Monday, April 25, 2011

Richmond Storylines: Can anyone beat Hamlin or Busch?

Richmond under the lights always produces some fireworks (Getty)
Short track racing, under the lights, awaits this weekend at Richmond International Raceway, a style that begs for a tight, aggressive strategy.

Three NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers, specifically, have perfected the form. In 15 of the last 16 short track events (all at either Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond), Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch or Denny Hamlin have triumphed. Kevin Harvick ended that string of dominance with his victory at Martinsville earlier this season.

A vital stop, this weekend is a preview of sorts to one of the most important events on the schedule -- the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup cut-off race. After the second stop at Richmond, race No. 26 on Sept. 10, the 12-driver Chase field will be set.

But first thing's first: Saturday night at Richmond and the Crown Royal Presents The Matthew and Daniel Hanson 400.

The NASCAR Nationwide Series runs Friday night, and once again, there’s a new points leader. This time Justin Allgaier sits atop the standings – the fifth different points leader this season. He’ll try to hold it, after the Bubba Burger 260.

Storylines follow…


Hometown Kid Hamlin Hopes Turnaround Begins At Richmond
Denny Hamlin, from Chesterfield, Virginia, has struggled this year. But the bright side’s pretty sunny.

For one, he hasn’t strayed too far off last year’s pace. After eight races last season, Hamlin was 11th in points and had an average finish of 17.1. This year, he’s 17th in points with an average finish of 20.1. The huge difference: Hamlin had already won two races at this point last season.

And two, there’s a format-change to the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup – the Wild Card. After race No. 26 at Richmond, the top 10 drivers in the points standings will earn Chase berths. Spots 11 and 12 will go to the drivers with the most wins, provided they are in the top 20.

Richmond as a Hamlin slump-bust seems legit. He has won two of the last three races there, and ranks first in pre-race Driver Rating at 119.8.

On Thursday night, Hamlin will also put on the Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown, which will benefit the Denny Hamlin Foundation and be broadcast live on SPEED at 8 p.m. ET. Among the participants in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series-sanctioned race: Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Michael Waltrip, Joey Logano, Trevor Bayne, Kyle Busch and Travis Patrana.

Wild Card Looking Good For Others, Too
Speaking of Chase favorites suddenly on Wild Card watch…

Tony Stewart (12th), Kasey Kahne (18th), Jeff Burton (22nd), Jamie McMurray (24th) and Joey Logano (24th) are all in danger of missing a top-10 locked-in spot.

There are a couple of reasons for optimism – the Chase Wild Card spots, and Matt Kenseth.

In 2005, Kenseth charged back from 28th-place after eight races to make the Chase – which was then made up of only 10 drivers. That’s the furthest back any drivers has come to make the Chase.

But more likely, one of those aforementioned drivers will need to rely on the Wild Card spot, making wins vital.

Clint Bowyer, in 10th, expressed his disappointment – and his win-centric focus – after coming .002 seconds short of winning at Talladega, saying, “It's frustrating. I know the importance of getting a race win right now is big. You know that win -- if I would have won right there, it could have put me in the Chase. I was thinking about that. That's going to be important throughout the year, and you know, that was a good shot at it. It just slipped through our fingers.”

2011: A Record-Breaking Start
The lead changes, the leaders, the various winners, the top 10 – the numbers all tell a story of competitive balance to open the 2011 season.

For instance…
* There have been seven different race winners in the first eight races, the most since 2003.
* There are seven different teams in the top 10 of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points standings.
* There has been an average of 14.6 leaders per race, the most through eight races in series history.
* There has been an average of 38.5 lead changes per races, the most through eight races in series history.

Creeping Up: Earnhardt Jr. Inching Toward Race Win, Points Lead
Dale Earnhardt Jr. vaulted to third in the series points standings after Talladega, the highest he has been this late in the season since 2008.

Earnhardt, now 19 points behind leader Carl Edwards, has not held a points lead since after race No. 27 at New Hampshire in 2004.

A win at Richmond could signal a return to the points lead for Earnhardt. The thought is not far-fetched – Earnhardt has three career wins there, making Richmond his second-most prolific track behind Talladega (five victories).

NASCAR Hall of Fame Fan Vote Launches Thursday
As in past years, fans will again help decide who enters the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The polls open this Thursday at 10 a.m. for the Fan Vote portion of the 2012 NASCAR Hall of Fame class. Log onto to cast your vote.

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