For literally decades a well known tourism promo has been telling us that “Virginia is for lovers.” However the state is also about auto racing and fans who support it. Virginia has played a pivotal role in the past, present and future of NASCAR. This is especially true of the Richmond International Raceway who will host the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series this Saturday night.
[media-credit name=”Brad Keppel” align=”alignright” width=”225″][/media-credit]Often described as “the short track that thinks it’s a super speedway,” this three quarter mile, D shaped, oval has for many years been the scene of some very exciting racing often treating its fans to close and surprising finishes. To sum it up, Saturday night is expected to be another awesome race night in Virginia.
THE STORY BREAKDOWN
Throughout the Richmond weekend you’re going to hear a lot about rumors that says there may be a major crew chief swap involving two teams from Joe Gibbs Racing. Despite a recent fervent denial from the organization’s President, J D Gibbs, those rumors state that Mike Ford, the crew chief for Denny Hamlin’s #11 Fed Ex Toyota team, and Greg Zippadelli, the leader of Joey Logano’s #20 Home Depot team, are going to swap positions.
This is reportedly based on an unexpected turn in team performance levels through the first eight races of the 2011 season. Considered a pre season Sprint Cup championship favorite, Hamlin is 17th in the points standings, 100 points out of first. He was expected to be a race winner by now but has only managed just one top ten finish during the first eight events and has an average finish ratio of 20.1.
The numbers aren’t any better for Logano’s team whom many felt was going to experience a break out season this year. Logano also only has one top ten finish, an average finish ratio of 21.8 and is ranked 24th in the championship standings 116 points out of first.
Despite Wednesday’s denial from Gibbs, this Sprint Cup garage rumor seems to continue to gather steam. If the alleged swap is going to happen, then it will likely be officially announced within the next few weeks.
You’re going to hear a lot about parity regarding the first eight races of the 2011 season this weekend. That’s very appropriate because the NASCAR Sprint Cup season is off to a very competitive start. We’ve watched seven different drivers park their cars in victory lane during the last eight events with only Kevin Harvick being the lone double winner. It’s the best sense of balance that the series has displayed since the 2003 season.
Four of the eight races set lead change records including the last event at Talladega which tied an all time Sprint Cup record of 88 lead changes. So far we’ve seen an average of 14.6 leaders per race which is the most for eight events in NASCAR history. There has also been a series high 54 green flag passes for the lead with a series high average of 38.5 per race. We’ve also seen an average of 4,511 green flag passes for position during the course of these eight races. Now that’s parity.
It’s always nice to report good fortune for a struggling, yet deserving, race team and the news was very good last Wednesday for Tommy Baldwin Racing and their driver Dave Blaney. During the Talladega race, Blaney’s #36 TBR Chevrolet was a major player during the late moments of the race and he led a total of 21 laps. It appeared that a true Cinderella story was in the making before Blaney was hit in the rear bumper and sent spinning through the infield grass. Despite the disappointing 27th place finish, the financially strapped team still managed to collect $99,333 in prize money which was enough to keep the car on the track for at least two more races.
At Talladega TBR was sponsored, on a one race basis, by the Golden Corral Restaurant chain. Apparently they liked what they saw because they announced a new deal last Wednesday that said they are going to be the team’s primary sponsor for 19 of the remaining 28 races and will be an associate sponsor for the remaining nine events. The TBR Chevrolet will promote the restaurant’s “Racing For America’s Families” campaign. Each time Blaney finishes in the top ten kids will eat for free at Golden Corral on the Monday following the race.
On the very same day there was a second press release from TBR announcing that Big Red Inc, the makers of one of the fastest growing soft drinks in the country, will be the team’s primary sponsor for five Sprint Cup races this year. Good news indeed for a hard working and most deserving organization.
By now many race fans may be wondering about the unique, not to mention lengthy, name of Saturday night’s Sprint Cup race at Richmond: Crown Royal presents the Matthew and Daniel Hansen 400. The name comes from the Crown Royal Your Name Here program which honors deserving members of our armed forces.
