RICHMOND, VIRGINIA - APRIL 03: Ryan Blaney, driver of the #12 Menards/Richmond Water Heaters Ford, leads the field to the green flag to start the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway on April 03, 2022 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images) | Getty Images
RICHMOND, VIRGINIA - APRIL 03: Ryan Blaney, driver of the #12 Menards/Richmond Water Heaters Ford, leads the field to the green flag to start the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway on April 03, 2022 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images) | Getty Images

Weekend Preview: Richmond Raceway & Texas Motor Speedway

Short track racing at Richmond is right on time

The ultra-competitiveness of NASCAR Cup Series racing provides so much of the sport’s intrigue and when it comes to NASCAR and short track racing, recent history has assured that nothing is assured. That high intensity only increases and will be on full display as a three-race short track portion of the season schedule begins Saturday with the Toyota Owners 400 (3:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Richmond (Va.) Raceway.

In 2022, there were six different winners in six short track races on the schedule with Virginia’s Denny Hamlin and fellow veteran Kevin Harvick hoisting the trophies at the 0.75-Richmond Raceway where the series races this weekend. In all, six drivers tallied average finishes of 10th or better in last year’s six short track races led by Christopher Bell (6.6) and William Byron (7.2). And Bell (356) and Byron (334) also led the most combined laps.

Interestingly, neither Bell nor Byron has won a NASCAR Cup Series race at Richmond, however. There have been five different winners in the last five Richmond races and two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch is the winningest active driver with six victories. The last time a NASCAR Cup Series driver scored his first career victory at Richmond was Kasey Kahne back in 2005.

In this race last year, Hamlin led only the final five laps to claim his first win of the season – a slight .552-seconds over Harvick, while third-place finisher Byron (No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet) and seventh-place finisher Ryan Blaney (No. 12 Team Penske Ford) combined to lead 250 of the 400 laps.

Both Hamlin and Harvick are looking for their first wins of the 2023 season. Hamlin, the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota is ranked 14th in the standings with a best showing to date of sixth place at both California’s Auto Club Speedway and Atlanta. Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, is sixth in the standings with a top finish of fifth at Auto Club Speedway and at Phoenix.

Not only are they highly-motivated to make that first trip to Victory Lane – Harvick is retiring at season’s end – but they are both four-time winners at Richmond; second only to Busch in trophies won among active drivers.

On Wednesday, the National Motorsports Appeals Panel overturned part of a major penalty issued by NASCAR to Hendrick Motorsports and it has a significant impact on the championship standings. Three Hendrick drivers – Alex Bowman, William Byron and Kyle Larson were originally penalized 100 driver points and 10 Playoff points as a result of the penalty issued March 15, days after the Phoenix race; but the appeals panel overturned that portion of the team’s punishment for unapproved parts modifications.

The $100,000 fine for Hendrick teams 5 (Larson), 9 (Elliott), 24 (Byron) and 48 (Bowman) was upheld as was the four-race suspension for each car’s crew chief. The crew chiefs had already begun serving the suspension and will all be back in the garage at the April 16 race at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.

Now that all three Hendrick have had their points restored, the championship has a new look. With his third-place finish last week at Circuit of the Americas, Bowman – a 2021 Richmond winner – leads the championship standings now by 15 points over Trackhouse Racing’s Ross Chastain.

Byron – the season’s only multi-time winner (at Las Vegas and Phoenix) is third, 29 points back. Larson is ninth. Elliott was not penalized because he missed the last four races while recovering from a broken leg. He is expected to be out at least until the April 23 race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.

Last week’s first road course of the season (won by Tyler Reddick at Circuit of The Americas) was certainly drama-filled with a lot of the bent fenders and hot tempers more typically associated with a short track. So, there is a lot of anticipation for this week’s follow-up action at Richmond.

“Richmond will be a good gauge of where you stack up – slow, a bunch of mechanical grip, tire conservation, so I’m optimistic for sure,” said Blaney, who is ranked eighth in the driver standings heading into Sunday’s race.

“I thought we had good cars there last year in both races from the whole team and I’m excited to get there. Hopefully, we learned a little bit from Phoenix that we can apply over to Richmond and keep building on that racetrack. I think it’s okay, but you can always improve, and I think we can get a little bit better.”

Practice for the Toyota Owners 400 is Saturday at 10:05 a.m. ET and followed immediately by Busch Light Pole Qualifying at 10:50 a.m. Both sessions will be broadcast live on FS1.

Xfinity Dash 4 Cash kicks off at Richmond

An eventful road course race last week and a short track challenge this week certainly has the NASCAR Xfinity Series drivers up on the wheel. Austin Hill continues to lead the Xfinity Series championship standings, but a DNF for the points leader last week in Austin, means that second place Riley Herbst now trails the season’s three-race winner by only 15 points heading into Saturday’s ToyotaCare 250 at Richmond (Va.) Raceway (1 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Herbst, the driver of the No. 98 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford has proven to be quite adept at the .75-mile Richmond oval with top-10 finishes in four of his five starts and fifth place finishes in both races last year. He is still racing for his first career win, however, there is some positive history for that at Richmond. Kyle Busch and Robby Gordon are the last drivers to score their first Xfinity Series victory at Richmond, splitting the 2004 races.

