With six different winners in as many races and the first short track event up next for the new 2022 Next Gen race cars, it’s hard to imagine a more compelling start to a NASCAR Cup Series season.
The Toyota Owners 400 at the 0.75-mile Richmond (Va.) Raceway on Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) officially ushers in the short track portion of the schedule — three consecutive races on tracks less than a mile in length.
Last week’s race runner-up, Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman arrives at Richmond as the defending spring race winner — earning the first of his four 2021 victories there. He’s currently fourth in the standings, 25 points behind his teammate, driver point standings leader Chase Elliott.
Bowman isn’t among the top 10 favorites at DraftKings or BetMGM, where he is being backed by a modest 4.0 percent of the winning bets and 4.4 percent of the handle at +1600.
Bowman’s win at Las Vegas earlier this month helped further an amazing run of victories among drivers under 30 years old. All six races this year — from 23-year-old rookie Austin Cindric winning the season-opening Daytona 500 to 29-year-old Ross Chastain winning last week at COTA — have been won by drivers younger than 30.
Three of those drivers — Cindric, 27-year-old Chase Briscoe (at Phoenix) and Chastain — are first-time winners in the NASCAR Cup Series. And four of the top five drivers in the series standings are also in that sub-30 age category with Elliott, 26, leading Ryan Blaney, 28, by a mere 13 points atop the standings. Bowman is fourth, 25 points back and Chastain is ranked a career high fifth, just 28 points behind Elliott. Joey Logano — at only 31 — is ranked third, 23 points behind Elliott.
Reigning series champion Kyle Larson, 29, who has a 2017 Playoff win at Richmond, would love to reclaim some of that good juju. He’s ranked 16th, 59 points behind his teammate Elliott. He won at Auto Club Speedway and was a runner-up at Las Vegas but his other four finishes this year are 29th or worse, including three DNFs.
And while the “youth movement” is certainly dominating headlines to start 2022, that’s not necessarily so typical of recent history at Richmond.
After Bowman and Larson, the other seven active drivers with previous Richmond wins are over the age of 30. Six of those are former series champions, including the track’s active wins leader Kyle Busch (six wins). Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. each have three wins. Brad Keselowski, Logano and Kurt Busch have two victories apiece. Veteran Denny Hamlin, 41, a perpetual championship challenger, has three wins as well.
Larson, Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney are the co-favorites at +800 at DraftKings while all three are being offered at +900 at BetMGM along with Kyle Busch. Busch has been the most popular wager at both sportsbooks, drawing 8 percent of the bets and 10 percent of the handle at DraftKings and 8.9 and 11.3 percent, respectively, at BetMGM.
Busch is the second biggest liability at BetMGM behind Bubba Wallace, who has been supported by 2.7 percent of the handle as a +15000 longshot.
Not only do these drivers bring stellar Richmond resumes, but they also all are highly motivated for that first regular season victory of the year.
Truex comes into Richmond boasting three wins in the last five races there, including last year’s Playoff event. His Joe Gibbs Racing team — which also includes Kyle Busch and Hamlin — has won five of the last seven Richmond races. Busch won four consecutive Spring races from 2009-12 and, in addition to his six NASCAR Cup Series wins, he’s got six NASCAR Xfinity Series victories at the track, too.
Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, is another driver who has enjoyed a lot of success at Richmond — seven Xfinity wins in addition to his three NASCAR Cup Series victories. The 46-year-old has a pair of top 10s on the 2022 season and is ranked 12th in points. He’s only finished worse than eighth at Richmond twice in the last 11 races and has three career runner-up showings in addition to his three wins there.
Hamlin, who grew up in nearby Chesterfield, Va., and is a huge crowd favorite at Richmond, is stunningly still looking for his first top-10 finish of the season after suffering through uncharacteristic bad luck even when he’s led races. He’s currently ranked 22nd in the standings, an even 100 points behind Elliott.
Hamlin has to expect Richmond to be a good place for his fortunes to change. He was runner-up in both races last year — leading 207 laps in the Spring and 197 laps in the Fall. In the last 12 races, he has six top-three finishes including a win from pole position in 2016. His 2,108 career laps led at the track is easily tops among the field.
“I’m always excited to go to Richmond,” said Hamlin, who drives the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. “I have been fortunate to have had a lot of success there throughout my career and especially the last few years.
“Richmond is very unique compared to the tracks we have been to so far with this car,” he added. “So, it’s really going to be up to us to unload close and fine-tune it during practice and qualifying to be ready for the race. But I have a lot of confidence (crew chief) Chris (Gabehart) and our team that we can do that.
NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Toyota Owners 400
The Place: Richmond Raceway
The Date: Sunday, April 3
The Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $7,110,735
TV: FOX, 3 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 300 miles (400 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 70),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 230), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 400)
–Field Level Media (Information from NASCAR NewsWire contributed to this story).