Tensions are high amongst competitors as NASCAR rolls into Richmond
RICHMOND, Va. — Richmond (Va.) Raceway has long been called the “Action Track.’’ When the NASCAR Cup Series visits for Sunday’s Cook Out 400 (3 p.m. ET on USA Network, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), it may also be the “Re-action Track” – with emotions still high from a drama-filled day at Pocono, Pa. last week and Playoff positions on the line with only five races remaining in the regular season.
Hendrick Motorsports driver Kyle Larson, who finished 21st after battling Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin in a door-to-door feud for the Pocono checkered flag, won at the three-quarter mile Richmond track in April.
The normally mild-mannered 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion Larson – who is close friends with Hamlin off-track – was visibly upset with the aggressive move Hamlin used to take the lead from him – and cruise to victory – in the closing laps at Pocono. Larson suggested afterward he would start racing drivers in the same manner as they race him; more aggressively if warranted.
Whatever method he uses, a win on Sunday would make Larson only the 12th driver to win consecutive races at Richmond.
“All of our wins this year have been on short tracks; Richmond, Martinsville (Va.) and (the All-Star Race) North Wilkesboro (N.C.),” Larson said. “We were good at Loudon (N.H.) – even compared to the teammates. Honestly, we have been pretty good everywhere this year.
“I’m excited about going to Richmond this weekend and going back to a track that we won at earlier this year,” the driver of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet continued. “As the season progresses, set-ups change, and the weather is going to be different than it was earlier in the year. It’s not going to be the same, but I’m confident because we have been good at all the short tracks.”
Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick – the 2014 series champion who is retiring at the end of the season – is the defending winner of Sunday’s race. He’s still looking for his first victory of 2023, although he is the highest-ranked driver in the points standings without a win. His 18 top-five and 30 top-10 finishes are best among active drivers.
Primed to rally after a disappointing showing at Pocono last week is two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch, whose six Richmond wins are most among drivers. He has been running at the finish in all 35 NASCAR Cup Series races he’s competed in at the track and completed all but a single lap in that span – 14,208 of 14,209 laps possible. That equals 10,521 miles or 21 round trips from his Richard Childress Racing shop in Welcome, N.C. to Richmond Raceway.
Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott is still competing for his first trophy of the year, however, after missing six races (five recovering from injury and one for a NASCAR penalty), the 2020 series champ is still 56 points from the 16-driver cutoff line (21st place in the standings) and will most likely need to win a race to extend his perfect career Playoff record to eight years.
Elliott’s Hendrick teammate Alex Bowman also finds himself in a need-to-win situation after missing three races while recovering from an accident he suffered in a mid-week sprint car race back in April. He has qualified for the Playoffs all five of his preceding years with the Hendrick team, winning races in each of the last four seasons.
And then there is the more obvious drama for those surrounding that all-important 16th place points position in the championship standings. Going into Richmond 23XI Racing’s Bubba Wallace is 15th in points, 27 points above postseason cutoff, and Front Row Motorsports’ Michael McDowell is in 16th just 17 points up on the cutoff.
There are three others within reasonable striking distance. Kaulig Racing’s A.J. Allmendinger has moved into that 17th place slot – only 17 points behind McDowell. Trackhouse Racing’s Daniel Suarez is 23 points behind Front Row Motorsports’ McDowell. Joe Gibbs Racing rookie Ty Gibbs is now 28 points out of earning a Playoff bid in his first full NASCAR Cup Series season.
Among these five drivers, Suarez (16.1) has the best average finish at Richmond, followed by Allmendinger (22.1), Gibbs (22.5), Wallace (23.6) and McDowell (30.4).
Of note, Allmendinger is making a rare competitive double. He’s also racing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Elkhart Lake, Wisc. on Saturday so will have Derek Kraus practice and qualify his No. 16 Kaulig Chevrolet on Saturday before returning to race it in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race.
Of the six previous short track races, current NASCAR Cup Series driver standings leader Martin Truex Jr. (Dover, Del. and New Hampshire) and Larson (Martinsville, Va. and Richmond, Va.) are multi-time short track winners already in 2023, joining William Byron (Phoenix) and Christopher Bell (Bristol, Tenn. dirt track) on the list. All four of these drivers ranked among the top-10 in the Cup Series driver standings.
