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Richmond capital of short track races

Apr 29, 2003 5:07 AM

The third stage of NASCAR’s Winston Cup series short track schedule goes under the lights at Richmond this Saturday night.

As we see each and every time the drivers get bunched together on the short tracks, the fenders start rubbing, the paint gets trading, and the drivers get angry. Mix in the atmosphere of a night race in the capital of the Confederacy and you’ve got yourself the perfect environment to show any novice fan what major league stock car racing is all about.

The Virginia track, like the two other short tracks, is unlike any other on the circuit. It has minimal banking, but is a three-quarter mile D shape with average speeds similar to what we see at Bristol.

The last three years has seen Tony Stewart (7-1) dominate this night race, with wins in the last two seasons. Stewart is still the only driver to ever win two in a row under the lights at Richmond and is the obvious favorite to win this week.

In the two previous short track results this year, Stewart was sixth at Martinsville and wrecked at Bristol. The 2002 Winston Cup points champ had lost his temper two weeks ago at Martinsville when he slammed Elliott Sadler into the wall following the race. There could be concern about how he has altered his driving mentality due to all the probation and sanctions placed upon him by NASCAR, Home Depot, and his car owner Joe Gibbs.

"We’ve had a lot of things happen to the car this year and he doesn’t seem to get nearly as uptight and rattled by it," car owner Gibbs said. "He’s much more relaxed."

When wagering, you want the Stewart that people thought twice about smacking, not the Stewart that drivers knew they could nudge because they know he’s fearful of the repercussions that will come if he retaliates.

Stewart’s teammate Bobby Labonte (10-1) won last year at Martinsville for his first short track victory. This season he is the only driver to finish in the top 5 in both short track events. Over his career, Labonte has struggled at Richmond with only two top 5 finishes in 18 starts. This year, though, Labonte has been consistent, tough, and resembles the driver that won the points title several years ago.

Jeff Gordon (7-1) has finished in the top 5 in almost half of his 20 Richmond starts. He has two wins, the last being in the fall of 2000. His last spring race win was in 1996. Gordon is not a fan favorite at Richmond, but has become immune to the boos.

Ward Burton (20-1) had a great run last year in the fall where he finished eighth and led during the late stages of the race. Despite Burton being from Virginia, it hasn’t transpired into victories or even quality finishes at his home state track. However, great odds as high as 40-1 should be readily available at most bet shops.

Terry Labonte (25-1) has three career wins at Richmond and is always a driver to watch at Richmond regardless of how he appears on paper. In 49 career starts he has 26 top 10 finishes. Over the last few races, Labonte’s car has resembled an actual Hendrick Motorsports car in time trials and the race itself.

Rusty Wallace (10-1) is the track’s all-time win leader with six, but hasn’t visited victory lane since 1997. His career has been built on his short track successes.

Ryan Newman (8-1) finished second in both races last year, quite an accomplishment for a rookie at such a volatile track. In this race last year he led in the late stages of the race. In the fall, he led the first half of the race. Based purely on past performances at Richmond, everything points to Newman as the driver to supplant Stewart in this race.