May 1, 2008
Richmond International Raceway is the kind of place that makes drivers think back to their roots.
Those who came through the stock-car ranks remember Saturday-night races at short tracks in their hometowns. They think back to small but rowdy crowds, to passionate but makeshift crews and to wins that seemed to come more easily and more often than they do now.
So it is with a sense of nostalgia that many head to the 0.75-mile Virginia track to prepare for Saturday night's Crown Royal 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.
For those who did not grow up with this racing, this weekend offers something entirely new in terms of a driving experiencee.
Richmond is a short track, but it offers plenty of lanes for racing and passing. It's a place where the racing starts with the setting sun and continues late into the night, where the lights offer fans another element that isn't a usual part of the weekly Cup racing these days.
It all comes together to make for exciting racing - the kind even the drivers are looking toward with a sense of anticipation.
“We all started racing at some short track before we made it to this level, and most of them were Saturday night tracks," Gillett Evernham Motorsports' Elliott Sadler said. "There’s just something about a short track under the lights for the drivers and fans. It brings out an extra element that you don’t normally get during Sunday races. I love the atmosphere that surrounds a night race. You never know what’s going to happen during a short-track race, but I guarantee you it’s going to happen fast, and someone is going to end up mad.”
Penske Racing's Ryan Newman is one of the drivers who puts Richmond high on his list of tracks to enjoy. He deems it the best short track on the NASCAR circuit.
To handle the track, though, he thinks drivers need to be aware of their entry into the corners.
"Turn 1 is sweeping, and you have to be sensitive to getting loose there," he said. "Turn 3 is pretty much a 90-degree corner, and Turn 4 opens up, so you will see a lot of passing there. Both ends are different, so it really is a driver’s race track. It’s a place where it is rewarding to be patient and smooth, but you also have to be aggressive at times, too."
Some drivers just take to this track. Hendrick Motorsports Jimmie Johnson swept the races at Richmond last season and heads to the track seeking his third victory in a row. Richard Childress Racing's Kevin Harvick has only one Cup win at the track, but has four top-five and eight top-10 finishes with an average finish of 12.2 and has three consecutive Nationwide Series wins there.
Harvick says that Richmond is a cross between short-track racing and the 1-mile track at Phoenix.
“It really is a little of both, but I think you have to go in with the short-track mindset," Harvick said. "There is more contact at Richmond than you have at a bigger track. I think sometimes drivers use the short track as an excuse to beat and bang, but as tight as the racing is there, it’s hard to not have incidental contact.”
For these drivers, racing at Richmond offers a chance to run on a track they understand. For those who don't have much experience on short tracks in stock cars, though, it offers something completely different.
“Richmond will be a new experience for me in a stock car," former open-wheel driver and GEM rookie Patrick Carpentier said. "I was there in the IRL in 2005 and finished third. I know it will be much different experience this weekend. When you enter the corners in an open-wheel car, the car immediately sets, and you’re off through the corner. But in a stock car, the car never seems to set in the corner, so you really have to tiptoe through there."
Yet it is those same characteristics that make Richmond such an exciting place for the drivers who have driven there for years.
"Richmond has good racing action," RCR"s Jeff Burton, a former Richmond winner, said. "It’s big enough where it’s not wreck after wreck but small enough where it’s close side-by-side action since you have multiple grooves. To me, it’s a really hard race track to beat competition-wise.”