Ty Gibbs – the 2022 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion – won last year’s race by a slight .116-second. Gibbs (114 laps) and runner-up John Hunter Nemechek (135 laps) combined to lead all but one lap of the race.

JR Motorsports’ Justin Allgaier and Herbst’s SHR teammate Cole Custer are the only former winners entered this weekend. Allgaier, who has finished inside the top-10 in half of his 22 Richmond starts, swept both races in 2020 and Custer scored his victory there in 2019. They along with Herbst and Nemechek should be easy favorites this weekend.

Nemechek, driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, is ranked third in points, 29 points behind Hill and is one of only three fulltime drivers (also JGR’s Sammy Smith) to have earned a trophy already.

Smith, driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, was the highest finishing Xfinity Series regular last week at COTA with a fourth-place finish – just ahead of Allgaier, Daniel Hemric and Sam Mayer.

Qualifying has proven to be especially important at Richmond with 16 winners from pole position – the most of any single starting spot. And indeed, that’s where Gibbs started last April en route to his victory.

In addition to the tight battle atop the points position, Saturday’s race marks the first of the popular Dash 4 Cash incentive program for the Xfinity Series. The top four fulltime series drivers from last week’s race in Austin – Allgaier, his JR Motorsports teammate Mayer, Kaulig Racing’s Hemric and JGR rookie Sammy Smith making his Richmond debut – will be eligible for the Dash 4 Cash $100,000 bonus.

The highest finishing driver among those four will get the big $100,000 check from Xfinity and the four highest fulltime finishers at Richmond will be eligible for another $100,000 in the next race, April 11 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.

Mayer earned the $100,000 bonus last year at Richmond with a third-place finish. Allgaier has four Dash 4 Cash bonus wins in his career too.

“After last week’s race, I feel more than confident in my team that we are going to have a great finish this week at Richmond and contend for that $100,000 prize in the Dash 4 Cash,” Mayer said. “We won it last year so I am hopeful we can swoop in and take the win and race for it again in Martinsville.

“I’m happy to have (crew chief) Mardy (Lindley) back calling the shots and really excited to get back to short-track racing.”

The Xfinity Series will have practice Saturday morning at 8:05 a.m. ET, followed by qualifying at 8:35 a.m. ET and the race at 1 p.m. that afternoon.

CRAFTSMAN Truck Series is back in the Lone Star state

Texas continues to be the competitive center for the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series. Reigning series champion Zane Smith earned a thrilling victory last Saturday to make it two-in-a-row for him at the Circuit of The Americas (COTA) road course in Austin with the series moving a couple hours north to Texas Motor Speedway for Saturday’s 250 (5:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

The COTA victory puts Smith atop the championship standings by a slim 2-points over one of his 2022 championship challengers Ty Majeski. The top six drivers are separated by a mere 35 points as the series heads to the always-dramatic 1.5-mile Texas high-banks.

It’s veteran Matt Crafton, ranked sixth in the standings, that will have the eye of many. After a rough 2022 season filled with disappointment and unfulfilled expectations, Crafton has had a solid start to 2023 and must be considered a favorite heading to Texas.

Crafton, driver of the No. 88 ThorSport Racing Ford, holds some of the series’ most important records at Texas from pole positions (5), top-five finishes (17), top-10 finishes (30), lead lap finishes (32) and laps completed (6,453). The all-time winningest driver is Todd Bodine with six victories – but Crafton is the only multi-time winner (2014-15) in this weekend’s field.

Defending winner Stewart Friesen, driver of the No. 52 Halmar-Friesen Racing Toyota, is the only other Texas winner entered this week. He’s had top-10 finishes in half his 10 starts at the 1.5-mile track.

There are certainly other drivers expected to give these two a run for the trophy, however. Another veteran, Grant Enfinger, driver of the No. 23 GMS Racing Chevrolet, has proven to be particularly good on the Texas Motor Speedway with seven top-10 finishes in 10 starts – including a pair of top-five efforts. He was 11th in last year’s race.

Beyond the veterans such as Crafton, Friesen and Enfinger, rookie Nick Sanchez, driver of the No. 2 Rev Racing Chevrolet is a very respectable 12th-place in standings heading to Texas with two top-10 finishes in the four races to date.

The points leader Smith is certainly no slouch at 1.5-mile tracks either, with five top-five finishes in seven of the 1.5-mile track races in 2022. He was third at Texas.

The CRAFTSMAN Truck Series has practice Saturday at 10:35 a.m. ET followed by qualifying at 11:05 am. ET.

— NASCAR News Wire —