Through the Gears: Four things we learned in regular-season finale at Richmond
Richmond International Raceway hosted 650 laps of racing this weekend within NASCAR’s two major series — Nationwide and Sprint Cup — with 633 of those laps led by just two drivers. Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch dominated each event, making the most interesting moment at NASCAR’s “most competitive” short track a drunken guy that climbed to the top of the catchfencing. Busch led all 250 circuits in the Nationwide event — a race that has averaged a whopping two lead changes in the last three NNS events held there.
What a fitting way to end NASCAR’s regular season in a year that started off competitive but appears to have lost its way. Five of the first 12 Cup races featured 30 lead changes or more, including a whopping 35 at former cookie-cutter failure Fontana. Since, the lead changes have maxed out at 25 over the last 14 races, with half those events featuring 15 lead changes or less. In the midst of two upset victories (AJ Allmendinger and Aric Almirola) we’ve seen two organizations, Hendrick Motorsports and Penske Racing, sweep the other dozen events heading into the postseason. The dreaded “aero push” is back, making passing difficult and putting victories in the hands of engineers and crew chiefs, via pit strategy.
Passing, which had seen an initial improvement this season, has dropped off, with most drivers limiting their movement to frantic, aggressive moves on restarts. Charging forward over long green-flag runs continues to be a problem, hurting the competition as cautions have been fewer and farther between. The only yellow flags at Richmond were for the drunkard, a competition yellow (because of rain cutting into practice time) and two for debris. Matt Kenseth, on a night when several drivers had “win or else” mandates, was the only competitor to hit the wall at a short track … a short track! Saturday night, cars raced so far apart from each other you’d have thought contact was punishable by a stop-and-go penalty.
NASCAR hopes things pick up with its new version of the Chase, a three-round elimination playoff designed to combat the NFL. But football saw seven of its first dozen contests hit overtime, leaving viewers on the edge of their seats. NASCAR can’t do the same if it continues throwing up stinkers like we saw on Saturday night.
“Through the Gears” we go …
FIRST GEAR: Penske Power
It was clear in the midst of so much conservatism at Richmond that Brad Keselowski was out to prove something. The 2012 champ hit rock bottom here last season as a 17th-place result, after leading 142 of the first 268 laps, left him on the outside of the Chase looking in. He was just the second reigning champion, joining Tony Stewart in 2006, to fail at defending that title in NASCAR’s playoff era.
This season, Keselowski has surged back in a big way and he was determined to enter as the Chase’s top seed. Leading 383 of 400 laps, the No. 2 Ford was rarely challenged on a night where the only question was not if he would win but by how much.
“I give him a lot of credit because he's pushing the team, he's pushing Paul (Wolfe, crew chief),” said team owner Roger Penske. “He and Joey together, they're working each other, trying to find the speed in the cars.”
The victory was Penske’s 400th across both his NASCAR and IndyCar programs, and he’s in the best position yet to earn a dual championship after Will Power took care of business at Fontana last week. Keselowski, with four victories, has been on top of his game in the past month and teammate Joey Logano is poised to take the next step after a three-victory, career-year driving the No. 22. Beating the four-car Hendrick juggernaut will be tough, but this organization has done it before when Keselowski outlasted Jimmie Johnson in a punch-for-punch battle down the stretch two years ago. If you’re looking to root for a team with a realistic shot at unseating Hendrick Motorsports, Penske’s your choice.
SECOND GEAR: Clint couldn’t get it done
Despite an expansion to 16 drivers, several high-profile competitors missed the Chase this year. Tony Stewart’s season of problems, culminating with the Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy, have been well documented. Highly-touted rookies Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon showed varying degrees of promise but couldn’t reach victory lane. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Danica Patrick, while remaining a couple off the racetrack, have been a couple of slowpokes on it.
But perhaps the most glaring omission is Toyota’s Michael Waltrip Racing, which failed to cash in one year after the “Spingate” scandal that publicized team orders and rocked NASCAR. The end result of Clint Bowyer’s spin, done intentionally to try and get teammate Martin Truex Jr. in the Chase, was Truex missing the field, a 13th driver added (Jeff Gordon) and a loss of sponsorship support that caused MWR to contract to two teams.
Co-owners Michael Waltrip and Rob Kauffman, who runs the Race Team Alliance (RTA), said a streamlined operation would make them better. But that hasn’t been the case. In a year when Toyota has just two wins, the organization has led just 118 laps combined between its cars driven by Bowyer, Brian Vickers and a third “test alliance” co-owned by Jay Robinson and manned by a handful of retreads or up-and-comers.
