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Toyota Owners 400 preview

 

After non-stop weekly NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing since early February, it was kind of a weird feeling as the series took Easter Weekend off. And while I was ready for little break during the week from sifting through all the team press releases and extensively reviewing practices, when Sunday came around, I must say I really missed not having a race to watch.

But if there was ever a track that was well worth the wait it’s definitely a Saturday night special at Richmond’s three-quarter mile flat track where the racing is tight and the speeds are slow enough that allow drivers to feel not too bad about punting another.

Between the drivers getting after one another and the rowdy fans from the Capital of the Confederacy partying strong all weekend, there is always an electric buzz that translates well to television. Richmond also provides a great betting opportunity. It’s been fairly easy to predict just because of being able to utilize results from similar tracks already raced on during the season.

Richmond has it’s regulars that always seem to perform well there, but the better data has been to look at what happened at either Phoenix or New Hampshire in previous races. Phoenix and New Hampshire are both one-mile tracks, but they are also flat and run similar.

Last season we saw Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards each win at both Phoenix and Richmond, and we’ve also seen Kurt Busch (2005), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2004) and Matt Kenseth (2002) do it, as well as Harvick again in 2006. Jimmie Johnson also did in twice in recent years (2007-08). There are several others too prior to that sample. If we throw in New Hampshire, it's an even longer list, but we haven't seen a race there yet this season.

So if we go back to the Mar. 2 race at Phoenix, we'll see that there were two drivers that dominated the afternoon -- Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and then Brad Keselowski to an extent. Harvick would lead a race high four times for 224 of the 312 laps en route to the win. Logano, who finished fourth, would lead the next largest chunk of laps with 71. Earnhardt Jr. finished second (didn't lead a lap), Keselowski third, Jeff Gordon fifth and Johnson sixth.

Those top six Phoenix finishers also have been fast just about everywhere this season, and while Harvick may only be a meaningless 22nd in points, he leads the series with two wins and probably could have had two other wins as well if his car didn’t have issues. The guy has routinely been one of the best during practice sessions this season. But it's hit or miss with him. If his car can stay on the track, he's probably going to run in the top-5 everywhere, and at a track like Richmond where he's won three times, he's worth the risk, even though he is the 6/1 co-favorite.

Logano and Keselowski have been right there with Harvick in practices and each have wins already, while the top-two in points -- Gordon and Kenseth -- are still winless. Add Johnson to that group searching for win No. 1 on the season as well.

Denny Hamlin always has to be considered whenever a race run in his home state of Virginia. He's a two-time winner at Richmond and has the highest NASCAR loop rating since the system began in 2005. He's done a great job this season with finishing well in cars that were much slower than he would have liked. His cars certainly don't look as bad as the ones Joe Gibbs Racing gave him in the second half of 2013, but he still remains a wait and see. The LVH Super Book posted Hamlin at 7/1 odds which pays the ultimate compliment to his success at Richmond. His low odds and current form make him a no-play, but he should be paid close attention to in Friday's practices just in case his team finds speed.

The only driver we haven’t talked about that has a great shot Saturday night is Kyle Busch, who is the 6/1 co-favorite with Harvick. He won at least one race at Richmond for four straight seasons (2009-12) until finally getting slowed last season. But his 7.2 average finish is best among all active drivers. He finished ninth at Phoenix.

The driver that has the most upside because of his total performance, and finishing fourth at Phoenix, along with juicy 12/1 odds this week, is Logano. He had a career best third-place in this race last season, which was his first season with Penske Racing. The Penske cars have consistently been better than everyone else. They have been the most outstanding of all when considering fast qualifying and practices actually translating to the race. Look for Logano to be there with a chance to win in the final stages.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #22 Joey Logano (12/1)
2) #18 Kyle Busch (6/1)
3) #4 Kevin Harvick (6/1)
4) #2 Brad Keselowski (7/1)
5) #24 Jeff Gordon (10/1)

  
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