A member of the U.S. Marine Corp, currently stationed in San Marcos-California, Matthew Hanson was chosen from a group of five finalists nominated by their family and friends for their ability to demonstrate the core values of the military in performing a selfless act that made them a hero. Matthew Hanson’s God Mother nominated him for amazing service during three deployments to Iraq and for continuing to serve with amazing courage and faith after losing his twin brother, best friend and fellow Marine Daniel.
Matthew Hansen joined the Marines in 2002. Through his work in logistics, he deployed as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom three times. Due to injury from that experience, he now works at the San Marcos base but hopes to return overseas again.
Daniel Hanson also joined the Marines in 2002 approximately two weeks after his twin brother. He was hand picked to guard former President George W Bush at Camp David in 2004 and later Lt General Richard Zilmer while in Iraq. Tragically, Daniel Hanson was killed by a roadside bomb while supporting operations in the Farah Province of Afghanistan.
There just simply not enough ways to say thank you to the dedication displayed by each member of our armed forces. A tip of the racing hat goes to Crown Royal for creating and sponsoring this outstanding program.
THE VEGAS BREAKDOWN
To no real surprise the Las Vegas based World Sports Exchange, WSE, has stacked their deck with the names of former Richmond winners, with past success on short tracks, at the top of their list. Kyle Busch is on top of that list at 4 to 1 odds. That’s perfectly natural. Anytime this driver straps on a helmet he automatically becomes a pre race favorite. Busch is a two time winner at Richmond and is also the defending race champion after winning the May 2010 race from the pole position. He also has ten top five finishes there along with an average finish ratio of 5.2. His driver numbers also indicates a great deal of efficiency on the short tracks currently on the Sprint Cup schedule. Those numbers include seven wins, 23 top fives and a finish ratio of 10.0. It’s hard to argue against numbers like that.
Next in line, at 6 to 1, is Jimmie Johnson. He will be arriving at Richmond second in the championship standings, five points from the top, and it appears that “Jimmie Five Time” is on track for his next championship which would make him “Jimmie Six Pack.” He has three wins, and six top fives, at Richmond. His short track numbers are also quite good and includes ten wins along with 23 top five finishes.
At 7 to 1 odds is the aforementioned Denny Hamlin. If there’s just one track available for Hamlin to redirect a dismal season start, then Richmond is it. He’s a two time winner there, including last September’s race, and has five top five finishes along with an 8.0 finish average. He’s another ace on NASCAR’s short tracks with six wins. There’s also a strong emotional tie for Hamlin Saturday night. The Virginia native’s home town is a short freeway ride from Richmond and the element of family and friends in the grandstand is always a plus.
Carl Edwards is listed at 8 to 1 for the Richmond race. The current Sprint Cup points leader is still looking for his first Richmond win, but he does have a top five finish along with five top tens there. The top dog of the Roush Fenway Racing group is a potential solid wager.
At 9 to 1 are a trio of drivers worthy of your gambling budget with Tony Stewart leading this group. “Smoke” is smoking hot at Richmond with three wins, nine top fives, 15 top tens and a finish ratio of 11.1. Four time series champion Jeff Gordon is a double winner at Richmond while backing that up with 14 top fives, 23 top tens and a 14.1 finish ratio. Also in this group is Kevin Harvick who is another previous winner at Richmond. Harvick also has five top fives, 13 top tens and a healthy average finish of 11.9.
Clint Bowyer, a veteran of short track racing, is listed at 15 to 1 this week and is also worthy of a long shot consideration. He’s also a former winner at Richmond with a finish ratio of 9.8. Also in this group is Kurt Busch who is another former race winner. The elder Busch brother is experiencing somewhat of a roller coaster ride in the team performance levels but he is a seven time winner on NASCAR’s short tracks and that makes him worthy of consideration.
Now we arrive at a really interesting long shot consideration: that would be Dale Earnhardt Jr at 18 to 1 odds. Okay, you don’t have to remind me that he hasn’t won a race since the summer of 2008. We all know that story. This Hendrick Motorsports team, led by new crew chief Steve Letarte, is revitalized and Earnhardt seems to be driving with the heart and soul of a champion. Everyone is already amazed that he’s currently third in the championship standings and only 19 points from first. His Richmond numbers are quite good going into Saturday night’s race. He’s a three time winner there with eight top five finishes. By the way, it just occurred to me that the lady of the house, the card carrying member of the Junior Nation fan club, is going to be very proud of this paragraph. Either that or she’s going to wonder who wrote it for me.
