Drivers to watch for in the NASCAR Cup Series race at Richmond Raceway

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NASCAR heads to Richmond Raceway this weekend for the first points race at a short track this season.

The Next Gen car has yet to be utilized on a track quite like Richmond, but that’s because no track on the schedule offers a straight-up comparison to what will be displayed Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox).

What we do know is that drivers who tend to run well on short tracks continue to excel at the ¾-mile oval. That’s not expected to change this weekend.

FRONT RUNNERS

Martin Truex Jr.

  • Points position: Seventh
  • Last three races: 35th (DNF) — Phoenix; 8th — Atlanta; 7th — COTA
  • Recent at Richmond: Won three of last five races, including September 2021

Truex has been exceptional at Richmond since 2016, dating back to his days with Furniture Row Racing. Since the fall race of 2016, Truex has led 1,157 laps and boasts a streak of six straight top fives. The 2017 series champion has scored points in 17 of the 18 stages run at Richmond and notoriously finds his way to the front of the field.

Truex has been fairly quiet throughout the season’s first six races, notching three top 10s (seventh at COTA, eighth at Las Vegas and Atlanta), two finishes of 13th (Daytona, Auto Club) and a crash at Phoenix that left him 35th. He was, however, hot on the heels of teammate Kyle Busch for a potential Las Vegas win before a late caution and subsequent pit strategy jolted the results.

If ever there was a track where Truex could make a statement, Richmond would likely be it. The next step is waiting to see whether his prior successes can translate to the Next Gen car.

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 11th
  • Last three races: 7th — Phoenix; 33rd (DNF) — Atlanta; 28th — COTA
  • Recent at Richmond: 11 top-10 finishes in last 12 races

Joe Gibbs Racing is highly touted in this week’s edition for good reason: the organization has won eight of the last 12 races at Richmond and finished 1-2-3 in two of the last five.

Busch, of course, is a significant contributor to that stat line, collecting six career wins at Richmond, the most recent in September 2018. While it’s been some time since Busch’s last victory here, the two-time Cup champion has collected eight straight finishes of ninth or better. No driver with more than 15 starts at Richmond holds a higher average finish than Busch’s 6.9, and no active driver has more top fives at Richmond than Busch’s 18.

The last two weeks have produced dismal results for the No. 18 team. Richmond may be the perfect place to turn those around.

Joey Logano

  • Points position: Third
  • Last three races: 8th — Phoenix; 9th — Atlanta; 31st — COTA
  • Recent at Richmond: Three straight top fives

Logano is the only driver to win at a short track in the Next Gen car, courtesy of his victory at the quarter-mile track built within the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the exhibition Clash.

That almost certainly won’t translate this weekend, but Logano has a strong track record in Richmond regardless. The 2018 Cup champion has two wins here, along with 13 top 10s in his last 15 Richmond starts.

Logano has just one top-five finish this year (fifth at Auto Club) and comes off a disappointing run at Circuit of the Americas. But he and teammate Ryan Blaney have proven Team Penske are frontrunners this season — Blaney leads the series in average running position at 10.107 and Logano sits third at 12.014. To see the No. 22 Ford up front would be no surprise.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 22nd
  • Last three races: 13th — Phoenix; 29th (DNF) — Atlanta; 18th — COTA
  • Recent at Richmond: Four top-fives in last five races

On the heels of two consecutive runner-up finishes at Richmond, Hamlin should be expected to contend for the win Sunday. But it’s hard to afford the No. 11 team the benefit of the doubt right now.

After six races, Hamlin sits 22nd in points and has failed to finish half the races this season. His 13th-place finish at Phoenix remains his best of the season. It’s a stark contrast from what has been expected of Hamlin in recent years, although he went to Victory Lane just twice in 2021 (Darlington 2, Las Vegas 2).

The good news is that Richmond, his home track, has been somewhere Hamlin excels. With three career wins there, Hamlin is the active leader in laps led (2,108) and stage wins (five) and has led at least 45 laps in each of the last three races. The list of winners this year is growing, and with 20 events left in the regular season, it’s not crazy to think Hamlin may soon need a win to advance into the playoffs.

Ryan Blaney

  • Points position: Second
  • Last three races: 4th — Phoenix; 17th — Atlanta; 6th — COTA
  • Recent at Richmond: Two finishes of 11th or better in 2021

Richmond is unquestionably Blaney’s worst track at which he’s made more than two starts. In 11 starts at the ¾-mile track, Blaney has just one top-10 finish, a 10th-place finish in September.

He leads the series in laps led in 2022, but Blaney has never led a lap at Richmond. The finishes haven’t been his only enemy either — Blaney has scored points in just two of his 18 stages there.

Last season, his Richmond results finally took a swing in the right direction, coupling an 11th-place effort in the spring to go with his lone top 10. Those mark his only two top 15s in 11 starts. Luckily for him, the Next Gen car has suited him well through six races. Perhaps it can help solve Blaney’s Richmond woes.

Alex Bowman

  • Points position: Fourth
  • Last three races: 14th — Phoenix; 10th — Atlanta; 2nd — COTA
  • Recent at Richmond: Two top 10s in last three races

Bowman led the final 10 laps of the spring race at Richmond a season ago en route to his first of four wins in 2021.

Richmond has historically not been a great track for him. In 11 career starts, Bowman has finished 12th or worse nine times and scored points in six of 14 stages. His last three Richmond starts, though, have built some semblance of consistency, collecting finishes of ninth (fall 2020) and 12th (fall 2021) to accompany his win.

The last four races this season have produced good results too, with a win at Las Vegas, a runner-up at Circuit of the Americas and two top-15 runs sandwiched in between. Whether that continues remains to be seen.