On the 20-year anniversary of September 11, the NASCAR Cup Series will honor America at Richmond Raceway with the Federated Auto Parts 400 Salute to First Responders. First responders will lead the field on the pace laps while fans in the stands will be given small American flags to join in remembering those lost.
Also on display will be pieces of steel salvaged from the World Trade Center itself, a somber reminder of that day and its impact on the world. You can read more here on additional ways the sports is commemorating those tragic events, including special paint schemes for several drivers in the field.
On the track, the racing should be fiercely contested. It’s the second race of the Round of 16 as many playoff drivers look to recover from a difficult debut at Darlington Raceway.
Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson are the only two men in the field who can breathe easily. Hamlin, last week’s winner, is automatically locked inside the Round of 12 while Larson sits 80 points above the cutline. Even two DNFs the next two weeks probably wouldn’t leave him lower than 12th.
Everyone else is in a logjam, the distance from third to 16th a mere 56-point spread. The field is jumbled after so many Darlington disasters: just seven championship contenders ran inside the top 15 there, the fewest for any Round of 16 race in history.
That leaves this short track ready to sort out the mess. Tops on the list of storylines is how Hendrick Motorsports will attack it. Reigning Cup champ Chase Elliott crashed at Darlington, leaving him a dangerous four points above the cutline. 12th at this race back in April, that might not be good enough with the field bunched this closely together.
April Richmond winner Alex Bowman is currently on the outside of the cutline looking in. He’s tied for 12th in points with Tyler Reddick and would currently lose that tiebreaker after a terrible Darlington finish, running 26th, four laps down after crashing early on. Fellow Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron had a wreck of his own, falling nine points below the cutline and putting a career year in jeopardy. How they work their way through the field Saturday night is worth watching.
Then there’s Kyle Busch, involved in a crash that became a $50,000 fine when he swerved his wrecked car into the garage area, taking out orange cones and nearly running over innocent bystanders in the process. The two-time NASCAR Cup champion has dominated Richmond in the past, winning six times to lead all active drivers. The question is whether he can keep his temper in check to work back into title contention.
Richmond has acted more like a mini superspeedway in recent years than a short track, wide grooves limiting caution flags and providing drivers plenty of room to race. Last year’s event ran without a single yellow flag for an incident, limiting opportunities to improve a car’s handling. No practice or qualifying makes sim work back at the shop, the very type Busch criticized last week, crucial in creating a strong performance here.
Nine drivers have won the last 10 Cup races as parity remains the theme of this Cup season. Can the streak continue with a slumping driver like Byron resurrecting his year? Or will Hamlin or Larson build their momentum at the top of the points?
Federated Auto Parts 400 Salute to First Responders
Date: Saturday, Sept. 11
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
Track: Richmond Raceway (Richmond, Va.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Denny Hamlin
The regular-season points leader for over five months this year, Hamlin finally broke a long winless streak with a stellar performance in the Southern 500. Leading 146 laps, he caught some lucky breaks with the way the caution flags flew, gaining track position up front in a wild race.
The No. 11 Toyota then had to withstand a frantic, video game maneuver by Larson in the final lap to seal the victory. It’s the first win for Hamlin since Talladega last fall and 45th overall, the most by any modern-era Cup driver without a championship.
Who’s at the Back: Michael McDowell
What a gut punch for McDowell in his postseason debut, wrecking on his own off turn 2 to finish dead last in Darlington’s 37-car field. It had to be heartbreaking for this underdog to realize keeping his car in one piece, posting a top-15 finish, would have been good enough to stay above the cutline in a race where so many playoff drivers stumbled.
Instead, the No. 34 Ford group now has their third DNF in four races and enters Richmond in their worst slump of the season. Advancing looks like a tall task for a driver who’s posted just one career top-10 finish at the next two tracks on the schedule.
Four pit crew members from Kurt Busch’s No. 1 team will be out at Richmond due to COVID-19 protocols. Fueler Milan Rudanovic is the only regular that will be pitting the car Saturday night as Chip Ganassi Racing has brought over people from Ross Chastain’s No. 42 car to sub in.
Cody Ware will miss the next two Cup races out of “an abundance of caution” after suffering carbon monoxide poisoning at Richmond. Rick Ware Racing driver Garrett Smithley will take his place in the No. 51 Chevrolet.
Part-time NASCAR Cup team Beard Motorsports announced they’ll return to the series in 2022. The No. 62 Chevrolet attempted the Daytona 500 with Noah Gragson but failed to make the field and hasn’t been on the track since. Their plan is to run both Daytona and Talladega events with a driver to be announced.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Average finish for Denny Hamlin this season to lead all NASCAR Cup drivers.
Laps led for Kyle Larson this season to lead all NASCAR Cup drivers. No one else has over 1,000.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
There’s a lot of boom-or-bust candidates here with so many drivers trying to position themselves for the Round of 12. Let’s go the safe route with someone in Martin Truex Jr. who’s in a better spot (36 points above the cutline) and has a bit more momentum on his side.
Truex was third at Darlington, suffering through an entire season’s worth of bad luck to get there (tire problem, pit road penalty, etc.) His Richmond track record includes five straight top-5 finishes, including a fifth this spring after leading 107 circuits. Truex is the type of driver who doesn’t overdrive it and is likely to end this race with his car in one piece.
The same can be said for Brad Keselowski, a past Richmond winner who hasn’t shown much speed lately with Team Penske. But the defending champion of the race here last fall has 11 straight top-15 finishes at Richmond, leading 529 laps during that stretch. Darlington gave the No. 2 team an opportunity to stick above the cutline, running seventh, and this veteran knows how to keep it here.
Austin Dillon has been the center of attention for all the wrong reasons over the past month: a Michigan crash that took him out of the playoffs, then an ill-timed tap of Kyle Busch (through mostly no fault of his own) that left the No. 18 wrecked. Can Richmond put him back on track? Four top-10 finishes in the last five races here, including a career-best fourth last fall, provide reason for hope. Richard Childress Racing teammate Tyler Reddick could also benefit from using the No. 3 team’s setup here.
Aric Almirola has led just one career lap at Richmond in 18 starts. That said, his position differential of +57 is impressive over the last 10 races here, posting four top-10 finishes in the process. The No. 10 Ford team has come alive after their New Hampshire Motor Speedway upset in July and senses an opportunity to advance in the playoffs.
Daniel Suarez finally righted the ship of a summer that sunk his postseason bid with a 13th-place finish at Darlington. Expect the Trackhouse Racing Team to build on that at a Richmond track where Suarez has three career top-10 finishes in eight starts. He was a top-10 contender at points this April, too, before finishing the race in 16th.
How about Corey LaJoie? The Spire Motorsports No. 7 was a legitimate top-10 car for much of the race at Darlington before falling behind a bit during the final stage. LaJoie still ran 15th and has three straight top-16 finishes for the first time in his Cup career. He was a career-best 21st at Richmond in April and an improvement on that could lead to cash in your pocket in daily fantasy.
What Vegas Thinks
Martin Truex Jr. leads the field with +550 odds to win Richmond according to vegasinsider.com. Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch are next with +650, followed by Joey Logano at +700. Kyle Larson, an overwhelming favorite for most races, is actually fifth on the list at +750.
Looking for a longshot? Austin Dillon sits at +5000.
What I Think
I’m sticking with Martin Truex Jr. after he had the fastest car (but not the best luck) at Darlington. He takes the No. 19 to victory lane as Joe Gibbs Racing puts a second car inside the Round of 12.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.