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Toyota Owners 400

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Richmond International Raceway always provides great racing, but it'll have to really come strong this week to top what was witnessed Monday at Bristol with the most competitive race of the season and easily the best racing at Bristol I've seen since the track made changes to the layout in 2007.

More on the Richmond race in a minute, but first let's talk about Dale Earnhardt Jr. who announced Tuesday that he'll be retiring at the end of the season. The first thing I thought of was of him not living up to the huge expectations placed upon him from his large fan base, much of which he inherited after his father passed in during the 2001 Daytona 500. He had 26 wins over his career, but he never won a championship.

Junior is a huge part of NASCAR and its image. He's handled being the face of the sport with total class, and it is with that portion of responsibility to the sport that made me like him so much. It's a heavy burden. Jimmie Johnson may have seven championships, but it's Junior who most that don't follow the sport identify with.

I started to get the idea Junior was ready to call it quits last season when he missed 18 races due to a concussion. I was actually surprised he came back at all this season after getting married, and of course knowing all too well how dangerous the sport is that he participates in. If his heart isn't into to it and he's not having fun, then it's time to go.

So we've seen Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards all retire in the past two years and Junior leaving is another sign of NASCAR moving on to new generation. However, I have a sneaky suspicion that Edwards will come out of retirement to drive the No. 88 next year. But for now, my hopes are that Junior finishes the season strong, wins a few races -- hopefully at Daytona and Talladega -- and contends for the title.

Alright, let's talk about Richmond.

Last season, five of the top-seven finishers in the spring Phoenix race finished in the top-seven in the spring Richmond race. It's the type of trend often seen each season between the first two races at the similar flat tracks. And its the same type of trend to follow for Sunday's Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond.

Although Phoenix has a 1-mile layout and Richmond's is a 3/4-mile, the set-up requirements are almost identical meaning that it will serve your handicapping process well to scour over the data from the March 19 Phoenix race where Ryan Newman used some late pit strategy to grab his first win since 2013. We can also use the same process in July at New Hampshire's flat 1-mile layout. If a driver does well on one, they'll likely do well on all three.

In 30 starts at Richmond, Newman has been very good with a 12.2 average finish, but his only win there came in 2003. He's someone to consider for fantasy value or maybe try $10 on a long shot wager at 60/1 odds, but I'm looking beyond the Phoenix winner and who actually dominated the race and that was Las Vegan Kyle Busch who led a race-high 114 laps finishing third.

With six laps to go, Busch was leading and cruising to victory when his chief rival Joey Logano wrecked and caused a caution. Busch chose pit under the yellow and get fresh tires, as did several others, but Newman chose to stay out and with fresh air in front of him, his tires held and no one could make the pass and Newman held on for the surprise win.

Other notables from the Phoenix race was Chase Elliott, who finished 12th and led 106 laps. Logano led 82 laps with all of them coming in the first third of the race where he was dominant. Kyle Larson finished second, Brad Keselowski fifth, Kevin Harvick sixth and Denny Hamlin was 10th.

After reviewing Phoenix it's time to look at recent Richmond history and right at the top as one of the best all-time at Richmond is Kyle Busch with a 6.9 average finish in 23 starts which includes 15 top-fives and four wins. No active driver has more Richmond wins than Busch. Last season after finishing fourth at Phoenix he was runner-up at Richmond leading 78 laps. His teammate, Carl Edwards, won which was kind of foretold by him finishing second at Phoenix. Edwards is now retired.

Denny Hamlin, a native Virginian, grabbed his third Richmond win in the September race and his 10.1 average-finish is second-best among active drivers. Harvick also has three wins and is third with a 10.4 average. Next is Larson at 11.3 in six starts. He was second to Hamlin last fall, but he's been the best overall driver this season.

Saturday's final practices will be the final part of the equation to finding the winner, but you should have a nice head start this week based on Phoenix and past Richmond history.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #18 Kyle Busch (6/1)
2) #20 Joey Logano (8/1)
3) #42 Kyle Larson (6/1)
4) #2 Brad Keselowski (8/1)
5) #11 Denny Hamlin (12/1)

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