Richmond International Raceway used to produce “must-see” NASCAR events every time out. One part short track, one part intermediate its unique three-quarter mile layout produced the perfect balance of side-by-side racing and fender-rubbing competition. Drivers loved racing there and fans loved seeing it, crowds to the tune of 150,000 once dotting the landscape of central Virginia.
With such a great track record it’s no surprise RIR was selected as the sport’s “regular season” finale once the Cup Series adopted a ten-race playoff format in 2004. At first, the great RIR times continued; Jeremy Mayfield won the September race that first year to launch himself from the outside right into the Chase field. But as the years went by, changing rules expanded the playoffs from 10, to 12, to the current field of 16. Over time, the crop on the Chase “bubble” became watered down, equivalent to an 8-8 NFL team or the entire NBA’s Eastern Conference (sorry, LeBron). Drivers on the cut line just weren’t title-contending material even if they did use the final race to get over the hump.
Suddenly, Richmond was losing its luster, little more than a truck stop on the highway to other races that really counted. Entering Saturday night, 12 of the 43 drivers in the field had clinched their playoff spot simply by starting the race. Gone was their incentive to go the extra mile if they didn’t feel their car was capable of winning. Of the drivers left “on the bubble,” only a handful had speed to earn the necessary victory that would have handed them a last-second spot in the playoffs. Aric Almirola from that group was the only one who came close, rising to third but inevitably no match for a dominant winner in Matt Kenseth.
Kenseth led 352 of 400 laps at Richmond, another one of the track’s big problems during this decade-plus of continual decline. It’s the third straight race the winner has led over 70 percent of the time, showcasing a level of dominance that makes it hard for people to believe they’ll be challenged. Over on the XFINITY side of things, NASCAR’s “AAA” baseball division it’s even worse — Kyle Busch led all 250 laps in a race that had zero lead changes last fall.
No wonder why the racetrack, looking at dwindling attendance figures pushed hard for Goodyear to introduce a new tire compound Saturday night. To their credit, their fresh rubber wore off over the course of a long green-flag run; differing speeds caused a bit more passing. But considering the different agendas out there, most of them highly conservative, the beating and banging so common on smaller tracks was kept to a minimum. Drivers simply said “please” and “thank you” and pretty much stayed out of each other’s way. Only two of NASCAR’s six cautions were for wrecks and the others, all for debris, seemed forced in order to bunch up the field.
How do you change it? The track itself is looking at Sunday race dates (at least for the spring), more testing and perhaps a tweak to its asphalt surface. But their biggest problem may be one NASCAR refuses to correct — its place on the schedule. A playoff format of any sort will make a “regular season” finale like Week 17 of the NFL. No matter how much lipstick you put on the pig, the teams already in the playoffs know this race means less than the next ten. NASCAR points may pay the same week to week but the “weight” of them is no longer created equal.
It’s a hard concept to accept for longtime fans used to decades of a different format; its mere existence is killing one of the sport’s iconic tracks. So perhaps the sport itself needs to fully accept reality, balancing out the boredom by rotating the regular season finale across different racetracks. If they don’t?
RIR might as well R.I.P.
Through the Gears we go…
FIRST GEAR: Did Kenseth Jump The Restart?
Matt Kenseth’s final restart at Richmond was a sight to behold. Judge for yourself, as following the final caution the No. 20 Toyota appears to scoot ahead long before the white lines on the inside of the track designating the “restart zone.”
Many thought that extra push could have been nerves. Almirola started directly behind Kenseth, made no bones about the fact he’d get aggressive on the restart and appeared to have no problem moving a car out of the way to win (and make the Chase). After all, the difference between the top 16 and 17th in the standings could work out to be several million.
“Really had nothing to do with Aric, really,” Kenseth claimed when asked. “The short run was not our strong suit. Joey [Logano] typically beat me on those restarts… I knew it was going to be important to make sure we were clear.”
Logano’s owner, Roger Penske was livid after the race and several inside the garage were mystified by NASCAR’s “no call.” If not now in terms of policing the restart — setting ground rules in a race that ultimately had no meaning for the Chasers — how will you ever be able to do so? Kenseth’s ability to get away with it means other drivers are likely to push the boundaries even further, putting NASCAR in a difficult position should this incident happen during the Chase. Expect officials to have their hands full, especially at intermediates where speed on restarts may be the difference in getting 4-5 positions on the racetrack.
