Richmond Preview: Toyota No Favorite at RIR

By Jared Turner

Saturday night’s race at Richmond International Raceway is called the Toyota Owners 400.

But the past four times the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has convened at the .75-mile Virginia short track, it’s been a Ford or a Chevrolet in Victory Lane.

Last season, the Team Penske Fords of Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski swept the two Richmond races, respectively, as Logano took the checkered flag in the spring and Keselowski led 383 of 400 laps on the way to a dominant triumph in the fall.

The previous year, it was the Roush Fenway Racing Ford of Carl Edwards taking the win in September, after the Chevrolet of Kevin Harvick reigned supreme in April.

One must go all the way back to the fall of 2012 to find the most recent Toyota winner at Richmond. On that September night, Clint Bowyer drove his Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota to Victory Lane and in the process delivered Toyota’s seventh Richmond win in eight events.

Over that stellar stretch for Toyota, Kyle Busch won four Richmond races for the Japanese automaker, while Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin triumphed twice.

Busch won’t be in Saturday night’s showdown at RIR as he continues to recover from injuries suffered in the season-opening XFINITY Series race at Daytona International Speedway.

Hamlin and other Toyota drivers will be on hand, however, and rest assured they’re ready to usher in a return to the automaker’s glory days in a race where Toyota is the entitlement sponsor.

Toyota teams certainly have reason for optimism coming into the weekend, as Hamlin (Martinsville) and JGR teammate Matt Kenseth (Bristol) have prevailed on the season’s first two short tracks.

“I really enjoy getting to race Saturday night at a short track like Richmond because it reminds me of growing up and racing Friday and Saturday nights back in Wisconsin,” Kenseth said. “We were fortunate enough to earn the pole for last year’s race, and JGR has had pretty strong cars there in the past, so I’m looking forward to getting back there this weekend.”

But the Toyota teams will have plenty of competition at Richmond, where Ford will look to extend its winning streak to four races.

“In my mind, Richmond is real short-track racing,” said Keselowski, whose victory at Richmond last year was his first at the Virginia short track. “It’s a very fast short track and things happen in a hurry. This is another one of the tracks that require a driver to manage tires. The other thing that I think of when I think of Richmond is pit stops. It’s true at every track, but here with the laps being so quick a bad stop will really hurt your race. I like racing at Richmond. … This weekend is a welcome opportunity to demonstrate what we are capable of and we will do all that we can to get our Ford to Victory Lane.”

If there’s any driver poised to stand in the way of Ford continuing its Richmond winning streak or Toyota starting a new one, it’s Chevrolet’s Harvick.

A three-time Richmond winner, Harvick has been by far the fastest driver of 2015 in his Stewart-Haas Racing Chevy.

He’s also the last driver to win at Richmond who wasn’t in a Chevy or a Toyota.

“I grew up racing on a lot of really flat racetracks and Richmond is one of those tracks where the tires wear out a lot and it’s very line-sensitive,” said Harvick. “You’ve got to work on running well against the bottom of the racetrack, and trying to find grip for the front tires to turn and find grip on the exit of the corner, as well. It’s just a track that really fits my driving style.”