The second race of the NASCAR Playoffs takes us to Richmond Raceway’s 0.75-mile flat layout for a Saturday night special in front of some rowdiest fans on the circuit.
It’s the second time the Cup Series has visited Richmond this season, the last time coming in April with last week’s winner Martin Truex Jr. leading a race-high 186 laps and winning on a short track for the first time in his career.
Truex’s Las Vegas win gives him an automatic berth into the next round regardless of what he does the next two weeks, but it’s quite possible he could win the next two with no pressure. He leads the series with five wins this season, but the race package he’s been the most effective with is the one with engines producing 750 horsepower they’ll be using this week and next week at Charlotte’s Roval. He’s won three races with this package beginning with Richmond, then he won at Dover and then it was the road course at Sonoma. It was three straight wins with the 750 HP cars.
Three races have been run with this race package since his Sonoma win and three different drivers have visited the winner’s circle. Kevin Harvick won at New Hampshire, Chase Elliott won at Watkins Glen and Denny Hamlin won at Bristol five weeks ago.
I don’t get to mention Matt DiBenedetto often, but it should be noted that he has top-five finishes in three of the last four races using this package. His team is getting better with the No. 95 which ran with the Barstool Sports paint scheme last week at Las Vegas. The last race using this package at Bristol he led a race-high 93 laps and looked to be in line for his first career Cup win until Denny Hamlin passed him with 12 laps to go. DiBenedetto would finish a career-best second-place. The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook has him posted at 300-1, and while I’m not going to have him listed in my top five, if you bet the lottery or Megabucks often, dropping $5 or $10 bucks on him would certainly have a better chance of winning.
There have been nine races with the 750 HP package and Hamlin has finished in the top-five in eight of them. No one has been more consistent than him with this package and now he brings it to a track which is only 24 minutes from where he grew up in Chesterfield.
In 26 career Cup starts at Richmond he has three wins, 12 top-fives and leads all active drivers with 1,659 laps led. After a disappointing 15th-place at Las Vegas last week, I look for Hamlin to come strong and hungry this week and no one knows the track better than him.
Or perhaps, maybe one driver knows the track better than Hamlin. The kid from Las Vegas who also had a disappointing experience last week with a 19th-place on his home track. Kyle Busch hasn’t won in his last 13 races after starting the season with a bang taking the checkers four times. But he’s the active leader with six Richmond wins, which includes sweeping the two races last season. He’s had wins at Phoenix and Bristol this season using this race package.
The Phoenix win for Busch was way back in March, but it’s still relevant here because it too is a flat track. I also include the flat 1-mile layout at New Hampshire in a separate group with Richmond because the set-up requirements for all three tracks are similar.
So far this season we have three races between those tracks and they’ve produced three different winners with Hamlin having top-fives in all three. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Ryan Blaney each have two top-fives on them. Look for all four of the Joe Gibbs Racing cars to be great this weekend with Harvick, Blaney, and Logano crashing the Gibbs party.
Erik Jones is a nice look this week because of being dead last in the playoffs. He has to make something happen fast so he doesn't get eliminated. That means he's desperate and willing to do anything — bump or wreck someone — to stay alive. Just like his Gibbs teammates, he's been very good with the 750 HP package with top-fives in two of his last three using it.
This is the perfect spot for Kyle.