SECOND GEAR: Gibbs the Favorite? Or is it Hendrick?
Joe Gibbs Racing,fresh off Kenseth’s victory became the only organization to put four cars in the Chase this season. Winning eight of the last 11 races, JGR has had the upper hand as of late and will get almost undivided attention from Toyota with Michael Waltrip Racing beginning the process of ceasing operations.
Yet JGR’s success, to some degree has been a matter of smoke and mirrors. Five of those victories were either on road courses or with rule packages distinctly different from what NASCAR will run during the Chase. A driver like Kyle Busch, fighting to get inside the top 30 in points after injury, also had to give 110 percent while other drivers and teams could take a step back, put together risky summer setups and stomach a 15th-place finish.
Jimmie Johnson, as always was one of those drivers who appears in better shape heading into the postseason (ninth at Richmond). Johnson joins Dale Earnhardt Jr. and a retiring Jeff Gordon in the Chase from Hendrick Motorsports. The trio has nearly 200 Cup wins between them. Add in the information sharing gleaned from fellow Chasers Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurray plus Kevin Harvick (reigning champ) and it’s easy to see why JGR can’t be considered an overwhelming favorite. Harvick has still led more laps than anyone else, has accumulated an impressive 18 top-5 finishes and been a contender at any type of track. It’s a battle of the titans, a back-and-forth that’s played out all season and should only continue to get better as the races wind down.
THIRD GEAR: Truex Trying To Hang In There
Only two cars had hard hits with the wall Saturday night: Michael Annett and Martin Truex Jr. For Truex, it was a rough race that had limited meaning. His spot in the Chase long secure, a 32nd-place finish did little to dampen the stat sheet. But it’s also part of a summer slump that saw him slip from second in the standings to seventh over the past ten races. Now, with the Chase upon us his lone win (Pocono) has the No. 78 seeded in a season-low tie for ninth.
“Yeah, honestly with crashes and flat tires and hitting oil and things like that the last month-and-a-half or so, aside from that stuff, it's really been flawless,” Truex joked. “We're going to have to find some more speed and step it up for the Chase, everybody is. There's a lot of cars that are really fast right now, and we feel like we're not quite where we were in the middle of the summer.”
What’s worrisome here is outside distractions that also threaten to weave their way in. Toyota, grappling with MWR’s departure is trying hard to add the No. 78 car to their stable. Truex also has yet to announce an extension with Furniture Row Racing, one of the sport’s few remaining free agents and remains someone who’s getting courted elsewhere. How all sides handle both situations should make the difference in whether they’re a true contender or an easy out.
FOURTH GEAR: No One Is Safe
Michael McDowell provided a scary moment at Richmond when his No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Ford lost control under caution. Oblivious to a safety car on the backstretch, McDowell reacted far too late, slammed into the side and tore up the rear section of his racecar.
“It was just my mistake, obviously,” he said to Bob Pockrass of ESPN. "I'm driving it. I take full responsibility for it. But it definitely caught me off guard. ... I'm thankful nobody got hurt. I'm embarrassed for my team."
It’s the second bizarre incident involving safety personnel for NASCAR within the last few years. In the 2012 Daytona 500 Juan Pablo Montoya ran into a jet dryer on the track and caused a fire, destroying his No. 42 Chevrolet. All the necessary precautions appear to be in place to prevent this type of situation from happening (spotters, slow speeds, no passing) but these two strange coincidences make you wonder if risks could be minimized further.
Almirola deserves credit for his fourth-place run, a season best. Just don’t feel too bad for the No. 43 team missing the Chase. When you only lead three laps all season you should hardly be considered a title contender… on the flip side, congratulations are in order for both Paul Menard and Jamie McMurray, both of whom earned their first NASCAR Chase bid. McMurray erased a dubious stat that had him as the only driver to run full-time, each season since the inception of NASCAR’s playoff format and not qualify even once since 2004… Roush Fenway Racing officially has missed the postseason for the first time in Chase history. While former driver Carl Edwards qualified, winning twice so far with his new team, RFR has just six top-10 finishes on the year combined among its three cars.
— 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 ASP Inc.