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Hamlin leads a pack of hungry drivers looking for first 2021 win at Richmond

Martin Truex Jr. became the first driver to score multiple wins in the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season with a big victory last week at Martinsville Speedway. As the NASCAR Cup Series stays in the state for Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway (3 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) a certain Virginian couldn’t be more motivated to hoist his first trophy of the year.

Denny Hamlin – who was raised in Chesterfield, Virginia, about a half-hour drive from the Richmond track – has already turned in a competitive season for the ages. And we’re only eight races into the NASCAR calendar.

He’s scored a series-high seven top-five finishes – more than he earned in three previous full seasons and twice that of all drivers but Kyle Larson (four top fives).  A top five this week would tie Hamlin’s career-best streak of six consecutive. His No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has led a series-best 487 laps, and Hamlin holds a commanding 76-point lead on Truex, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, in the points standings.

RELATED: Cup Series standings | Richmond weekend schedule

The only thing left to do for the perennial championship contender is score that first victory of the year.

Hamlin, 40, is especially good at the 0.75-mile Richmond track with three trophies there as proof. His driver rating is third best – behind his JGR teammate, six-time winner Kyle Busch and three-time winner Kevin Harvick.

All three of these Richmond masters and annual title favorites, however, are also looking for their first victory of 2021.

Busch, driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, among active drivers has a series-best six Richmond victories and a series-high seven more runner-up finishes – meaning he won or finished second in nearly half (13 of 30) of his NASCAR Cup Series starts at the track. Furthermore, his 16 short-track victories are easily tops in the series among drivers entered this weekend. Hamlin and Busch’s older brother Kurt are next with 10 short-track wins.

RELATED: See the active drivers with short-track wins

The two-time series champion Kyle Busch arrives in Richmond, however, 11th in points with only a pair of top-five and four top-10 finishes on the season with no shortage of motivation.

Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, similarly, shows up at Richmond more than ready to right his team’s ship as well. He’s a three-time winner at the track and his 26 top-10 finishes in 39 starts ranks best among active drivers. He ranks first or second in five of the six pre-race Loop Data statistical categories. His 7.210 average running position, 93 percent of laps run in the top-15 and 972 quality passes leads the field.

Interestingly, seven of the 10 active drivers with previous short-track victories are still looking for a win this season. And last year’s Richmond playoff winner Brad Keselowski is among that group. Reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott is as well.

With so many of the sport’s best more than ready to get that first trophy of the year and a sure-bet playoff berth, there’s good reason to expect a chippy afternoon at Richmond. And these drivers say they are prepared for that.

“A lot of times there are still a lot of guys who don’t apply [the notion of “give-and-take”] and they wind up getting themselves in trouble – tearing their cars up and putting themselves in a bad spot,” the 2014 champion Harvick said. “I think part of our success is being able to race like that when we need to race like that and understanding how that works.

“In my book, it’s just being smart.”