After the first off week of the season, the Sprint Cup Series takes to the three-quarter mile Richmond International Raceway Saturday night. Here's a look at the particulars for the Toyota Owners 400.
Richmond woes baffles Johnson
Although an exaggeration to some degree, it was a rare admission from Jimmie Johnson on the performance of his No. 48 team at Richmond.
"We suck here," Johnson said. "We're terrible and hopefully we are a lot better this weekend. The last couple trips especially -- we have been junk."
While Johnson does have three Richmond victories to his credit, recently he has struggled on the Virginia short track. The defending Sprint Cup champion's last top-five came in 2010, and in his previous six starts his average finish is 18.3 -- not exactly numbers indicative of how dominant Johnson has been most elsewhere.
So why isn't he better at Richmond, especially considering his prowess on short tracks? It's an answer Johnson doesn't know.
"We always evaluate our performance here and say, ‘maybe it was this', and we pursue what was down that road and come back with new hope and then unload and have a frustrating practice," he said. "We manage okay finishes for the most part but we know we should be better than that."
Despite several near misses and leading the second-most laps overall, Johnson enters Richmond winless on the year. The No. 48 car was solid in practice, posting top-10 speeds in each of the two rounds of practice. Whether that will translate to Johnson scoring his first victory of 2014 at Richmond remains to be seen.
"It would be great to get it here especially at a track we have struggled at the last few times here," Johnson said. "We have knocked on the door a few times and I think a win is out there for us very soon, hopefully this weekend."
Short track, short tempers
A month ago was the last time the Sprint Cup Series competed at a short track, and not surprisingly many a driver left Martinsville holding grudges.
The most memorable tussle involved Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch, which began when the two made contact during an early pit stop and sent Keselowski to the garage early with significant damage. Upset with what he perceived as Busch's recklessness, Keselowski made sure to express his displeasure by hounding Busch relentlessly on the track.
Busch would go on to win, and in his post-race press conference made it known Keselowski had a payback coming somewhere down the road. And without another short track until August, Richmond offers Busch his best opportunity to extract revenge.
Keselowski isn't the only driver Busch may have a vendetta against. Two weeks ago at Darlington, Busch and Clint Bowyer had a late-race encounter which sent Busch head-on into the front stretch wall. Bowyer readily admitted he was at fault and even reached out to Busch to apologize.
The gesture was never acknowledged, which creates suspicions that Bowyer may be another one of Busch's targets Saturday night.
"It was quite clear that I got into the back of him and wrecked him," Bowyer said. "You always feel bad when that happens.
"Obviously you reach out to somebody in that circumstance, but you understand the frustration and you put yourself in those shoes -- you probably wouldn't reply back either. It ain't worth a whole lot."
Hamlin searching for short track mojo
Few are as adept on a short track as Denny Hamlin, who owns seven victories on tracks less than a mile and since his 2006 rookie year, is second only to Johnson in laps led.
That short track mastery, however, has conspicuously vanished. In his last six combined races at Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond Hamlin has just two top-10s and hasn't been the prevailing force he once was. Last month at Martinsville, a track where he's typically sublime, the Virginia native was merely ordinary in finishing 19th.
"I feel like over these last couple years -- really since these Generation 6 cars, we as an organization have struggled," Hamlin said. "We've really lost our edge on these short tracks. We're trying to get some of that good feel in the car back."
Hamlin enters Richmond confident he will be back among the contenders this weekend. That confidence stems from back-to-back races at Texas and Darlington where the No. 11 car was among the fastest on the track, only for those good runs to be stunted by mistakes on pit road.
"I feel like it's a good time for us to come here," Hamlin said. "We went from a very subpar car the first practice to, in just one hour later, we feel like is somewhere around a top-five car. We're making gains and heading in the right direction."
One thing Hamlin must avoid Saturday is self-induced mistakes, a common theme for the No 11 team in 2014. In addition to pit road speeding penalties at Texas and Darlington, there have been myriad of other races where the finishes didn't meet expectations. (Hamlin also missed Fontana due to an eye injury.)
"There's 50 or 60 points are off the table that we should have," Hamlin said. "It's a fine balance that I wish we could have a win. We're so far off with our cars right now, I wish we could try some dramatically different setups and things, but we still have to keep the points thing in mind if for some reason we don't get a win -- we need to be one of those guys that are high enough in points to get a (Chase) berth that way."
1. Kevin Harvick
As if being the best driver and team combination this season isn't enough, Harvick won this race last year and has three Richmond victories to his name. The only uncertainty hinges on whether the No. 4 car can make it to the finish intact.
2. Kyle Busch
Recently Busch has struggled at Richmond, with three consecutive finishes of 16th or worse. No matter, his track record at the 0.75-mile oval is too hard to ignore, as his four career victories is the top mark among all active drivers.
3. Joey Logano
Unlike the guys above him, Logano is winless at Richmond. But the No. 22 car has consistently been among the fastest all year, and Logano placed fifth and first overall over long runs in practice Friday.