Busch boys, Johnson look strong as NASCAR hits Richmond
Johnson has won three of the past four events at Richmond, and looks strong
Kurt Busch has finished in the top 10 in three of his last four races there
Dodge's future in NASCAR is uncertain with Chrysler's bankruptcy
Now that the wild bumper-car ride that is Talladega is in the rearview mirror -- and all of the fans who were injured in Carl Edwards' last-lap crash have been released from the hospital -- the circuit moves to Richmond, Va., an ancient .75-mile bullring nestled within the city limits. Here are the five drivers to keep an eye on:
1. Jimmie Johnson
Johnson has won three of the past four events at Richmond. What's more, the No. 48 team is performing as well as any in the sport right now. Not counting Talladega, where he was caught up in a multi-car wreck, Johnson hasn't finished worse than fourth in his last four starts. This is typically the time of the season that this team really starts to roll, and if Johnson doesn't walk away with a top-three finish on Saturday night, it would be a surprise.
2. Kurt Busch
The points leader, Busch always has excelled at short tracks like Richmond. He won here in 2005, and has finished in the top 10 in three of his last four starts at Richmond. Plus, it would be a big boost to all of the Dodge teams if a Dodge driver like Busch could win in wake of Thursday's announcement that Chrysler was filing for bankruptcy protection. (See below for more on this.)
3. Kyle Busch
It was one year ago that the younger Busch -- already one of the most reviled drivers -- further incurred the wrath of fans by wrecking Dale Earnhardt Jr. late in the race at Richmond. Though he has two wins this year, Busch has been uncharacteristically quiet for the past month. Over that stretch, he's failed to finish higher than 17th.
4. Denny Hamlin
Hamlin grew up 15 miles from Richmond, which makes this his home track. In six career starts here, Hamlin has finished sixth or better four times. Pay attention to how he works with his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch on Saturday. Careful observers have noted recently that the two seem to have had a falling out. They certainly haven't been cutting each other much slack on the race track.
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Still in search of his first victory of 2009, Little E has typically performed well at Richmond. He has more career wins here (3) than at any other track other than Talladega (5). In my book, Earnhardt has always been an underrated short track racer, and I expect him to be running with the leaders as the laps wind down on Saturday night.
At first blush, it doesn't look like Chrysler's filing for bankruptcy protection on Thursday will have any immediate effect on the seven Sprint Cup teams backed by Dodge. Chrysler was quick to issue a statement on Thursday reaffirming their commitment to NASCAR.
"NASCAR is a strategic part of our marketing plan and the Dodge brand," said Mike Accavitti, Chrysler's director of brand marketing and strategy for Dodge motor sports. "We plan to continue our Dodge sponsorship and relationship for the foreseeable future."
But how long, exactly, is the foreseeable future? Several people I talked to involved with NASCAR on Friday morning, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, strongly believed that Chrysler would pull its NASCAR funding in 2010. (The company already slashed its motor sports budget by 30 percent this year.) Then the question would become this: What would happen to the seven teams that Dodge supports?
That is the great unknown. Stay tuned.