Truex, who leads the championship by 30 points over Byron, boasts the best average short track finishing position (6.6) this season and Byron holds the best average start (6.5) at the previous short track stops.
Six different drivers have won the last six races at Richmond. Among those still needing to race into the Playoffs, Bowman (2021) is the only one with a former Richmond trophy.
Practice and Busch Light Pole Qualifying take place Saturday and will air on USA network from 12:35-2:30 p.m. ET.
XFINITY Series different winners are the norm at Road America
The NASCAR Xfinity Series heads to the Midwest for Saturday afternoon’s Road America 180 (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at the historic Elkhart Lake, Wisc. road course where there has never been a repeat winner to date – 13 race winners in as many Xfinity Series races.
It’s the longest active streak among series’ tracks to go without a repeat champ, but there are three drivers that could change that this weekend. Allmendinger (2012), Jeremy Clements (2017) and Justin Allgaier (2018) are all former Road America winners competing this weekend.
Allgaier, who will be making his 450th NASCAR Xfinity series start this weekend, currently boasts the best road course record of the season among series regulars with four finishes of seventh or better, including a runner-up showing at Portland, Ore. and a third place at the Chicago Street Course.
Fans – and competitors – can typically expect excitement on the series’ road course venues and it comes after a dramatic weekend in Pocono, Pa. where Austin Hill took the lead on an overtime restart to beat the day’s most dominant driver JR Motorsports’ Josh Berry for the victory. Hill is now tied with his closest championship rival, John Hunter Nemechek, with four wins each.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver Nemechek holds a 13-point advantage over Richard Childress Racing’s Hill atop the championship standings – the pair having separated themselves from the field. Allgaier is 55 points behind Nemechek.
It’s reasonable to expect some movement in the championship standings with seven regular season races remaining and only seven race winners with a lock on a Playoff berth.
Currently challenging for that 12th and final Playoff transfer position, 13th ranked Parker Kligerman is only 26 points behind 12th place Riley Herbst. Kligerman is 2-for-2 in Top-10s at Road America scoring a third place (2013) and a 10th place (2017) in his only starts there. Herbst also has a pair of Top-10s at Elkhart Lake, including back-to-back seventh place finishes in the past two seasons.
Practice (5 p.m. ET) followed by qualifying for the Road America 180 is set for Friday and will be televised on USA Network and streamed on the NBC Sports App.
NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series to decide Regular Season Champion, Playoff field at Richmond
This is it. After 15 races, the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series Regular Season Champion will be crowned and the 10-driver Playoff field formalized following Saturday’s Worldwide Express 250 at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Six drivers have already earned their Playoff position by virtue of wins and a seventh, Ty Majeski has clinched a spot based on points. That leaves three Playoff openings to be decided. A Regular Season Champion will also be crowned this weekend, TRICON Garage driver Corey Heim, 20, is currently the points leader and will need to collect 19-points to clinch the title and the additional 15-point Playoff bonus awarded the Regular Season Champion.
Reigning series champ Zane Smith, Grant Enfinger, Ben Rhodes, Christian Eckes and Carson Hocevar have also already secured their positions in the Playoffs with a win.
Matt DiBenedetto, Nick Sanchez and Matt Crafton currently hold the remaining Playoff-eligible positions based on points. The three-time series champion Crafton holds a nine-point advantage over 11th place Stewart Friesen. Sanchez is 21 points up on Friesen.
Of course, there is the very real chance that a driver below the cutoff line wins a race and bypasses a competitor currently in the Playoffs on points. Enfinger, however, is the only fulltime driver competing this weekend to have a previous Richmond victory (2020).
Not only is Sanchez hoping to secure that Playoff position, but he also goes into Saturday night’s race with an impressive lead on the rookie standings – more than 100 points up on Jake Garcia. Last week at Pocono, the two young talents started alongside one another on the front row. Should Sanchez qualify for the Playoffs he would automatically earn the series’ Sunoco Rookie of the Year award.
The 2023 NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series Playoffs will begin Aug. 8 at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park.
— NASCAR News Wire —