story. “I had a hole on entry and then it kind of closed, and I should have lifted sooner instead of being that close to him."

    Despite his mishaps and averaging a mere 17.9 finish so far this season, Kahne has proven to be, if nothing else, a survivor.

    This will be the tale of his season for the No. 5 team.

    Ryan Newman

    Here comes Newman, up three spots and into the Chase Grid.

    The point guard himself has led one lap so far this season yet still boasts a No. 16 ranking in the driver standings.

    Is there another driver who grinds the way Newman does? A speeding penalty cost him a shot at winning at Bristol, yet Newman still climbed all the way up to ninth.

    Now he heads to Richmond, where he has one win (2004) and 16 top 10s. With the volatility in the too-early-to-watch Chase bubble, Newman could gain a couple more spots with a strong finish at RIR.

    The Two Below the Line

    Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

    This will be the tale of Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s season. He will bounce in and out of the top 16 for 26 races and…well, I don't know.

    This week he is out, but this race at Richmond is huge for drivers like him. Why? Richmond is the site of the 26th and final race of the regular season.

    Should he still be on the bubble—which we will gladly disclose as the Right-On-Time Chase Bubble—his spring romp through RIR could prove vital come September.

    Maybe he will win a race (unlikely), or maybe he’ll be in striking distance (likely). This race is ry important for the No. 17 team.

    So too for…

    Matt Kenseth

    I guess his time on Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! failed to bring him any luck at Bristol. (But we did learn that his first job was sizing mink furs at a mink farm. Who knew?)

    Apparently he is also a “set-your-cruise-[control]” guy while in civilian clothes, according to his time on WWDTM! Again, who knew?

    What Kenseth has going for him, aside from some pretty killer repartee with Peter Sagal, is that he’s the last winner at Richmond (fall, 2015), so that may be the kick in the spoiler he needs to reach the Chase.

    As it stands, he’s the only Joe Gibbs driver not in the Chase. Fashionably late in NASCAR never translates well.

Biggest Movers

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    Jim Cole/Associated Press

    Biggest Climb

    Matt DiBenedetto, Up Four

    Let’s give it up to Matt DiBenedetto for his performance at Bristol, coming home sixth, a career-best effort for this young driver.

    “I'm sorry I'm so emotional,” he said in Reid Spencer’s NASCAR.com story. “It's just this is like a win for us. I'm so excited. I see my family back here—my wife, Taylor, my brother is in town from the military and I'm so glad he got to experience this. This is just...this is incredible. I'm so blessed to be here."

    It didn’t vault him into the top 20 or anything of that nature, but it proved to be a feel-good moment, sort of like when Allmendinger took second at Martinsville.

    Carl Edwards, the race winner, added, “They finished sixth? Man that's unbelievable. That's probably tougher than what we did."

    What does this mean for DiBenedetto? It’s more of a confidence builder, validation that he belongs among these guys and that with a little luck and good timing, maybe he can sneak out a win at the right track.

    Biggest Fall

    Kenseth, Down Six

    Again, this has been the story of Kenseth’s season. After earning his way into the top 12 after the Duck Commander 500, Kenseth promptly dropped six spots at Bristol, down to 18th.

    Kenseth told Fox (via NASCAR.com):

    We just keep blowing right front tires, I don't know why. The first one was a little confusing, I knew I blew a right front, but I thought they were telling me it wasn't flat so I was a little confused. This one just blew a lot earlier and the angle was a lot worse hitting the wall. We really weren't very tight, our Dollar General Camry was pretty fast today. I was encouraged again today even though we don't have the result.

    It’s the curse of Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!*, somewhere, somehow on par with the Sports Illustrated cover jinx.

    *: Definitely not a thing.

Biggest Storylines

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. Rising?

    Two laps into the Food City 500, Earnhardt had no power, and it looked like Junior Nation was in for a long, disappointing day.

    The day may have been long, but it was far from disappointing. The No. 88 car rallied from down two laps to finish second by the end of the race.

    "We had about a 10th-place car," Earnhardt said in Bob Pockrass’ ESPN.com story. "We weren't really that good all day. We tried a setup that we've never really ran here before, just trying to learn a little something going forward, and we'll go home and science it out a little bit.”

    Science!

    Junior sits in sixth place in the driver standings and heads to Richmond where he has three wins but none since 2006.

    This could all set the table for Amelia’s return at Talladega in two Sunday’s time. But we’ll cross that bridge soon enough.

    Kurt Busch Aims for the Repeat, Kyle Busch Looks for Win No. 3

    No matter how you slice this pie, the Brothers Busch stand out as heavy favorites at Richmond.

    Kyle has four wins at Richmond, all with JGR, and Kurt has two, his most recent coming in 2015’s dominating win where he led nearly 75 percent of all laps.

    For Kyle, he’ll be more than content to put Bristol in his rearview. (He and Bristol are sort of on the outs.) Not only was the race his first did not finish of the season, but he also hit a woman with his car on the way to the garage. Nothing serious, but an incident he’ll want long gone.

    Kurt has been quietly solid so far this season with two top fives and an average finish of 10.5, this from an average start of 13.8, meaning he’s threading that car through traffic for strong finishes.

    Can Joe Gibbs Racing Sustain This Momentum?

    Three JGR drivers—Hamlin, Edwards and Kyle Busch—have four wins through eight races. Needless to say, JGR is the hot hand at this point of the season, but what good is that?

    The good is that three drivers are in the Chase. The bad comes with that peaking-too-soon mentality. Frankly, like NASCAR.com’s Kenny Bruce writes, winning early “opens the playbook.”

    He writes:

    [H]ow much does having a win change what a team does between victory and the start of the Chase?

    For some, it probably does change things somewhat. That win-and-you're-in mentality gives crew chiefs and engineers and even drivers the freedom to make changes and take chances without the concern of how it could affect them in the points standings.

    The sense of urgency for the three drivers with wins drops considerably.

    As for peaking too soon, that doesn’t apply too much in this sport. Track temps change. Engineers make adjustments. Luck plays a factor.

    In any case, we see that drivers and teams go through hot streaks and cool streaks. As for JGR, this hot streak to open the first quarter of the season could not have been drawn up any better.

Dark-Horse Pick: Chase Elliott

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    Elliott is onto something.

    With two top fives and five top 10s, he’s proving he’s worth the hype.

    A second straight top five for Elliott exiting Bristol keeps the No. 24 car on a vector that could lead to Victory Lane sooner than later.

    Elliott said in Pete Pistone’s MotorRacingNetwork.com story:

    We didn't start off like we wanted to, but we were able to kind of work through some things, lean on our teammates a lot. Friday night, kind of looked at some notes and what our teammates were doing that we felt like they were doing really well, and I feel like that saved us a lot this weekend, just to try to get in the ballpark and then start fine tuning what we needed personally. 

    So much of this season has hinged on comparisons between Elliott and his father, Bill. While this may get tiresome (internally, one presumes), Elliott the Younger is proving capable in his rookie season, and a win seems like a certainty at some point in 2016.

And the Winner Is...Carl Edwards

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    It's hard to pick against Carl Edwards and JGR at this moment in the space-time continuum.

    Take a look at this.

    Edwards has an average finish of 3.5 at the two short tracks this season. He took sixth at Martinsville and first at Bristol. Junior and Kurt Busch tie for second behind Edwards with average finishes of eighth.

    Edwards has one win at Richmond (2013) and an average finish of 14.0.

    We’ve got to take the hot hand here, and right now Edwards is the hottest driver on the short tracks for the hottest team in NASCAR this season.

    Stats come via Racing-Reference.info.