Denny Hamlin had an unquestionably fast car in final practice for the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway and has set himself up as the favorite to win Saturday night.
Several weeks ago, NASCAR began making more data available through NASCAR.com. This includes not only the 10-lap chart that was previously accessible through the media site, but averages in five-lap increments up through the 30-lap mark. One driver topped every column, which means that Hamlin was consistently fast.
The only question open in fantasy players’ minds is whether the setup he had on his car has an adjustable base and if he can make the transition into the cooler conditions at night. It is something we worried about last week with Joey Logano and his ability to dominate the final segment at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. If not for damage sustained during the event, it appeared he would continue to be fast, and we have confidence Hamlin will challenge for stage wins and the overall victory.
If Hamlin is not on your roster—he should be.
Hamlin was not quite as dominant in the morning session. Fewer drivers posted the long runs we saw in Happy Hour and on the 10-lap chart he was only third-best. Teammate Kyle Busch topped that chart with Kyle Larson taking the second spot. Busch is highly motivated to run well this week after the controversy that surrounded him at Las Vegas. He won both Richmond races last year and challenged this spring before a mistake in the pits cost him track position.
He went the wrong direction in final practice, however, and dropped to 12th on the 10-lap chart. Larson followed him down the order and landed 11th. By the time they hit the 20-lap mark, Busch recovered and climbed to seventh while Larson was still just outside the top 10.
Of course fantasy rosters are made up of multiple drivers. Most experts have been somewhat critical of Ryan Blaney at Richmond. He has never cracked the top 15 on this track with a best of 18th and his average finish of 26.7 makes this his worst track by a fairly wide margin.
The problem with stats is they don’t always take in the human element and Blaney is focused on a playoff run. He is 12 points above the cutoff line, which is too close to give up the ground that a sub-10th-place finish will cost. Do not be surprised if Blaney finishes in the top 10.
Matt DiBenedetto was one of the top non-playoff drivers. His elapsed time of 23.187 over a 25-lap run was eighth best and he landed 10th on the 30-lap chart. Richmond is a rhythm track on which long green flag runs can develop. If the team manages the race well, DiBenedetto can maximize these runs better than most of the racers outside the top 16. Richmond is also a driver’s track where skill behind the wheel is a bigger part of the puzzle than on unrestricted, intermediate speedways. DiBenedetto should also contend for a top 10.
Daniel Suarez was better on shorter runs. On the 15-lap chart, he was the best among non-playoff contenders with the eighth-best time making him the only driver among the top 14 who is not racing for the Cup. He was ninth on the 20-lap chart, but by the time the field got to 25 laps he had fallen to 16th. The key to his success will be track position management and hoping that the race ends on a short run.
The fastest single laps belonged to Chris Buescher (121.147 mph) in the morning and Martin Truex Jr. (121.885) in Happy Hour. Buescher qualified in the top 10 this spring and had a decent run, but Truex has more experience qualifying up front. He won the pole in April, 2018 and has a six-race streak of starting on the first three rows. Toyota does not have many poles this year, but Truex could change that Friday night.
In the morning session, Joey Logano had the second fastest speed of 120.962 mph, so if you are not overly enthusiastic about Toyota’s odds and want to lean toward a fast Ford, he deserves attention.
Another couple of notable drivers in Happy Hour were Ryan Newman and Erik Jones. Both drivers need strong runs this week because of their position in the points. On the 15-lap chart, Newman landed third; Jones was fourth-quickest. If they qualify up front, that could make a huge difference in their bid to scored segment points.