The Top Five: Breaking down the Richmond race

Five thoughts after Saturday night’s regular season finale at Richmond Raceway…

1. Why Larson’s win was important

Before his win Saturday night at Richmond, Kyle Larson had won four races in his career — three this season — but each victory had been on a 2-mile track (either Fontana or Michigan).

Larson certainly doesn’t lack for confidence, but this will help heading into a playoff that will require excellence on several different types of tracks. Now Larson has proof he can win on different kinds of tracks at the Cup level (not that it was really that much of a question, but it can’t hurt) — and now that includes short tracks,.

“Everybody says I grew up short-track racing, but this is way different than sprint car racing on a short track,” he said. “This is really, really slow, heavy braking, off the throttle a lot, taking care of your tires — where in a sprint car on a quarter mile, you’re still wide open a lot of times depending on how the track is.

“This is different, and I’ve had to learn a lot. I feel like I’ve definitely gotten better at it.”

Next on Larson’s to-do list: Win on a 1.5-mile track. He actually has the third-best average on 1.5-mile tracks this season — the tracks that make up half the playoff races — but Martin Truex Jr. is far ahead of him.

That will likely have to change if Larson wants to snatch the title away from Truex like he took the win at Richmond.

2. Regular season champ

NASCAR did not celebrate Truex’s regular season championship (which comes with a trophy and 15 playoff points) last week at Darlington after he clinched because they wanted to save it for Richmond. According to the post-race plan, Truex was even set to have his own burnout celebration in Turn 1 while the winner (if it was a different driver) celebrated in Turn 4.

But the only thing Truex did in Turn 1 was crash into the wall on the last lap — thanks to Toyota teammate Denny Hamlin — which was most unfortunate. It’s no wonder he was cranky afterward about how everything played out and wasn’t exactly in a mood to celebrate.

Here’s a sampling of Truex quotes after the race:

— “I wish we could have got the trophy last weekend. I mean, tonight sucks, plain and simple.”

— “It’s ridiculous there’s a guy out there that shouldn’t even be out there, 20-some laps down, riding around. As slow as he is, he can’t even hold his damn line. It’s ridiculous. He scrapes the wall, they throw a caution with one to go. That’s not what racing should be.”

— “Somebody obviously wasn’t paying attention (to the ambulance) or wasn’t doing their job properly, and in my opinion at this level, it’s inexcusable.”

So Truex was salty, but obviously he had every right to be that way. As Larson said, Truex “should have probably have like 10 or 12 wins if things would go his way more often.”

Truex will go into the playoffs with 53 playoff points, which is pretty decent, but it’s only a 20-point lead over Larson. It would have been 30 had he won at Richmond.

So it’s no wonder Truex couldn’t bring himself to smile while accepting the regular season championship trophy. That late caution was a 10-point swing, and it will be worth remembering later in the fall.

3. No fairy tale ending

I guess we all saw this coming, but it’s still a shame that Dale Earnhardt Jr. won’t be competing in the playoffs during his final season. After Jeff Gordon made it to Homestead in 2015 and Tony Stewart had a road course win fall into his lap to make the playoffs last year, it just seemed destined that Earnhardt would win at some point in the first 26 races. Sadly, that wasn’t the case despite a good run on Saturday night.

What didn’t we see coming? Joey Logano missing out on the 16-driver field. Logano was my preseason championship pick, and his team’s downfall is the most surprising flop I can remember in the Chase/Playoff Era. He opened the season with eight finishes of sixth or better in the first nine races — including five straight top-fives — and then completely fell off the map after the encumbered Richmond win.

Ultimately, Logano finished second on Saturday night. But that was just his third top-five since the last Richmond race. He missed the playoffs by 100 points.

And how about Clint Bowyer? Honestly, it was a pretty solid regular season; his average finish of 14.8 is his best since 2013. I mean, the guy finished 11th in points and missed the playoffs! That just speaks to how unusual this season has been with five winners below him in the standings.

By the way, it was fun to see Erik Jones make a run at what would have been an incredible victory at Richmond. He didn’t make the cut (despite being 13th in points during his rookie season), but don’t worry — he will be part of the field for years to come after this.

4. Someone call 911

Let’s hope NASCAR got its one crappy officiating night out of the way before the playoffs, because that was — as our president would say — “not good.”

First, there was the caution toward the end of Stage 1 which was officially thrown for “Smoke.” Not Tony Stewart, but smoke from Matt Kenseth’s tires when he was trying to avoid hitting Danica Patrick. That was an awfully quick trigger for a group of officials who previously insisted it takes time to call a caution (like at Daytona and Indianapolis as cars were crashing).

