NASCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, 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 Federated Auto Parts 400 (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN). Can he get another triumph on Saturday night?

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 led a ton of laps and should have finished second in April. He was also third in the playoff race of 2018 to give him five consecutive top five finishes on the .75-mile Virginia race track.

On top of all of this, he won earlier this spring at Phoenix, a track similar to 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, Team Penske and Hendrick Motorsports have won each of the last six including 10 of the last 11 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.

HMS has won 7 of the 14 races on 750 tracks, but among those, four of the seven were road courses. JGR has won 4 of the 14 but all four of theirs were on short tracks. SHR and Kaulig won the other two 750 races

JGR though is arguably the best organization on 750 tracks this year and 2 of the 3 in the first round are on them as well as the final two races of the year at that.

They just won another one in Darlington too.

Hamlin, finished third in Phoenix, third in Martinsville, second in Richmond and seventh at Dover and 10th in Loudon. We have Richmond, Bristol, Martinsville and Phoenix to make up 40% of the playoffs on short tracks. He led 276 of 500 laps in a third place run at Martinsville. He led 207 of 400 laps a week later in Richmond. He also led 33 laps in a third place effort at Phoenix. He may have been 10th in Loudon but he was already behind the eight ball from an opening lap spin.

Truex Jr. and Busch never got to flex their muscles due to an early race crash not of their doing in Loudon too. But, Truex won at both Phoenix and Martinsville earlier this season. He was also fifth in Richmond after what should have been another top two or three result.

Busch looks like the strongest of them right now and capable of going on a deep run. Bell, has some good tracks in the first couple of rounds for him too.

For Penske, they’ve were one of the top teams on these tracks last year but have slipped to second this.

They looked really good in New Hampshire for a second straight year. That translated well over to last year in which Keselowski won the playoff race at Richmond and led the most laps in the Championship 4 at Phoenix. Logano, led the most laps earlier this year in Phoenix and finished second. He was sixth in Martinsville, third in Richmond and if not for an early race penalty would have likely been in the hunt for a win as he made up two laps to finish fourth, one spot behind Keselowski but one spot ahead of Blaney in Loudon.

These are the top organizations to beat on Sunday.

Can Hendrick Motorsports Improve?

What a rough night it was for the Hendrick Motorsports camp at Darlington. After some questioning on how many drivers the camp could get into the Championship 4, the question now is, will any of them live to see the second round in terms of championship aspirations?

See, the Southern 500 saw all four of them leave with crash damage and now they’re heading to not one of their better tracks in Richmond under the lights on Saturday.

When Jimmie Johnson won for them in 2008, it was their third in the last four tries. They’re 1-for-24 since though.

Alex Bowman won in the spring but it was more of a fluke rather than on merit. The race that day was a JGR/Penske battle that saw a late caution swing the race in Bowman’s favor. Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano had the cars to beat that day and after how Darlington went, I expect the same.

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 seven of his other eight Richmond starts. He needs a good run too as he was 31st after crashing out in Darlington. He’s just +4 in the standings as a result of that too.

William Byron has never scored a top five at Richmond before as the spring race was his first top 10 at that. He’s now -9 after bad luck in a crash too at Darlington.

Kyle Larson has no top fives in his last five starts there but has a big cushion in points while Bowman, is -0 on the bubble.

Part of this problem too is that they’re better on 550 than 750 tracks. With how this season has gone on 750 tracks, HMS is right there behind JGR and Penske. Can they improve enough at Richmond?

Larson was seventh in Phoenix, fifth in Martinsville, 20th in Richmond, second in Dover and now seventh in Loudon. Elliott was fifth, second, 12th, third 18th and on the same tracks. Byron was eighth, fourth, seventh, fourth and 21st respectively while Bowman actually won twice (Richmond, Dover) and was 13th, 34th and ninth in the other two.

Dover was their obvious best at 1-2-3-4 but they’ve not been as dominant on other short tracks either. Where this could be the most worrisome is they’re not the best on short tracks right now in general. Even more so, Loudon has been an early preview of the Fall Phoenix race too.

Can HMS get a driver eliminated in Round 1 after hopes of possibly sweeping the Championship 4?

Is This Race A Phoenix Preview?

How much of Saturday night’s race at Richmond 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 in March. 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 also good 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 contender because of that as he’s excelled on these venues in 2021. In fact, both wins came on them.

He’s now won three of the last four at Martinsville, has 3 top 2’s in his last 4 Richmond starts and was fifth in April. Who’s to say he can’t win again in November? Well, how about a win to position himself to get there?

Denny Hamlin was third in both races at Phoenix and Martinsville this year too, led the most laps in Richmond in a runner-up effort and is right on the heels of Truex. Joey Logano was runner-up in Phoenix, sixth in Martinsville and fourth in Loudon. Chase Elliott was fifth in Phoenix, 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 in April. These are the two drivers to beat when we come back in November.

Then you have Kyle Larson who is the championship favorite but was only seventh in Phoenix and fifth in Martinsville but also 18th in Richmond and seventh in Loudon too.

What about Christopher Bell. He won on a 750 track on the Daytona road course back in February and was ninth in Phoenix, seventh in Martinsville, fourth in Richmond and runner-up in Loudon.

Other than Larson, the main guys for the Championship 4 are at their best on 750 tracks this season and Loudon/Richmond has translated over to Phoenix success.

Will Saturday Night Be A Clean Race?

It’s no secret, the night racing at Richmond has left us with more to be desired. 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.

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.

Will Saturday night’s race be a track position race and one that you need to be perfect and clean on and off pit road?

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