Editor's note: Chris Rice, crew chief for the No. 99 Toyota for RAB Racing and driver James Buescher in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, has joined NASCAR.com as a guest writer for the 2014 season. Here is his first-person analysis on the top storylines heading into the race weekend at Richmond International Raceway:
Whenever there's a break in the NASCAR schedule, one week away from the track can seem like a month. The off-week is always a good time to rest and recharge, but the crew members who work on the car every week, it's those guys who have to get back into the routine.
As you see with football players, that's why they have the preseason -- to get them into the swing of it. The offseason, that's meant to heal them up. Either way, you've just got to get back in the swing. You don't want to have a week off and have your guys just lay around on the couch. Our team, we worked all five days last week to be prepared not just for Richmond, but for three or four weeks down the road.
Brakes are hugely important at Richmond, because the cars are going to run so much faster getting into Turn 1, and that's where you use a lot of brakes. The problem is, it isn't like Martinsville where you're always on the brakes, then off the brakes. At Richmond, you carry the brakes all the way down in the corner. They say that Iowa is a lot like it, but it's not quite -- you carry brakes all the way down into the turn, and when you do, that's when they get so hot. They don't have all that long to be able to recover and cool down.
The weather conditions for the spring race and the fall race at Richmond are similar, but if you think about it for this weekend, the race track has had the long winter to go through. The rubber has been washed off -- it's completely gone. Now you'll have a 250-lap Nationwide Series race, a 100-lap K&N Pro Series race, then you're going to have the 400-lap main event. You'll have all those laps, plus practice laps, and that's where the track is different.
Through the summertime, the heat brings all the oils out. So it just brings a little bit of difference when you come back to Richmond in September. It's not like Charlotte, where you have races in late May and then into October, but it does bring a little bit of difference from the spring race to the fall race at Richmond.
The Stewart-Haas Racing teams are going to be strong this weekend. They've been fast ever since they unloaded back in Charlotte in the winter for that offseason test. They'll likely be strong because they were impressive at Phoenix.
What I've learned, though, is that Hendrick Motorsports has done a very good job of catching up this season. The 48 team with Jimmie Johnson has been solid, but that group was way off at the beginning at the last race at Darlington -- Chad Knaus worked his magic, then back up to the front they went. What I've seen is that whole group showing a tendency to play catch-up and play it well.
The Ford teams, even with the Roush Fenway and Team Penske drivers getting the headlines, the ones that are standing out to me are the No. 43 of Aric Almirola and the No. 9 of Marcos Ambrose. That Richard Petty Motorsports team is really doing a good job, especially on the short tracks, compared to some of their counterparts right across the road. Those are the cars that I see impressing me the way they've come up through.
Joe Gibbs Racing is still fighting to get better each week, but it's tough for everybody out there with the way the competition is. I can see where all the testing that these guys have done in the offseason has paid off for some, but some others may not have guessed right.
As far as a pick for this weekend, Jeff Gordon's got at least a couple things going for him. He's running better and you can see it in his face. He's more excited and he believes in his team. He's just ready to go and ready to be at the race track.
Now he's got his daughter, Ella, in a race car. He needs to win especially now that she understands what her dad's going through and feeling now. He can show her that hey, I can still win at age 42, so you can do it and go up through the ranks like I did.
I think those two things are pushing him to be better. Alan Gustafson, his crew chief -- he wants to win as badly as anybody. The whole organization is ready to win and I think Richmond is going to be the place that they either compete for it or they'll be firmly right in the top five.