Richmond International Raceway, the only NASCAR Sprint Cup oval with a 3/4-mile length once allowed for the perfect mix: multiple-groove racing intertwined with a little short track bumping and banging down the stretch. The fall race here serves as the regular season Cup finale, locking in all participants for the 10-race Chase for the Championship and should be an automatic for on-track fireworks and off-track drama.
But Richmond, like most of NASCAR these days finds itself at a crossroads. A repaving job in the mid-2000s, found itself combined with a Goodyear tire that was at times ill-suited for the racetrack. Night racing, over time found itself less conducive to better racing under the sport’s ever-changing rules package; an expanded playoff field, first to 12 and then to 16 lessened the importance of its September date. Many drivers would just ride around, already having clinched their spot for the playoff and used the event as a testing session for down the road. The low mark here occurred in September 2014, when Brad Keselowski dominated an event that had just four lead changes and only four cautions – none of which were for crashes. The most notable moment from that night came from a drunk fan who climbed the turn 4 fence.
That makes this race the most difficult test of NASCAR’s 2016 rules package, getting better reviews nearly every weekend. Richmond has seen the sharpest drop in reputation over NASCAR’s difficult last decade, seeing attendance plummet and is using this move to a daytime race Sunday to hit the reset button. We’re about to see if these tweaks can make a track bordering on desperate straits reclaim its former glory.
2016 Toyota Owners 500
Time: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Richmond International Raceway (Richmond, Va.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Unexpected Faces
Sure, we can keep using this space to tout the dominance of the multi-car giants. Joe Gibbs Racing won Bristol with Carl Edwards on Sunday (the organization’s third straight win) and led a whopping 418 of 500 laps. Hendrick Motorsports finished second with Dale Earnhardt Jr. as these two powerhouse teams continue their seesaw battle of who’s on top of this sport.
But perhaps the most notable NASCAR shift to come out of Bristol was the ability of new, younger names to break through. Matt DiBenedetto, driving for perpetually underfunded BK Racing, finished a career-best sixth. Landon Cassill, another perpetual underdog, led 20 laps and was in position for a top-10 finish until getting knocked around late. Rookies Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney were fourth and 11th, respectively while fellow twentysomething Trevor Bayne wound up fifth.
Those results are what the sport needs to stay relevant in an era where evolution has slowed to a crawl. You can only sell the same names for so many years; a new generation of fans needs a new generation of drivers. Bristol gave us proof that they’re coming along with perhaps a glimpse that NASCAR’s move to franchising in 2016 (creating greater financial parity) is starting to pay off for smaller programs.
Who’s at the Back: Joey Logano
OK, Logano’s not really at the back. Fourth in points, he’s got five top-10 finishes in the first eight races and hasn’t run lower than 18th. Team Penske has already collected a win through teammate Brad Keselowski (Las Vegas).
And yet... this driver entered the season with more wins the last two seasons than any other. He’s supposed to be the leader of NASCAR’s “young guns” but everyone else seems to be getting all the press. His 102 laps led rank just ninth on the circuit despite an average start (7.1) that’s second best and leaves him starting up front virtually every week. The No. 22 team isn’t off by much... but all it takes these days is that little bit to fall back. There’s work to do here.
It’s all about Tony Stewart this week. Stewart, sidelined for the first eight races due to a fractured vertebra was cleared by doctors to return to action at Richmond. He’ll start his final Sprint Cup season 112 points behind 30th-place DiBenedetto in the standings; closing that gap plus a win is what’s needed to put Stewart back in the postseason hunt. The 44-year-old three-time champion, wrapping up his Cup career at the end of the season, hasn’t visited Victory Lane since Dover in the spring of 2013.
It didn’t take long for the outspoken driver/owner to ruffle some feathers. Stewart came out strongly against NASCAR’s lug nut policy, their choice not to enforce whether or not all lug nuts are tightened on a wheel during a pit stop. Claiming some teams were putting as few as three on per stop to save time he worries that a rise in the number of “loose wheels” we’re seeing mean a driver is close to losing a tire while on the track, slamming into the wall and getting seriously hurt. NASCAR fined him $35,000 for those comments, claiming they were “detrimental to the sport” under the current Rule Book.
Those actions have spurned a strong response by the sport’s Driver’s Council. They’re paying the fine for Stewart and issued a statement through leader Denny Hamlin that claims, “While we do not condone drivers lashing out freely at NASCAR, we do feel Tony was in his rights to state his opinion. We as a Council support him and do not agree with the fine. Therefore, we fellow council members have agreed to contribute equally to paying his fine."
NASCAR by the Numbers
Finish Sunday by rookie Jeffrey Earnhardt, grandson of Dale Sr., which is his best of the season to date. Earnhardt sits a lowly
38th in points ahead of only Josh Wise among full-time competitors.
Estimates of the overall attendance at Bristol Sunday. This racetrack, which holds over 150,000 seats used to have a waiting list for tickets similar to the Green Bay Packers of the NFL; it’s one of many signs NASCAR’s fan base has declined considerably over the past decade.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kurt Busch is the defending champion of this race and could use a boost after a so-so start to the season with Stewart-Haas Racing. He’s got four top-10 finishes in his last six starts at this track and hasn’t finished worse than 23rd here since taking the No. 41 ride in 2014. If you want to save space on your roster for other top-tier guys it’s a good time to sit a Jimmie Johnson or Kevin Harvick for Busch instead.
If you’re so inclined to use a bigger name? Younger brother Kyle has placed second and third in the last two spring races at Richmond. It’s a short track that suits him well.
Ryan Newman has had a quiet season to date with Richard Childress Racing but at Richmond he’s been incredibly consistent. Since taking the wheel of the No. 31 car in 2014 Newman has an average finish of 12.0 at the track, posting runs of eighth, ninth, 11th and 20th. Speaking of 20th, you want to know the last time he ran 21st or worse here with any team? 2008. Put Newman in your lineup.
Lots of options here. Danica Patrick impressed many at Bristol with how hard she raced and this weekend’s race has been kind to her in the past. She’s 16th and 19th in her last two spring Richmond performances; add in a strong Stewart-Haas Racing setup across the board here and expect the No. 10 team to be inside the top 20.
Matt DiBenedetto has limited history here, 37th and 36th in his two Richmond starts last year, but after Bristol it’s worth taking a flyer on the small-time No. 83 team. They might have figured out a short track setup that could carry over. Ditto for Trevor Bayne of Roush Fenway Racing whose top-5 finish Sunday was his first since winning the Daytona 500 back in 2011.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch is currently a 9-2 favorite to win at Richmond, leading all Cup drivers with Kevin Harvick and hometown boy Denny Hamlin just behind at 6-1. Last week’s winner Carl Edwards sits at 8-1 odds while fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. is at 20-1.
What I Think
There is one driver we haven’t talked much about this week: Matt Kenseth. Kenseth led a ton of laps again at Bristol before luck intervened and it’s only a matter of time before he breaks through. Last fall’s Richmond winner, dominating to the tune of 352 laps led, does it again on Sunday and puts the No. 20 car squarely in the Chase.
— 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.)