Richmond, historically one Bowyer’s best tracks, became the spotlight for recent struggles. In April, the No. 15 5-Hour Energy car was one of the fastest in practice only to end up behind the wall after spinning Kyle Larson on the first turn of the first lap, then losing the handle. They came better prepared this weekend, but a third-place effort wasn’t enough to unseat Greg Biffle and sneak into the Chase on points.
“Every time we take a step ahead, something drags us a couple of steps back,” said Bowyer, whose broken shifter at Atlanta ultimately doomed his playoff hopes. “When you make that Chase, you want to be able to compete for a championship and I’m an optimist but I’m a realist. Right now, realistically, we don’t have a shot at winning that championship against the competition we’re running against.”
As for Vickers, his demise was also due to a handful of DNFs. Ranked 22nd in the standings is a disappointment in his first full season behind the wheel in Cup since 2011 after health problems nearly brought his racing career to a close.
“We’ve had some really bad luck this year,” he said, running 13th at Richmond and never a factor. “I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, we made our own mistakes and every team is going to make mistakes throughout the year — we just had too much go wrong out of our control to make up for our turn in the barrel.”
THIRD GEAR: Joe Gibbs Racing short on short tracks
Speaking of Toyotas struggling, what is up with Joe Gibbs Racing’s short track program? It used to dominate Richmond, where it won five in a row from 2009-11. Hometown favorite Denny Hamlin alternated time in the winner’s circle with teammate Kyle Busch. But Saturday night, neither one reached the top 10, while Matt Kenseth slapped the wall and ran 41st. It’s continuing a trend; JGR’s three drivers have failed to find victory lane on a short track , posting a total of three top-5 finishes in those 15 starts. Only Kenseth, who nearly won Bristol last month, has shown an ability to contend on a regular basis.
“We all have to get better as a company and where that comes from, we don’t know,” said Busch, whose confrontations with other drivers, as well as crew chief Dave Rogers, have peaked in the past month. “If we could have figured that out a while ago, trust me, we’d be running better.”
JGR still needs to be considered a player in the Chase — it is, after all, Toyotas flagship program. Kenseth, in particular, owns the consistency to keep moving forward. But “settling” for top-15 performances at their strongest type of facility does not bode well for an extended playoff run.
FOURTH GEAR: Setting up the Chase
The 16-driver field for the Chase is now set, with winless drivers Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Ryan Newman joining the grid on points. The final makeup is heavily weighted toward Ford and Chevrolet. Hendrick Motorsports leads the Bowtie brigade, putting all four drivers in the field (Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.) while Stewart-Haas Racing adds a pair in Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch. Richard Childress Racing, with Newman and JTG-Daugherty’s AJ Allmendinger, give the manufacturer a total of eight cars.
Ford responds with five of its own: the Penske Racing duo of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, along with Roush Fenway’s Biffle, the “lame duck” Carl Edwards and first-timer Chaser Aric Almirola, driving for Richard Petty Motorsports. JGR’s three Toyotas — Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin — round out the field.
Early indications are with the three-round Chase format you’ll see the underdog teams fall by the wayside quickly. Chicagoland, Loudon and Dover aren’t the type of places where big wrecks or bad parts failures muddy the waters. That said, just ask Earnhardt how one tough break can wreck things. His blown engine at Chicagoland last season is the only reason the No. 88 team never contended for a title.
I’ll go with Biffle, Almirola, Allmendinger and Kyle Busch (with a tough break somewhere) to be the first four out in NASCAR’s new format. And the Final Four? Much too early to say, but if it’s anyone outside of Johnson, Gordon, Earnhardt, Logano and Keselowski (the five drivers with three or more victories) I’ll be very surprised. This Chase is one where the favorites come in with a heavy advantage.
Danica Patrick, with a solid 16th Saturday night, has three top-20 finishes in the last four Cup Series races. Up next? Chicagoland, where she had one of her better rookie performances (20th) in 2013. Could things be looking up at the No. 10 camp? At 28th in the standings and 28 points behind boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Danica still has a long way to go. But you have to start building that foundation somewhere. … The drunken man who climbed the catchfencing at RIR and caused a caution was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. Security was shown on fan video with their backs turned as the unidentified man snuck past to climb. … Brad Keselowski’s dominating win gave him 1,278 laps led on the season, tops the Sprint Cup chart. Only Kevin Harvick (1,186) and Jimmie Johnson (1,035) have led more than 1,000.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photo by Richmond International Raceway