Kyle Busch vs. Denny Hamlin at Richmond

April, 26, 2012

On Sunday at Kansas Speedway, it was Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. battling for the win -- a race win and a symbolic win.

See, one of the subplots of the season has been the emergence of Michael Waltrip Racing and whether it has surpassed Joe Gibbs Racing as the headline Toyota team in the Sprint Cup Series. Although Truex ranks higher than Hamlin in points, Hamlin has a pair of wins, and he won this head-to-head matchup.

As for the other two cars on each team, the advantage seems to go to Waltrip. The 55 and 15 cars are 11th and 12th in owner points, with JGR's 18 and 20 cars right behind in 13th and 14th.

Kyle Busch has especially been a disappointment, with just one top-5 finish in eight races. Each of the past four seasons, Busch has won at least three races with at least nine top-5 finishes.

The problem? Some might say it's the distraction of his new Nationwide Series team to go with his Trucks team. I don't want to analyze what's going on in Busch's head, but I can analyze his on-the-track performance.

The biggest issue might be that these long green-flag runs NASCAR has had don't work in Busch's favor. Not only is he among the best on restarts in the sport, but he also tends to fall off in long runs.

This season, Busch has the third-fastest average speed early in runs but the 13th-fastest speed late in runs.

What better place to break this slump than Richmond? Dating back to 2005, Busch has had a driver rating over 100 in 12 of the 14 races there, and one of those that he didn't was a 99.2.

This year? Busch has had a driver rating over 100 in just two of eight races.

His teammate Hamlin might also be among the favorites there. Over the past eight races at Richmond, Hamlin has been the fastest car on 305 laps, Busch on 237, both the most in the series. In fact, only two other cars have even 100 fastest laps run, and nobody else is over 200.

Want more evidence that JGR is the team to beat? I got this.

Hamlin already has led 1,188 laps at Richmond, in the top 10 all time there, and his per-race average of 99.0 laps led is the tops of any driver to race at Richmond.

Busch's 5.0 average finish at Richmond is tops among any driver who's made at least 10 starts there. He's at his best in the spring race there, too. Seven races, seven top-5s and a 2.3 average finish. Oh yeah, he's won this race the past three years.

The Eliminator: Richmond

For those of you new to my little blog, every week I use a device called The Eliminator to make a pick.

It's pretty simple: Instead of telling you somebody will win, I'll point out why everybody else has to lose. The driver remaining, by process of elimination, is the projected race winner.

And don't doubt the system: The Eliminator hit Kyle Busch last spring at Richmond.

1. The past 11 Sprint Cup winners finished 16th or better in the previous race at the track (30 eliminated, 16 remaining).

2. The past 17 Richmond winners had a top-3 finish earlier that season (six eliminated, 10 remaining).

3. The past 13 Richmond winners entered the race in the top 10 in points (four eliminated, six remaining).

4. Six of the past seven Richmond winners finished in the top three in the previous year's race (five eliminated, one remaining).

Your winner: Denny Hamlin

Matt Willis | email

ESPN Staff Writer
Matt Willis has been a studio researcher at ESPN since 2006, working on "NASCAR Now" and "SportsCenter," among other shows. He graduated from Ithaca College in 2006 with a degree in journalism. While there, he worked on ICTV, on shows such as "Ya Think You Know Sports?" and "Sports Final." He also was a member of the IC Comedy Club and figures about half of the jokes he makes in his column are actually funny.



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