|Kevin Harvick has 3 Richmond wins and is co-favorite to win Saturday|
Jeff Gordon leads the standings by one-point over Matt Kenseth but, under the new Chase format, points have taken a back seat on the season to winning races. There is no better example than Harvick, who sits 22nd in points, but leads the series as the only driver with two wins. He has been fast in just about every practice session this season, but his pair of victories are the only times he has finished in the top 5. Swinging for the fences with little regard for finishes looks to be a very effective strategy so far.
Jimmie Johnson and Kenseth won 13 races last season, but neither has won in first eight races this year— the first time that’s happened since 2001. Back then Kenseth was in his second full season while Johnson won his first and only Nationwide Series race for Herzog Motorsports, one year before making his full season debut for Hendrick Motorsports in the Sprint Cup Series. Overall, 15 of Johnson's 66 career wins have come within the first eight races of a season. This is definitely uncharted territory for the series we've been accustomed to in the Johnson era.
The most effective handicapping strategy at Richmond over the past two decades has been to pay close attention to what happened at the similar tracks before the event. Races at Phoenix and New Hampshire during the same season have proven to be telling as to what might happen because the set-ups are similar. Although Richmond's three-quarter mile track is smaller than the one-mile layouts at Phoenix and New Hampshire, all three are flat making them relative.
Last season, Harvick and Carl Edwards each won at Phoenix and Richmond. Johnson did it in back-to-back seasons (2007-08) and before him it was Harvick again (2006), Kurt Busch (2005), Dale Earnhardt Jr (2004) and Kenseth (2002). We could go back even further with Tony Stewart (1999), Dale Jarrett (1997), Dale Earnhardt (1990), and even deeper if we include New Hampshire, but you get the idea. If a driver is very good on one, chances are they'll be good on the other.
Here's a look at the favorites to win with past Richmond history and how they fared at Phoenix on March 2:
Kyle Busch (6-to-1): His 7.2 average finish in 18 career starts is the best among all active drivers and is second in NASCAR's loop data rating since the system began in 2005. He's won four times -- one each season from 2009-12. He was ninth at Phoenix.
Kevin Harvick (6-to-1): He's fresh off his Darlington win and also led a race high four times for 224 laps at Phoenix. He's a three-time winner at Richmond with a third-best average running position of 7.9 in NASCAR loop ratings and has an average finish of 11.3.
Jimmie Johnson (7-to-1): Last fall, he finished 40th which partly explains his high 17.3 average finish in 24 career starts. He's a three-time winner, but the last victory came in 2008. Since then, he's had only one top-5 finish (third in 2010) over a span of 10 races. This has been one of Johnson's more difficult tracks the past five seasons. He was able to finish sixth at Phoenix, but was never really a factor.
Denny Hamlin (7-to-1): The native Virginian has the top loop data fueled by an 8.9 average finish and two wins. He has a series-best average running position (6.6) and has the most fast laps run (584). We have yet to see him look to have the best car in the series at any track, including in March at Phoenix where he battled hard to get a 19th-place finish. But if one had to guess where his first win of 2014 would come, a Virginia track would have been the favorite before the season started.
Brad Keselowski (7-to-1): He's still searching for his first career top-5 finish at Richmond, but as you can see by the odds and his third-place finish at Phoenix, he's in position to have his best finish this week. The Blue Deuce has been fast on every track during practices and it's translated well to race day as Penske Racing looks to have the model program for the 2014 season.
Jeff Gordon (10-to-1): He's won twice at Richmond, but it's been a while since his last in 2000. With 42 career starts, that's a very small number for someone who dominated an era in the sport. He's finished 12th or better in 12 of his last 14 Richmond starts. He's also tied for the lead in the series with six 2014 top-10 finishes, which has him in the points lead. He finished fifth at Phoenix.
Joey Logano (12-to-1): Like teammate Keselowski, Logano has shined all season through practices, qualifying and race day. At Phoenix he led three times for 71 laps until settling for fourth. In his first season with Penske Racing last year, he had his best career finish (third) at Richmond. In 10 career starts, he has a 17.8 average finish. It's fair to say from what we've seen so far in 2014 that we can throw out all pre-Penske data on Logano because he has transformed himself nicely onto the doorstep of elite status. He offers the best value to win among all drivers this week.
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