NASCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400 (3 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN)

Is Truex Jr. The Favorite?

Martin Truex Jr. used to be a 1.5-mile king. 11 of his first 19 wins were on intermediate tracks. It wasn’t until his 20th win that came via a short track. But, over his last 10 wins, seven have come on tracks 1 mile in length or shorter including each of his last five. In fact, two of those last seven came at the Richmond Raceway, the site of this weekend’s Toyota Owners 400 (3 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN). Can he get another triumph on Sunday?

He certainly has to be among the favorites, if not THE favorite. Truex, swept both races in 2019 and was runner-up last year. He was also third in the playoff race of 2018 to give him four consecutive top three finishes on the .75-mile Virginia race track.

On top of all of this, he won last month at Phoenix, a track similar to Richmond as well as last week in Richmond. So, does this make Truex the one to beat?

For me, it’s confidence in each other, believing in each other,” Truex Jr. said on why the improvement on these tracks. “There was a time in my career when I go back to the Busch Series days, all the races I won there were short tracks. We never won any mile-and-a-half’s. Damn, I need to get better at mile-and-a-half’s. You work on that. In the Cup Series, every track is tough. Everybody is working constantly at being better every type of track.

“For whatever reason for me, the short tracks never really panned out. Even though we had a lot of great runs over the years, for instance, I think we led the most laps at Richmond three or four races in a row before we finally won there. Sometimes you need things to go your way.

“Honestly, from a consistency standpoint, being consistent at these short tracks, it comes down to people and equipment, that belief in each other. As I mentioned, especially at Martinsville, being able to just work on similar things year after year with the same group of guys for the most part, continuing to improve on small things. Really just believing what they’re telling you. If they tell me I need to drive a certain way, I start driving a certain way. If I tell them that it needs to do something different, they know it needs to do something different.

“It’s just that team chemistry that we’ve had over the years has been really good and we’ve been able to fine-tune on these places.”

I’d say so.

Will The Big Teams Win Again?

Richmond typically doesn’t allow for smaller teams to prevail at. Just look at the recent winners. Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske have won each of the last five including nine of the last 10 overall. Chip Ganassi Racing’s win with Kyle Larson in the 2017 playoff race was the only exception.

That means the big teams should be on top when the checkered flag drops on Sunday.

They’ve been that way on 750 tracks this season.

Joe Gibbs Racing has won 3 of the 4 750 races with Penske the other. In fact, in Daytona on the road course they went 1-2-3-5. In Phoenix, they were 1-2-3-4. Last week in Martinsville, they went 1-3-6.

These are the top two organizations to beat on Sunday.

Can Hendrick Motorsports Improve?

One big team that’s been absent up front at Richmond lately has been that of Hendrick Motorsports. When Jimmie Johnson won for them at Richmond in 2008, it was their third in the last four tries. They’re 0-for-23 since though.

Chase Elliott did finish fifth last year and was second and fourth respectively in 2018, but he’s also been outside of the top 10 in six of his other seven Richmond starts.

William Byron has never scored a top 10 at Richmond before. Alex Bowman was ninth last Fall for his lone top 10 in five tries there with HMS. Kyle Larson has four top sevens in his last five Richmond starts, but all came with Ganassi.

But, with how this season has gone on 750 tracks, HMS is right there behind JGR and Penske. Chase Elliott led the most laps on the Daytona road course. They went 5-7-8 in Phoenix and 2-4-5 in Martinsville. Can they improve enough at Richmond on Sunday to be there again in the end?

Another New Winner?

We’re eight races into the 2021 season and we’ve already had seven winners. Do we see an eighth on Sunday? Odds are, yes actually.

We’ve had seven winners in the last eight tries at Richmond and the guys that are typically good on this track, haven’t yet won anyways in 2021. Yes, Martin Truex Jr. (3 straight top 2’s), Joey Logano (2 top 3’s in last 4) and Kyle Larson (4 top 7’s in his last 5 starts) are the favorites for good reason, but Christopher Bell (15th last year), William Byron (0 top 10’s in 5 Richmond starts), Michael McDowell (0 top 10’s in 19 Richmond starts) and Ryan Blaney (0 top 10’s in 9 Richmond starts) have also struggled too.

Brad Keselowski, last year’s winner, has seven top 10’s in his last eight starts there. Kevin Harvick has five straight top sevens including 10 top sevens in his last 12 starts. Denny Hamlin has seven top sixes in his last nine. Kyle Busch has five top twos in his last 10 including a sixth place run last September. Chase Elliott was one spot better in fifth last year and has three top fives in his last five tries.

Wouldn’t you take a driver from that list over a driver who’s already won this season? You’re basically taking Larson/Truex/Logano or the field. Based on these stats, I’ll take the field.

Will The Day Race Allow For Better Racing? How Much Will Sunday Look Like Phoenix?

It’s no secret, the night racing at Richmond has left us with more to be desired. But, the day race has the potential to allow for better action. See, Richmond is known to be a slick track. Unfortunately, with less horsepower and more downforce and mix that with cooler night time conditions, it’s led to some follow the leader racing.

Well, with the heat of the day and less downforce now, maybe we can see some slipping and sliding and better racing throughout the field now.

Last year’s race saw just three cautions. Both in 2019 saw only five yellows and two of which each race were for stage breaks. We only saw three of them in the Fall of 2018 too with like last year, two of those being for stage breaks. With day racing on this short track, we could have the potential for better racing now.

Plus, how much of Sunday will look like Phoenix? Last year, three of the Championship 4 drivers all came in the top five at Richmond. This year, all four were back in the top five at Phoenix last month. It seems like the drivers that have been good at Phoenix recently have also been good at Richmond.

Then, you have the drivers that have been good at Phoenix this year were good last week in Martinsville. Three drivers that finished in the top five at Phoenix finished in the top five in Martinsville.

Right now, there’s a select group of drivers that are standing out on 750 horsepower tracks. Martin Truex Jr. looks like a championship favorite because he’s excelled at both venues in 2021. In fact, he’s won both races.

He has four top six results in his last six starts on the season and two of them are wins (Phoenix, Martinsville). He looked really good in the final stage at Phoenix and his No. 19 Toyota was third in both stages on Sunday and capitalized in the end. He’s now won three of the last four at Martinsville. Who’s to say he can’t win again in November?

Hamlin, was third in both races this year too and is right on the heels of Truex. Joey Logano was runner-up in Phoenix and sixth in Martinsville. Chase Elliott was fifth in Phoenix and runner-up in Martinsville. He won both playoff races last year. All three were in the Championship 4 a year ago.

In fact, Truex and Elliott have combined to win the last four at Martinsville and were 1-2 on Sunday. These are the two drivers to beat when we come back in November.

Then you have Kyle Larson who was seventh in Phoenix and fifth in Martinsville. His teammate William Byron was eighth and fourth respectively. You can’t overlook either of them to bump one of the previous four out come this Fall.

What about Christopher Bell. He won on a 750 track on the Daytona road course back in February and was ninth and seventh in the other two.

Kevin Harvick has a pair of top 10’s while Ryan Blaney was 10th in Phoenix but 11th in Martinsville. That 11th place run isn’t indicative on how good he’s been on the paperclip was he led 157 laps and swept both stages. He had at the very least a top five going before that final pit stop mishap. He was also runner-up in both Martinsville races last year too.

That’s why all these guys are distancing themselves as championship contenders right now.

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