Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Richmond Preview: Kyle Busch Comes Alive This Week

By Micah Roberts

Look for Kyle Busch to get back into shape this week (Getty)
This week’s race at Richmond marks the quarter mark of the season with several storylines swirling that have the season shaping up as one of the most unique in recent history. We’ve had six different winners in the first eight races with none of them coming from Jimmie Johnson. We have Greg Biffle with a commanding 15-point lead in the standings and fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. sitting fourth only, 21-points behind and mattering once again. Best of all, though, might be the story of Martin Truex Jr. who currently sits second in points after a dominating runner-up performance last week at Kansas.
It’s been very rare over the last decade to see a team consistently perform at a high level that isn’t part of one of the power networks of Hendrick, Roush, Gibbs, Childress and more recently, Stewart. Running a quality NASCAR operation takes a lot of money and every once in a while, you’ll see an outsider step in and perform well over a small stretch on a particular type of track, but not at the magnitude of what Truex Jr. is doing right now with Michael Waltrip Racing.
Waltrip has won as an owner twice with David Reutimann, but the wins never carried over on a consistent basis. After a 12th-place finish at Daytona, Truex Jr. has rapidly moved up the charts with one strong performance after another on all types of tracks to now being second in points. His runner-up finish at Kansas last week was his fifth straight race of finishing eighth or better that includes short tracks, 1.5 and 2-mile tracks.
“Everyone continues to do such a great job at Michael Waltrip Racing," Truex said earlier this week. "It’s been a lot of fun and I really enjoy going to the track each weekend especially when we are running like this. We just need to keep this thing going. We’ve been on one heck of a roll over the last 12 or so races. I realize it is early in the season, but we are right where we want to be. I feel like we are still getting better as a team so I am really proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish. It is so nice to be a part of Michael Waltrip Racing. I feel like I am contributing to MWR and help building it. This whole experience has really been good for me not only as a driver, but as a person so I owe a lot to Michael Waltrip, Rob Kauffman and my sponsor NAPA AUTO PARTS.”
While Truex Jr. may be disappointed about not getting his first win since 2007, he has to be plenty excited about the bigger picture which suggests he’ll be a contender right there with the Stewart’s, Johnson’s, Kenseth’s and Biffle’s for a championship. MWR has something clicking right now and a win is definitely in their future soon. Maybe not this week, but the best guess would be at all tracks similar to Kansas and Texas, which is quite a few.
The driver we can expect to win this week is Kyle Busch, who has been rather ordinary thus far for such an extraordinary driver. Over his career at Richmond, no one has been better. Busch has averaged a fifth-place finish in his 14 starts with three wins and four runner-up finishes. He has won this Saturday night spring race the last three seasons in a row which is why he is the favorite to win despite the sluggish 2012 start.
Despite all his great success at Richmond, Busch still doesn't have an answer to why he's so good at the track.
“I’m not sure exactly what it is about Richmond that fits my style," Busch Said. "When I first went there in the Trucks, I was terrible. And then they repaved the place and I went there in a Nationwide car with Hendrick Motorsports and pulled off a win right away. It’s been a good track for me ever since then with both the Nationwide and the Cup Series and I have just taken a liking to it. You have to be so technical there. The speeds are really high, but yet it’s a short track. You really have to be on top of your game to be sure the car stays under you.”
Not far behind Busch in the honors department is one Virginia’s own, Denny Hamlin who sports a second best 7.6 average finish at Richmond. The Capital of the Confederacy gets rocking in these Saturday night races and no one gets the type of love Hamlin does and he’s rewarded them with two wins in the fall event, the last coming in 2010. Everything about the Richmond track suits Hamlin style and now he comes in fresh off a Kansas win and is one of only two drivers with two wins on the season. Look for the two Gibbs teammate to slug it out for the win.
Kevin Harvick is a two-time Richmond winner, including the last race held there last fall. He'll be driving the same chassis he was a runner-up finisher with at Phoenix earlier this year and is looking forward to this week's busy schedule.
“Richmond (International Raceway) has been a great track for me," Harvick said. "I really like the short-track style racing, so I’m looking forward to the race. I’ll be driving in both the NASCAR Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series races this time, so the extra track time never hurts. As far as going back with a new team, we just need to keep our focus. The No. 29 team is doing well so far this season, but we just need to quit making the little mistakes and put a whole day together to come out ahead.”
Harvick rarely has a bad run at Richmond and has been right up there with Busch and Hamlin competing for wins the last five seasons. The fact that he's bringing his Phoenix chassis this week should also be a sign that he'll do well beyond all his past exploits. Phoenix and Richmond both translate well with each other and we can carry the data from those two races over to New Hampshire, another short flat track.    
Tony Stewart is a three-time winner at Richmond, but hasn’t had one since 2001. He won three times in his first four years, but none since which is kind of odd. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t been competitive. He’s had four runner-up finishes over that span, but only a best of seventh last fall with his new team.
Jimmie Johnson is a three-time Richmond winner, but hasn’t won there since 2008. Hendrick Motorsports has been searching for their 200th Sprint Cup win since Johnson won at Kansas last fall and it’s been hard to come by with most of the pressure on him while his teammates give little indication of helping.
One of those teammates, Earnhardt Jr, might be ready to offer support this week. He’s got three wins at Richmond and is getting close to snapping his own winless streak. It seems like an eternity since Junior last won, and because of that, the Richmond Rowdies might tear the place down if finally does win.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #18 Kyle Busch (6/1)
2) #11 Denny Hamlin (7/1)
3) #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr (15/1)
4) #29 Kevin Harvick (12/1)
5) #48 Jimmie Johnson (7/1)   

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