NASCAR preview: Who’s heading to Victory Lane this week at RIR?

Posted on Thursday, April 25, 2013 at 11:04 am

April 1, Jaime McMurray hit the tracks at RIR in the #1 Chevrolet for Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing.Drivers would do some laps to generate data, then come back to the pits analyze it.

Race Week.

The term evokes excitement, nerves, traffic, and plenty of economic activity in the Richmond area, much of it finding its way into Hanover County at hotels, restaurants, shopping destinations and special events.

In the fall, the focus is the race being the final chance to “make the Chase.” In spring, the battle to make the Chase is still in its first half, with plenty of contenders, many questions, and fewer answers.

As we get you ready for this weekend, we’ll focus on Saturday Night’s Toyota Owners 400 and take you through our “Four Turns” that, we believe, may determine who goes to victory lane, who leaves Richmond in better shape, and who departs RIR at more of a disadvantage.

TURN ONE: Can anyone beat Kyle Busch? The younger Busch has owned victory lane on Saturday night at RIR in springtime, having won the last four races. Of his four wins, the closest call for Busch was in 2010, when he beat Jeff Gordon to the checkered flag by .755 of a second.

The last driver other than Busch to win the event? That would be Clint Bowyer in 2008, who, ironically, won the last Sprint Cup race in Richmond last September. Busch comes to RIR seventh in Sprint Cup point standings with two wins this year (Fontana and Texas), 54 points behind current leader, five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

In 2009, Busch added the pole and a win in the Nationwide race on Friday to complete a triple crown of sorts. He was second to Bowyer in 2008, his first year driving a Toyota, and second to Johnson in 2007 in a Chevrolet. Add a fifth place finish in 2006 and a fourth in his first spring race in Richmond in 2005, and there seems to be nothing Kyle Busch cannot do when flowers bloom in Central Virginia. Busch comes to Virginia wanting to forget Kansas, where he crashed and had his worst 2013 finish, 38th.

TURN TWO: Will Denny Hamlin run? The top question entering this Race Week is will the hometown hero be healthy enough to at least start on Saturday night? His Tuesday night tweet, “no update tonight guys,” also found on the home page of his website, gives no clue. Over the weekend, he put his chances at “50-50.” This could mean anything from starting the Sprint Cup race, then yielding to a back-up driver, likely Brian Vickers, to his missing not only his fourth Sprint Cup start, but his own charity event on Thursday evening.

Hamlin is a mainstay in the spring race, finishing fourth last year and second in 2011. He led the most laps in 2009 (148) but finished 14th, and in 2008 (381), yet placed 24th. Being Richmond, any decision is likely to be emotional for Denny, but, in the end, he may be better waiting one more week, as doctors believe he will be 75 percent ready to race a week later in Talladega. Hamlin is currently 26th in the points race, one slot behind Danica Patrick, 166 points behind Johnson, and 79 points out of the Top 12.

TURN THREE: Will Toyotas own? This will be the first spring event raced under the “Toyota Owners 400” title, and with Kyle Busch in a Toyota, one wonders if the title will also serve as a prophecy?  Just two years ago, Toyotas swept the top three positions (Busch, Hamlin, Kasey Kahne). Bowyer’s September victory came in a Toyota, with Mark Martin and Matt Kenseth in the top five. Kenseth won last week in Kansas. Do not be surprised if a Camry sits in victory lane, even if, somehow, Kyle Busch isn’t the one who drives it in.

TURN FOUR: What about Junior? No victories yet in 2013, but a second at Daytona, another at Fontana and five top-seven finishes to open the season help place Dale Earnhardt Jr. in fifth in Sprint Cup points standings. The last three races have not been kind, with finishes at 24th, 29th, and last week in Kansas, 16th. Can the #88 Chevy be the one to knock both Busch and Toyota out of the top spot for the first time in five years? Junior need only look back to last year at RIR when he was neck and neck with Busch after the final caution for an eight-lap fight to the finish. Busch pulled away from Junior quickly en route to the win by a margin of just over one second. A victory would be Dale’s first in the spring race here since 2006.

NOTES: After peaking at 112,000 in 2008, the spring Saturday night race has seen attendance drop yearly since. RIR officials hope they reached bottom last year when 88,000 fans attended the Capital City 400. Last year’s race only featured five cautions for a total of 31 laps and an impressive average speed of 105.202 mph, causing the race to be run in just 2 hours, 51 minutes, 20 minutes faster than the average race time from 2007 to 2011.

For race-day information, visit RIR’s website. The  Herald-Progress will also keep you up to date on our NASCAR page.

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