Getty Images

Stock car racing has a deep and expansive history all across the Commonwealth of Virginia and a large part of that history lies in its state capitol, as Richmond Raceway has served as one of NASCAR's signature short tracks for much of the sport's 75-year history.

The legacy of racing in Richmond continues this Sunday, as the NASCAR Cup Series heads to Richmond for the Toyota Owners 400, the first short track race of the 2023 season and the opening round of three-straight short track races to start the month of April. Among short tracks in NASCAR, Richmond has long been a favorite thanks to its 0.750-mile D-shape configuration, which makes speed and handling just as much of a factor as the willingness to drive deep into one of this track's 14-degree banked corners and perhaps trade paint with another car.

How to watch the NASCAR Cup Series at Richmond

  • Date: Sun., Apr. 2
  • Location: Richmond Raceway -- Henrico County, Va.
  • Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
  • TV: FS1
  • Stream: fuboTV (try for free)

What to watch

  • Years ago, Richmond had earned a reputation as being the "Action Track" in NASCAR: Races here were spirited affairs that usually featured a lot of attrition and a lot of contentious contact. Rusty Wallace turned Jeff Gordon while racing for the win in 1998, sending the crowd into a thrilled frenzy. Kyle Busch did the same thing to Dale Earnhardt Jr. 10 years later, sending the crowd into a rage and launching Busch's villain persona.

    Recent Richmond races, however, haven't produced those same kinds of highlights as the track's surface has aged and its groove has widened to encompass the entire racing surface. Last year, both Richmond races were decided by tire strategy, with long green flag runs and varying approaches to each run offering a drawn out pretext to what turned into exciting races for the win thanks to large discrepancies in speed between cars on old tires and cars on new ones.

    Some of that could be attributed to the Next Gen car's issues on short tracks and turbulent air in traffic, which made having fresher tires the most effective way to pass other cars. Now, Richmond marks the first test of NASCAR's new aero package for short ovals and road courses on a short track, and it remains uncertain whether or not the package will create a race that more resembles what draws fans to short track racing.

  • Through six races so far this year, there has been due cause to suggest that William Byron has taken the next step as a Cup Series driver, becoming one who is capable of winning every week and at every type of racetrack. Since scoring two-straight wins at Las Vegas and Phoenix, Byron was a contender at Atlanta before getting swept up in a crash, and he battled for the win last week with Tyler Reddick before finishing fifth at Circuit of the Americas.

    But if Byron's strengths as a driver lie anywhere, they lie on short tracks. Byron has moonlighted extensively in super late model racing over the past year for car owner Donnie Wilson, and the skills necessary to succeed in late models -- specifically car control and tire management -- are exactly the skills that are put on display at Richmond. In last year's spring race at Richmond, Byron qualified second and led 122 of 400 laps, but was passed for the win with five laps to go and finished third.

    Although there have been five different winners in six races so far this season, Byron can make a major assertion that he'll be the driver to beat all season long if he can earn his third win of the year this weekend. A driver hasn't won three races in the first seven weeks of the year since 2018, when Kevin Harvick won three in a row at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix.
  • Generally speaking, Richmond has been a racetrack that has favored older drivers -- with the exception of Alex Bowman in 2021, eight of the last nine Richmond winners have been drivers who made their first Cup start before 2010. One of those is Martin Truex Jr., and it's worth keeping a close eye on him this weekend.

    Truex, 42, is currently mired in a 50-race winless streak that began with his most recent win at Richmond in the fall of 2021. In last year's spring Richmond race, though, Truex led 80 laps and was a factor in the race for the win all day long before finishing fourth. And the last time the Cup Series was on a short track at the Busch Light Clash in February, Truex was the one who went to Victory Lane.

Pick to Win

(Odds via Caesars Sportsbook)

Christopher Bell (+750): This week's pick was a coin flip between Byron and Bell, but I'm going to go with Bell for a couple of reasons: He was more consistent at Richmond last year, finishing sixth and second while Byron had an 11th place run in August counteracting his third-place finish in the spring. But where I think Bell's advantage this weekend truly lies is on top of the pit box.

Crew chief Rudy Fugle's late-race strategy calls have been pivotal in William Byron's two wins this year, just as Adam Stevens' strategy calls were for Bell in his wins late last year as well as the race at Richmond last August, where Bell was catching Kevin Harvick on much fresher tires but ran out of time before the checkered flag flew. Fugle remains absent this week as he continues to serve a four-race suspension for illegal hood louvers at Phoenix, while Stevens remains present as Bell has become one of the most consistent drivers in the early portion of this season.

Bell led 63 laps in this race last year, and he's only grown as a Cup driver since with three wins late last season and four finishes of sixth or better so far this year. I expect Bell to continue to prove that he and Stevens are becoming one of the best driver/crew chief pairings in the Cup Series.