From the longest track on the circuit two weeks ago at Talladega to one of the shorter ones this Saturday in Richmond, the Sprint Cup Series is anything but dull this time of year.
And the weather is expected to be beautiful Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway for the Crown Royal Presents The Matthew and Daniel Hansen 400, so we’ll be paying attention to what’s happening on the track, not on the radar screen.
With a compact weekend, practice and qualifying went down in short order Friday, and the drivers won’t get back in their cars until race time at 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday. Juan Pablo Montoya won the pole.
Five things worth watching for stand out.
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. can win — Yes, you’ve heard it for years now, but all signs are pointing to the most popular driver in NASCAR winning a race very soon. How soon? How about tomorrow night?
It won’t be easy. It never is. But Earnhardt was the fastest driver in the first Sprint Cup practice Friday, even though he then went out and qualified 24th. And he knows the pressure is building as he continues to perform well week in and week out this season.
“I don’t have the time to be worried about anything else other than just trying to keep going,” he said before qualifying. “So, it’s a lot of pressure to try and keep going and try to keep up the expectations that everybody has for you.”
And those expectations include a realistic shot at winning Saturday night’s race.
2. Left-front tire issues — Goodyear has already switched tire compounds for the left-front tires, which were wearing too fast in the first practice.
Sometimes the Goodyear brain trust gets the switch right (Bristol last month), and sometimes it doesn’t (Indianapolis, 2008).
But the drivers agree the company is trying.
“It’s amazing,” Jimmie Johnson said. “I’m surprised at how sensitive the race cars are to the tires.
“At the end of the day, the only thing touching the ground are those four pieces of rubber, and a small area of it. So, it really does make a big difference from compound [to compound], which seems to be more of a factor in a fast lap than a lot of fall-off, and also a track that would rubber-up to where we don’t have the tire-wearing issue. So that seems to be a trend that we’re trying to make sure tracks rubber-up. I think it’s very important to have them rubber-up.”
3. Teams are already looking ahead to September — The final race before the Chase — and the last gasp for drivers on the outside looking in — is here Sept. 10. So are drivers and their teams looking ahead even while trying to win this weekend?
“I think everybody always puts an added emphasis on any track that’s a Chase race,” Kyle Busch said. “Chicago, for instance, we tried to do the best we could last year at learning what we needed to learn knowing it would become a Chase race this year.
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“Loudon [N.H.] in the spring, all of the time. Texas — the same thing. Every race track that you have, you try to work as much as you can towards the next time around and trying to build a really good notebook so you have everything that you can use to go back with.”
4. The Ford bunch is feeling confident — There’s a lot of talk about how good the Ford FR9 engines are performing this season, and they might have a leg up at this three-quarter-mile D-shaped oval if the perceived horsepower gains and throttle response hold true.
Ford drivers have won three races so far this season, and you should expect to see them in contention here.
“I think [the better engine] comes into play everywhere,” said Matt Kenseth, who won two races ago at Texas. “I don’t think you can have too much horsepower.
“They have done really good jobs with these engines, and this is the first full year running them having a full offseason to make them better. … They really picked up the engine program with this new engine.”
5. Everybody loves racing at Richmond — The drivers will tell you this track is awesome, the fans in attendance likely will tell you this track is awesome and I would be willing to bet a majority of fans who watch on television will tell you this track is awesome.
Despite being reconfigured in 1988, Richmond is still old NASCAR but with more modern amenities. The city rolls out the red carpet, the concessionaires and traffic workers are almost always unfailingly polite, and the pictures are Hollywood worthy.
“Richmond has been a staple of the series for a lot of years,” Paul Menard said. “Virginia is a hotbed for racing, obviously. A lot of good fans out here. I’m sure it will be a sold-out race Saturday night.
“It’s a good, old-fashioned short track.”