It doesn’t get much better than short-track racing under the lights at one of NASCAR’s oldest tracks. Richmond International Raceway has been a part of the tour since Lee Petty won the first NASCAR Grand National Division race at then Atlantic Rural Exposition Fairgrounds back in 1953, and each year proves why it has occupied two spots on the series schedule since 1959. Chevrolet leads the series in wins at Richmond with 35 victories, followed closely by Ford with 28, but Toyota has won 7 of the last 8 races at the three-quarter mile oval in Virginia’s capital city.
The story of the week surrounds the team of Matt Kenseth as NASCAR passed down one of its stiffest penalties in history as it slapped the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team with a 50 point penalty, a $200,000 fine, and suspended Crew Chief Jason Ratcliff for the next seven races. NASCAR took everything away from the Dollar General team but the trophy from their win last week at Kansas. The garage was buzzing on Friday at RIR with responses to the penalty coming from Kenseth, Ratcliff, and team-owner, Joe Gibbs.
Kenseth said the penalties passed down from NASCAR were “grossly unfair” and expressed his concern for Ratcliff and Gibbs’ chances of winning the owner’s championship due to the penalties, “To crush Joe Gibbs like that and say he can’t win an owner’s championship with the 20 this year, I just can’t wrap my arms around that,” Kenseth said. “It just blows me away. The same for Jason Ratcliff. I don’t feel bad for myself at all, but for Jason and Joe, I couldn’t feel any worse. There are no more reputable, hard-working, honest guys than them two. I feel really bad for them.”
Well, the penalties haven’t slowed the pace of the No. 20 team, as Kenseth claimed his 10th career pole in 481 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races. It’s his second of the season, first at Richmond International Raceway, and fifth top-10 start of 2013.
Nothing to recap from last week as I had an off week, so on to my picks for tonight’s Toyota Owners 400.
On Wednesday, I joined Greg DePalma on the Prime Sports Network to preview tonight’s race from RIR. My pick before the cars unloaded and the starting lineup was set was Kyle Busch. He was the favorite on Wednesday going into the weekend, and with his 8th starting position, remains the favorite going into the race tonight. Busch lead late in the race last night in the NASCAR Nationwide Series’ Toyotacare 250, but was passed with 10 laps to go by eventual race-winner Brad Kesolowski.
Looking back at Kyle Busch’s stats in the Sprint Cup Series at Richmond, he’s won the past four spring races at Richmond, has finished in the top 5 in 12 of his 16 starts at the .75 mile short track, and out of the 23 tracks the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series visits each year, Richmond is his best. Kyle is the guy to beat this week.
Dark Horse Pick
The stand-in driver for the No. 11 FedEx Toyota team is Brian Vickers again this week. He has done a tremendous job in keeping the Joe Gibbs Racing team afloat in the absence of Denny Hamlin. Vickers qualified the No. 11 Toyota outside the front row for tonight’s Toyota Owners 400 and has shown a ton of speed in both the practice sessions on Friday, 5th fastest in first practice and 3rd in Happy Hour. Though Vickers has struggled throughout his career on the short tracks, he has finished in the top-10 in three of his last four short track starts, including a top-5 at Bristol last August.
I like the job Vickers has done so far in the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, and with a front-row starting position tonight, he’s put himself in position for a solid finish.
That’s all for this week, so until we strap on the restrictor plates….You Stay Classy NASCAR NATION!