Richmond, where art thou? One of NASCAR’s premier short tracks, a battleground whose second race date serves as the regular season finale has spent much of the past few years off the pace. In the XFINITY Series this weekend, Denny Hamlin led 248 of 250 laps, dominating to the point his competition looked like they’d lost a cylinder. In the last four races at Richmond, the XFINITY race has averaged a paltry 2.5 lead changes while the Cup event hasn’t fared much better. Kurt Busch led 291 of 400 laps Sunday and was never challenged over the final 100.
No wonder why the stands, once over 100,000 strong have been half-full in recent years. The mystery only deepens considering Richmond was always considered the perfect mix, a multi-groove racetrack “slow” enough that you could avoid NASCAR’s dreaded “aero push” and run side-by-side continuously. That’s why its second date earned its lofty place as the sport’s regular season finale, heightening the drama of who would make the Chase.
Now, the track is chasing a reputation that’s quickly slipping away. While the sport is focused on fixing 1.5-mile ovals, Richmond’s problems are quickly becoming just as glaring.
Let’s take a look Through The Gears at four storylines making headlines midweek…
FIRST GEAR: Kurt Busch taking charge
Kurt Busch, missing the first three races for a suspension based on domestic violence charges has hardly skipped a beat since returning. Now armed with a victory that launches him inside the Chase, the No. 41 car was already set on a course of if they’d reach Victory Lane… not when. His 520 laps led on the season are already second best in the series, trailing only teammate Kevin Harvick and his point total is already good enough for 18th in the standings. Busch, whose Chase bid quickly flamed out last season, has gone from accused criminal to championship contender in a matter of two months.
“Standing on the truth the whole time, that gave me the feeling of when I do get back to the car, it's going to be easy to focus,” he said, “And I think I've shown that.”
Busch, whose protective order against Patricia Driscoll still remains in effect, has the drive to win several more races this season. The No. 41 and No. 4 cars are working together so closely, nailing the setups each week to the point they’ve surpassed chassis and engine provider Hendrick Motorsports as the favorites each week.
SECOND GEAR: Driver musical chairs
For years, we haven’t seen many driver changes in-season but 2015 has been the year of the substitute. After three months subbing for Kyle Busch, David Ragan is moving from Joe Gibbs Racing to Michael Waltrip Racing beginning next week at Kansas. Ragan, who’s currently on the “bubble” in terms of making the Chase will drive the No. 55 Toyota for the rest of the season. Former driver Brian Vickers, still battling health issues will run part-time when and if he does return to the organization.
For Ragan, it’s a fantastic opportunity after years running for underfunded Front Row Motorsports. That team now needs to make a driver decision, opening up a ride for a middle-tier guy on the bench like Cup veteran Reed Sorenson. But the most intriguing switch is at JGR, whose brain trust is putting rookie Erik Jones, just 18 into the No. 18 car beginning at Kansas. Jones, who did an admirable job subbing for Denny Hamlin at Bristol has already won in the XFINITY Series this season. The team, high on Jones’ future potential feels he could be a top-5 contender or even eke out a win in the car.
But that development also comes fraught with risk. If Jones succeeds, that means a move up to Cup will be a near-necessity for 2016. JGR, whose four cars are filled by veterans, has no room to put him anywhere. Perhaps that could mean Hamlin is in trouble? On the flip side, if Jones tanks it’ll be hard to find sponsors willing to move him up. Either way, it’s hard not to think about JGR’s past history with a young talent named Joey Logano. Logano, moved up to Cup too soon, struggled and never fully developed until he left the organization. You hope the expectations on Jones don’t turn into too much, too soon for a simple substitute role while Busch keeps healing.
THIRD GEAR: Roush’s rough ride
It’s hard to believe Roush Fenway Racing, once the top Ford organization doesn’t have a single car inside the top 20 in series points. Newcomer Trevor Bayne has been most disappointing of all, the former Daytona 500 winner not posting a single finish inside the top 15. Greg Biffle hasn’t so much as sniffed the top 10 since that season-opening race, dropping to irrelevance just one year after signing a contract extension. Finally, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has been unimpressive outside of Bristol (fourth). Combined, the organization has led just eight laps, a sting for a group that once had drivers winning eight races or more over the course of a season.
Other organizations linked to Roush, like Richard Petty Motorsports have also struggled mightily. Sam Hornish Jr., whose car is being funded largely out of his owner’s pocket, sits outside the top 30 in Sprint Cup points. He and teammate Aric Almirola also have yet to score a top-10 finish this season. It’s a sad scenario for two teams who underwent major overhauls in the offseason, taking major risks to catch up only to take a further step back.
FOURTH GEAR: Talladega’s Russian roulette
With an underwhelming season thus far, Talladega offers a chance for NASCAR to get back on track. It’s where all 43 cars have a chance to win, the draft creating a rare scenario where the Davids of the world are equal to Goliath.
For drivers like Landon Cassill, whose small team pours most of their extra money into restrictor-plate cars Talladega offers perhaps their only chance to win all year. Guys like David Gilliland, Justin Allgaier or even Cole Whitt could throw a wrench into the Chase with a surprise upset victory. Those drivers will be taking chances, and an aggressive race is expected Sunday that will come paired with the backdrop of the dreaded “Big One.”
Certainly, big names will be top contenders too, with Jeff Gordon, who ran strong at Daytona expected to have a strong car again for ‘Dega. But for a sport badly in need of a new story, having one of the underdogs pull through would be a big boost in what’s been a quick fade to 2015 thus far.
— 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.