Last week’s STP400 at Kansas Speedway was far from the Demolition Derby I predicted, with the construction crews coming up the big winner considering there were no big wrecks and very few caution flags. Now the track at Kansas is torn up and crews race against the clock to ensure the racing surface is prepared for the next NASCAR Sprint Cup (NSC) race in the fall. But amid all the hoopla of the track renovations, the eighth race of the 2012 season ended in “Denny Time,” as Denny Hamlin captured the Checkered Flag. And now the question is whether Denny Hamlin can score a repeat as we move on to Richmond International Raceway (RIR) for this week’s Capital City 400 Presented by Virginia Is For Lovers. We’re in for 400 laps (300 miles) of short track racing on this 3/4 mile oval, at a place that Hamlin nearly calls his second home. We’ll see what he’s got on this Saturday night under-the-lights action.
Tonight’s race coverage starts with NASCAR Pre-Race at 7:00pm EDT on FOX, with the race broadcast at 7:30pm EDT. Unfortunately, there has been little information broadcast on the Grand Marshals, Command to Fire “giver,” National Anthem Performer, and pre-race flyover unit. But the Green Flag will wave at approximately 7:43pm as Coors Light Pole Award winner Mark Martin’s #55 Aaron’s Dream Machine leads the field, with Carl Edwards’ #99 Ford EcoBoost Ford beside him in the front row.
Best Bets: Two two-time winners in my BB’s picks, with a host of three-timers elsewhere in my selections.
Kevin Harvick (#29 Jimmy John’s Gormet Sandwiches Chevrolet)- Kevin won the fall race here at RIR last year, and has one other victory to his name. He’s also posted six top-fives and fourteen top-tens. While winless this year, Harvick’s also posted two top-fives and five top-tens. In the last four races at RIR, the “Closer” has finished no worse than eleventh. He’ll start behind Pole Sitter Mark Martin, but was only twenty-fifth fastest in final practice.
Denny Hamlin (#11 FedEx Freight Toyota)- Denny has come out fighting this season, posting two wins, three top-fives, and four top-tens, and he’ll try to make this two wins in consecutive weeks. At Richmond, he’s had two wins, six top-fives, and eight top-tens. Hamlin’s been no worse than eleventh in three out of the last four RIR outings (throw out Spring 2011), and had his last win here in the fall of 2010. Denny’s hit his stride, and with a seventh-place starting position and fifteenth-fastest performance in final practice, expect this Virginia native to be a factor.
Probables: Two Hendrick teammates in this grouping.
Dale Earnhardt Jr (#88 National Guard/Diet Mt Dew Chevy)- Jr put in a valiant effort last week at Kansas, offering a seventh-place finish. He’s one of a handful of drivers with three wins here, and despite not placing very well in within the last two years here, Dale’s got eight top-fives and ten top-tens. Jr’s now at three top-fives and six top-tens through the first eight races, and despite a tenth-place starting position when the green flag waves, he was fastest in final practice. I’m seeing some good things happening for him tonight.
Jeff Gordon (#24 DuPont Chevy)- Big Daddy’s been struggling a bit this year, plagued by accidents and mechanical problems alike. He’s only scored a top-five and two top-tens so far this season, but has been no worse than twelfth in three of the last four RIR races, including a second and third-place finish. Two wins, fifteen top-fives, and twenty-four top-tens tells me Gordon knows how to navigate around this short track. Besides, he’s starting in sixth positions and was fourth-fastest in final practice. Don’t be surprised to see Big Daddy running up front all night.
Dark Horses- Two Toyotas bring this week’s Dark Horses to run.
Kyle Busch (#18 M&Ms Ms. Brown Toyota)- Yes, I’m bringing Kyle Busch back into the spotlight. While he’s not run well at all so far this season, barely posting a single top-five and three top-tens, history is on his side. He’s finished no worse than sixth the last four RIR races, including two wins during spring races. KyBu is also in the “three-win” club here, and has eleven top-fives and twelve top-tens (average finish 5th). He’ll start fifth, and was fifth-fastest in final practice.
Mark Martin (#55 Aaron’s Dream Machine)- Martin has been running surprisingly well this season in his Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota, battling Martin Truex Jr for the top-dog position at MWR. The last four races at Richmond, he’s seen a continually improving finish (25th, 20th, 14th, and 10th), and with a win, seventeen top-fives and twenty-eight top-tens, he too can find his way around this track. Martin will lead the field to Green as the Coors Light Pole sitter, and was thirteenth-fastest in Happy Hour.
Others to keep an eye on include Carl Edwards’ #99 machine (starting second and second-fastest in final practice), Martin Truex Jr and his #56 NAPA Brakes Toyota (starting eighth/twentieth fastest in final practice), and MWR Teammate Clint Bowyer’s #15 Five-Hour Energy Toyota (starts 23rd, sixth-fastest final practice).
Final Thoughts: Many drivers love this track, and with a NASCAR-leading four races in the state each season, Virginia loves NASCAR. There’s a 40% chance of rain tonight, and most everyone will be bundled up since temperatures are hovering around 50 degrees. But if it does rain, RIR will have five Jet Dryers to keep the racing surface dry, so hopefully any rain delays will be kept to a minimum. Looks like this will be an aptly-sponsored race tonight, as you can bet fans in the stands will be cuddling up with each other to stay warm. So tune in to FOX, your local Motor Racing Network affiliate, or on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Ch 90) for the racing action.
Apologies for the brevity of tonight’s picks, as I had some business commitments that need my attention. But I will be on the job this evening with my normal race updates, analysis, and occasional rants on Twitter (@speedglutton).
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