Denny Hamlin doesn’t just love to come home to Virginia for sentimental reasons, he considers Richmond Raceway, in particular, a place he can always contend for victory. And with good reason.
Hamlin has three Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series wins at the track, where the series will race in the Toyota Owners 400 Saturday night (6:30 p.m., ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). His mark of 10 top-five and 14 top-10 finishes in 23 starts there makes him one of the most productive drivers in the field there. And no one on the track this weekend has led more laps (1,653 or 17.9%).
The three-quarter mile Richmond track is a place where Hamlin has always looked forward to competing. And it could prove to be exactly the shot of adrenalin Hamlin needs to reboot his 2018 season.
After a thrilling third-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500, Hamlin’s season has largely vacillated between near-misses and lost opportunity. He’s had four top-six finishes, but also four showings less characteristically out of the top-10 including a 34th–place finish at Texas two weeks ago after being involved in a crash.
He’s ranked eighth in the Monster Energy Series standings, but is among the top-three drivers in Richmond proficiency. Hamlin has top-10 finishes in his last six races at Richmond, including a win from the pole position in the 2016 fall race. He’s led 263 laps in the last five races there and had finishes of third in this spring race last year and fifth in the fall race.
“Obviously after some unfortunate circumstances in Bristol, I’m looking forward to returning to Richmond where I know we can be competitive,’’ Hamlin said. “This No. 11 FedEx team is more motivated than ever to get a win and competing in front of my hometown crowd always adds some an extra incentive.”
Kyle Busch’s win a week ago at Texas and this Monday at Bristol marked the fifth time in his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship career that he’s won back-to-back races. And he shows up at Richmond this week absolutely the driver to beat again. A victory Saturday night would mark the second time in Busch’s 14-year Monster Energy Series career that he’s won three straight races.
His four victories and 15 top-five finishes are most among his competition this weekend at Richmond. Busch’s 109.7 driver rating is tops in the series, as is his 7.4 average finishing position. His 8,855 laps run in the top-15 — (88.5% of the time) — is second most in the field.
Busch has five top-10 finishes in the last seven Richmond races, including back-to-back runner-up finishes in fall 2015 and spring 2016 races. His last victory was in the 2012 spring race, and he actually won every spring race from 2009-2012.
Although Ryan Blaney understandably left Bristol disappointed last weekend after being crashed out while leading early in the race, he can take some solace in yet another strong showing.
The Penske driver – who led twice for 100 laps at Bristol – is ranked sixth in the standings thanks to five top-10 runs in the season’s opening eight races, including a third place at Martinsville three weeks ago. Blaney’s best showing at Richmond was 18th last fall. But he does have a pair of top fives in the NASCAR Xfinity Series at the track.
His Penske Racing teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski — ranked second and fifth in the standings, respectively, have three wins between them at Richmond. All three victories have come in the last eight races – the team swept the 2014 Richmond races – and Logano is the defending winner of this race.
Kyle Larson led 200 laps at Bristol Motor Speedway but had to settle for a runner-up finish – his second of the early season and third top-three. And as “frustratingly successful” as that was, he is eyeing the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series stop at Richmond, where he won for the first time at the track in last September’s regular season finale.
Larson has a win and a runner-up in the last three races there and has posted an impressive 10.4 average finish in eight starts. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver has led laps (73 total) in the last three races.
Taking the Lead
Darrell Wallace Jr. didn’t win the Bristol race, but the popular rookie certainly had a career-making day, leading his first-ever Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series laps. He led six laps from lap 375-380 – and ran among the top five for longer still.
Although Wallace’s No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 ultimately faded to a 16th–place finish, it was still an accomplishment that Wallace will remember always.
“Onto the next. …’’ he wrote on social media after sharing his thoughts post-race; so competitive that he seemed nearly as frustrated not to finish inside the top-10 as he was happy to have led the laps.
“Small team making big gains and that’s what we need,’’ he said on Twitter immediately after the race.
“Good to see the 43 back up front leading laps and doing good things. Still have momentum on our side,’’ he added, making a point to stay positive, thinking big picture.
In addition to the laps out front Monday, Wallace has a pair of top-10s this season – including a runner-up finish in the Daytona 500 and an eighth-place finish at Texas – to bring to his Richmond Monster Energy Series debut this week.
In six NASCAR Xfinity Series starts at Richmond, Wallace never finished worse than 16th. He had a pair of top 10s, including a sixth place in his last race at the track last April.
Jimmie Johnson didn’t finish his Bristol long race weekend in Victory Lane however, his third-place finish marked a season-best effort from the seven-time championship team and provided great optimism that a win may be close. He moved from 20th to a season high 17th in the championship rankings – a single point out of the Playoff-eligible top 16.
It was his first top five of the year and second top 10 in the eight races. But for a sport accustomed to Johnson winning. … and winning. … and winning, it has been a highly-publicized trophy gap. It’s been a career-long 31 races since Johnson last celebrated in Dover’s Victory Lane.
Johnson’s work at Richmond is encouraging, however. He has three victories – only Kyle Busch has more – and he’s finished 11th or better in the last seven races there, including a pair of top-five finishes.
“The finish in Bristol is exactly what this team needed,’’ Johnson said. “I’ve known that every week we have been getting better, but it’s nice to finally have a finish to back that up.
“Now if we could just fix these bouts of bad luck we have been having. I’m already ready to get back in the Lowe’s for Pros Chevy and looking forward to Richmond. We have put together some solid runs there lately and with the momentum from Bristol, I’m ready to roll.”
Success in Stealth Mode
Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman quietly turned in a career best-mark of fifth at Bristol. It’s his second top-10 finish in the last three races and he is the top-ranked of the four Hendrick drivers – 13th in the standings.
His seventh-place finish at the Martinsville half-miler two weeks ago, coupled with his fifth place at Bristol, makes him one of only five drivers to have top-10 finishes on both short tracks in 2018. The others include Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Joey Logano.
Bowman, who turns 26 next week, has four previous Richmond starts but is looking for his first top-20 showing there in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. He does have a ninth-place NASCAR Xfinity Series showing in a JR Motorsports Chevrolet in 2016.