Stewart Returns, Drivers Look to Adjust to Day Race at Richmond

NASCAR heads to their third short track in four weeks this weekend in Southern Virginia at Richmond International Raceway. The Toyota Owners 400 will take place Sunday April 24 at 1:00 p.m. on FOX, as NASCAR’s best will race 400 laps around the three-quarter mile oval.

The defending winner is Kurt Busch, who led 291 of 400 laps in this race last season, en route to clinching his Chase berth. That race took place on Sunday afternoon, despite it being scheduled for Saturday night. Mother Nature reared her ugly head, as rain postponed the race to the next afternoon.

This season, Richmond and NASCAR alike, decided to make the spring race during the day, and keep the fall race, the final one before the playoffs begin, at night. This change from night to day racing will pose a challenge for drivers and crews alike, as the racing surface change in temperature, as well as rubber being put down on the track, will be something that these teams haven’t experienced at Richmond before.

Rookie of the year contender Chase Elliott commented on the change of moving the race from at night to during the day earlier this week.

“It was a plus and just dumb luck that the race got rained out and we ended up racing on Sunday (afternoon) instead of Saturday night,” Elliott said of last year’s race to FOX, where he finished 16th, running a part-time NSCS schedule for Hendrick Motorsports in the No. 25 Chevrolet. “I think the luck factor of us racing in the day will lend some knowledge for it being a Sunday race this year.”

Joe Gibbs Racing will also look to rebound from their problems last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway. However, one of their drivers, Carl Edwards, ended up winning the race. That just shows you how a problem for JGR in 2016 isn’t really a problem.

However, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth all have wins at Richmond in their careers. Kenseth won the fall race in 2015 and Busch has had multiple wins with JGR at RIR.eing a native of Virginia, Hamlin calls this one of his home, and best, tracks . To say all four JGR cars will run well Sunday wouldn’t be a crazy prediction. But it’ll be interesting to see if the No. 20 team of Kenseth can get the bad luck off their side and perhaps find victory lane to clinch their Chase spot, and join the winners club in 2016.

But the overwhelming storyline of the weekend is Tony Stewart’s return to the race car. Stewart announced early Thursday morning, to the surprise of everyone, that he had been cleared by doctors to race, and will return to the No. 14 car on Sunday.

It was later announced that Smoke will return to full-time racing on May 7 at Kansas Speedway, and only start the race next weekend at Talladega Superspeedway, due to the dangerous nature of crashes occurring at the 2.66 mile tri-oval in Alabama.

Smoke was 18th (124.700 mph/38 laps) on the speed charts in opening practice before the session was halted for rain. His teammate, Kevin Harvick, was fastest, with Joey Logano second. Rain stayed around the Richmond area in the afternoon, forcing qualifying to be cancelled. The field will roll off by practice speeds, meaning the pole will go to Kevin Harvick and the No. 4 team.

“We had decided to come into the weekend and approach qualifying a little bit different, with just the way the race tracks have been and the timing of the practices,” Harvick said in the media center after qualifying was rained out. “We decided to go and take advantage of being the first car on the race track, which is usually a big advantage here when the track is green and doesn’t have a lot of rubber on it.”

Logano and the No. 22 team will roll off in second place on Sunday.

“It is important to start up front here. A lot of times you think about how this race runs, and it’s similar to Martinsville, and having track position allows you to be more conservative with your car and tires,” Logano said in the media center after qualifying was rained out. “If you’re are in the back you don’t have the opportunity to save anything. It is nice to start towards the front and get a good pit stall and hit this race hard and see what happens.”

Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch and AJ Allmendinger will round out the top ten starting spots when the green flag drops on Sunday afternoon, just past 1:00 p.m.

Some notable drivers starting outside the top ten include Kenseth (13th), Stewart (18th), Martin Truex Jr. (22nd) and Elliott (23rd).

Can Dale Earnhardt Jr. rebound from two straight second place finishes to finally get the win? He won the ToyotaCare 250, the Xfinity race, on Saturday. Can Kahne break through and find victory lane at the place that he nabbed his first career in in 2005? Will a Busch brother win? What about Harvick? Will Kenseth finally get the monkey off his back? Enjoy the race, because we’re going to find out on Sunday!