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Fantasy Preview: Several tracks offer comparisons for Richmond

May 12, 2011, Dan Beaver, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Several tracks offer comparisons for fantasy owners at Richmond

Richmond International Raceway is a short track with delusions of grandeur.

It is one of only three active Cup tracks measuring less than a mile in length, which insures that drivers are never completely clear of traffic, and short tracks provide some of the most exciting racing in NASCAR. But while it is diminutive in size at only .75 miles in length, you would not know that by the action on the track.

Richmond thinks it's a speedway and the long sweeping frontstretch makes it drive like one. In many ways, this track has more in common with the similarly configured, 1.5- and 2-mile tracks and if not for the lack of banking, those venues would probably be your best data pool this week for comparisons. With only 14 degrees of banking, it is the sixth-flattest course in NASCAR, behind such legendarily flat tracks as Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Pocono Raceway, but your best set of numbers will come from the half-mile Martinsville Speedway as well as the 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway races -- three other tracks that have as little banking as Richmond.

If that is not a deep enough data pool, you might even want to wade into the recent results from Auto Club Speedway. Similar in shape, both tracks also are banked at 15 degrees even though the California course is much tougher on engines.

Compounded Problems

It has been only three race weekends since NASCAR last visited a short, flat track and an event that should have been a fairly predictable affair got turned upside down by a caution flag that waved in the middle of the race at Martinsville. That, plus a penalty on Jimmie Johnson for speeding in the pits, kept the race from being a foregone conclusion.

Denny Hamlin and Johnson had the second- and third-best Driver Ratings in that event, but they were effectively eliminated by circumstances. Kyle Busch was the class of the field for much of the day, but his car was set up for long runs and in the sprint to the checkers, he was passed by first Dale Earnhardt Jr. and then Kevin Harvick.

The good news for fantasy owners was that the race winner Harvick, second-place Earnhardt, and third-place Busch had all tipped their hands in the most recent flat-track duel at Phoenix and that makes Martinsville and Phoenix a great place to start your search for a winning roster this week.

The Favorites

Richmond was not overly kind to him in 2005 and '06, and Jeff Gordon struggled there again this past fall with a 12th-place finish, but he is the only other driver in the field with a pair of top-10s in the first two short, flat-track races this year. Unfortunately, his victory at Phoenix set up his fans for a lot of disappointment when the Cup drivers rolled onto a series of unrestricted, intermediate speedways because four of his next five attempts ended well outside the top 10. Prior to the most recent race at Talladega SuperSpeedway, he expressed frustration with the team's intermediate program, but said they were well prepared everywhere else. That proved to be prophetic as he was part of the three-wide photographic finish. His third in that race was his second top-five in the past three races; the other strong run was a fifth at Martinsville and that is enough to make him one of this week's favorites.

It will be hard to overlook Harvick, as well. He is the only multiple winner this year and his victories came on the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway -- which is shaped similar to Richmond -- and at Martinsville -- another short, flat track. A fourth at Phoenix in a crash-damaged car plus a sixth on the other short track of Bristol gives him a perfect record no matter which courses you believe are the most comparable to Richmond -- and last week's fifth-place finish at Talladega gives him current momentum.

Busch probably is another favorite, even though the frustration in Talladega could have a lingering affect. On the other hand, he has been almost perfect at Richmond during his career with two victories and a second-place finish in his past four attempts. In fact, during his career, Busch has crossed under the checkers solidly in the top five in 10 of his 12 efforts, and that has his fans standing up in their seats from the drop of the green flag. He's not infallible, however: Busch's other two results on this track ended in a 20th in 2007 and a 15th in '08, but both of those modest showings came in the fall.

Richmond


Our experts pick the studs and duds for this week.

Dark Horses

Stinging from their Martinsville disappointments, Johnson and Hamlin also cannot be overlooked. Both drivers have been nearly perfect on this track type during their careers and they are determined to show that sub-10th-place finishes at Martinsville shouldn't be held against them. Both drivers get an asterisk attached to their handicap, however, because they been better in the fall than the spring in recent seasons. Hamlin hasn't earned a top-10 in this race in three years, although he came close last spring with an 11th. Johnson finished 10th in last spring's race, but his previous two attempts in this event ended in the 30s.

Juan Montoya was expected to have a strong showing at Talladega and he did. The No. 42 was running with the leaders in the closing laps; he and Jamie McMurray timed their advance through the field almost perfectly as they were following the tandem of Gordon and Mark Martin toward the front, but unfortunately for Montoya he was in the wrong place when Ryan Newman was half-spun into his right front fender. He will put that behind him this week and should be able to rebound nicely. Last year, Montoya finished sixth in this race and returned in the fall to finish seventh. He hasn't yet earned a top-five at Richmond, but his 2009 spring race ended in another top-10 to give him three strong showing in his past four attempts.

Underdogs

Sometimes Underdogs are drivers who should be avoided and sometimes they are scrappy underachievers who have the ability to surprise us on a given weekend. Marcos Ambrose fits somewhere in the middle. His record on this track is certainly impressive enough to make him a sleeper with one top-five, two top-10s and three top-15s in four starts. Better still, his top-five came in the most recent outing this past fall, but he has switched teams this year and has been less predictable overall. Watch him closely in practice, as the No. 9 could be one of the weekend's most pleasant surprises.

Fantasy Power Ranking

Short, flat tracks (past three years)
Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA* Pos.DriverPA*
2.Denny Hamlin7.02 17.Jamie McMurray19.76 32.Paul Menard31.07
3.Jeff Gordon7.15 18.Greg Biffle20.34 33.Regan Smith31.32
4.Kyle Busch9.42 19.Matt Kenseth20.61 34.Robby Gordon32.66
5.Tony Stewart10.94 20.Kasey Kahne21.03 35.David Gilliland34.52
6.Mark Martin11.29 21.A J Allmendinger21.10 36.Travis Kvapil34.74
7.Clint Bowyer11.81 22.Brian Vickers21.22 37.J J Yeley36.00
8.Kevin Harvick12.28 23.Joey Logano21.36 38.Michael McDowell36.28
9.Jeff Burton12.99 24.Marcos Ambrose22.30 39.Andy Lally36.42
10.Kurt Busch13.00 25.Brad Keselowski22.86 40.Dave Blaney36.97
11.Dale Earnhardt Jr13.14 26.Casey Mears24.10 41Landon Cassill38.15
12.Carl Edwards13.16 27.David Ragan27.73 42.Tony Raines38.35
13.Ryan Newman13.18 28.David Stremme28.64 43.Joe Nemechek38.52
14.Juan Montoya15.59 29.Mike Skinner29.42 44.Brian Keselowski41.00
15.Martin Truex Jr.17.57 30.Bobby Labonte29.62

Another factor that makes Ambrose difficult to handicap is that the former driver of this ride struggled in both Richmond races last year. The short track that thinks it's a speedway is very often kind to former open-wheel racers such as Kasey Kahne and the sprint-car graduate actually won his first Cup race at RIR in 2005. His recent results have not been nearly that good, however. Kahne hasn't earned a top-10 at Richmond in his past five attempts and three of those poor showings -- including both races last year -- ended in the 20s.