In the WSE’s 20 to 1 group you will find Roush Fenway Racing drivers Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle. Kenseth, a former Richmond winner, could turn out to be an interesting long shot wager. His primary sponsor, Crown Royal, is also the race sponsor and that’s always an additional incentive.
Looking at the bottom of this week’s WSE rankings we have former Richmond race winners Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, and Ryan Newman listed at 30 to 1. Also in this group are divers Juan Pablo Montoya and Joey Logano. Closing out the list at 40 to 1 are Michael Waltrip Racing team mates David Reutimann and Martin Truex Jr along with Jamie McMurray and Kasey Kahne.
Now for the disclaimer: NASCAR wants us to remind you that these numbers are for information and entertainment purposes. They neither encourage or condone the placing of wagers on their races. I totally understand, and respect, that position. But at the same time I’m seeing a revitalized Dale Junior at 18 to 1 long shot odds. As soon as the battery recharges on the cell phone I’m calling Las Vegas.
THE RACE BREAKDOWN
Saturday night’s Crown Royal Presents the Matthew and Daniel Hanson 400 is 400 laps/300 miles around the Richmond International Raceway’s .075 mile D shaped oval.
The race has 44 entries vying for the 43 starting positions and the winner’s share of the posted $4.9 million purse. Nine of those entries are on the go or go home list meaning these teams do not have a guaranteed start in the race because they are currently outside of NASCAR’s top 35 in owner’s points. These teams will have to make the race based on their qualifying speeds.
The impressive history of this facility dates back to its first race in 1946 when it was one half mile dirt track known as the Atlantic Rural Exposition Fairgrounds. The raceway was paved in 1968 and then reconfigured to its present size and shape in 1988. There is presently seating for 97,912 fans.
The Richmond International Raceway is 60 feet wide with a ten foot apron. The four turns each have 14 degrees of banking. The front stretch, measuring 1,290 feet, has eight degrees of banking but the back stretch, 860 feet long, only has two degrees. The pit area is 64 feet wide with the stalls measuring 28 by 19 feet. The pit road speed is 45 MPH. The pit window for Saturday night’s race is 95 to 100 laps.
The first NASCAR Sprint Cup race was held there in April of 1953 and was won by new NASCAR Hall Of Fame member Lee Petty. Keeping it all in the family, Richard Petty tops the raceway’s all time win list with 13. Kyle Petty became NASCAR’s first ever third generation winner by scoring his first ever Cup win at Richmond back in 1986. Needless to say, Petty Enterprises tops the team win category at 15. Since that time there has been a total of 109 NASCAR Sprint Cup races held at Richmond that has sent 47 different winners to victory lane.
Creating and maintaining good track position at Richmond is crucial. Kyle Busch won last year’s race from the pole position. 63 of the 109 races there has been won from the top five starting berths. That places increased importance on qualifying day. The track qualifying record, 129.843 MPH, was set by Brian Vickers back in the spring of 2004. The racing at Richmond is also highly competitive. Five of the last six events has an average margin of victory of less than one second.
Weather should not be that big of an issue during Friday’s practice and qualifying session. The forecast for the Richmond area calls for partly sunny skies, west winds 10 to 15 MPH and highs in the mid seventies. Saturday’s forecast is going to be sunny and in the upper seventies. However this is a night race and the temperature will be sliding towards the predicted over night low in the mid fifties. That means the track temperature is going to change, the handling package of the cars will need to be changed and the crew chiefs will be really earning their paychecks Saturday night.
The Crown Royal Presents The Matthew and Daniel Hanson 400 will be broadcast live by Fox Sports with the pre race show beginning at 7 pm eastern time. The race will be re broadcast by the SPEED Channel on Wednesday, May 4th, at 12 pm eastern.