Second, the ambulance on pit road. Yikes. Martin Truex Jr. said the safety vehicles were running alongside the cars down the backstretch, so NASCAR had plenty of time to figure out what was going on. NASCAR said it told the ambulance to stop, and the directive was not obeyed. But typically, race director David Hoots runs a much tighter ship than that. It was not only a safety hazard, but Matt Kenseth ultimately could have missed the playoffs because of it. Thankfully, that situation didn’t play out — but again, “not good.”

Third, it might have been worth holding off calling the race-altering caution for Derrike Cope. That was a judgment call and likely a caution in many circumstances, because he did brush the wall. But this was the final laps of the regular season when NASCAR has put such an emphasis on playoff points this year — and it changed the winner.

NASCAR warned drivers to “let it play out naturally on the racetrack” in the pre-race drivers meeting, so it doesn’t feel right that three questionable calls occurred in the hours afterward. Let’s hope that was the last officiating controversy of the season.

5. Championship predictions

So here we go. It’s time to make some picks.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Newman, Austin Dillon and Chase Elliott will be eliminated in the first round, with Kasey Kahne, Ryan Blaney, Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray advancing to Round 2 but falling out after that.

Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski will come up short of making it to Homestead, which will leave Truex, Larson, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin as the final four.

In the end, despite the presence of Homestead ace Larson in the championship race, Kyle Busch will use a late restart to win his second career title as Truex once again suffers bad luck after a dominating race.

20 Replies to “The Top Five: Breaking down the Richmond race”

  1. Yeah, since I dropped my cable for rabbit ears I don’t get to see all the races anymore. I look forward to your recaps and twitter caps.

  2. Agreed that so many times this year NASCAR waits entirely too long to throw cautions and tonight they had an itchy trigger finger on the yellow flag button. It was a bit obsurd. I think I remember the 43 car making about 3-4 laps screaming for a caution as cars drove around him at twice the speed somewhere, right? And this is just an opinion, but when the tower gets confused and there is a clusterf#&k on the track, or the drivers done want to get in line properly…why don’t they red flag that shit until they figure it out? Get in line and listen, or take the car to the garage. Too much coddling. Let’s not lose the toughness of this sport, it’s starting to look like the Inn Eff Ell.

  3. Perfect description of what happened in Richmond. So ironic that NASCAR let their guard down on “their” responsibiliy to not interfere with the outcome of the race. Can’t wait to see who is suspended for a couple weeks and the fines they have to pay! ????????

  4. “Let’s hope NASCAR got its one crappy officiating night out of the way ”

    One crappy night? This is one of many this year.

    1. agreed, by today’s officiating , NASCAR would not have footage of “Earnharts , pass in the grass,” to promote historic moments, they would throw the caution and check the scoring loops……what crap, Vince McManhon is taking notes.

  5. Good recap Jeff! Unfortunately NASCAR has a full-blown credibility problem. Officiating last night was a shi# show! They are consistently inconsistent in their “calls” this season. Many calls have had a direct impact on the race result.

    Don’t blame Martin for being upset/angry. The cars just making laps / several down barely at minimum speed have been a problem for all front runners all season. Listen to the scanners of the drivers who constantly complain (rightfully so) two lapped down cars racing each other for last place holding up the leaders. Cars right at minimum speed stinking up the show. Perhaps time to raise that minimum speed?

    Not sure what the answers are but I do know this is…
    “continue to do what you’ve always done and except a different result is the definition of insanity”. Even I who have been a long time fan can hardly watch the races anymore. My interest is waning sad to say.

  6. Derrick Cope’s hitting the wall caution was “iffy”, but it isn’t unprecedented either. There are several examples from just this season where a car brushes the wall causing a caution. I wonder if the two blunders that preceded that caution had not happened if we would see that last caution more as an unfortunate incident rather than a mistake.

    Playoff: I would rearrange who gets dropped after Rounds 1 & 2, but I otherwise agree with the picks. I don’t think Hamlin is a s good as you are thinking either.

    Prediction- Ky Busch and Truex replay their end of race take out of each other from earlier this season leaving Larson to sweep up the hardware.

  7. So Jeff, if Larson doesn’t pass R&D tech inspection, should nascar take away the win, give the win to 2nd place logano, give logano a playoff spot (win and you’re in), and kick Mcmurray out of the playoffs?

    This shows why taking away wins after R&D tech is problematic

    1. OldTimer – this isn’t the old days where people can’t watch, and have no idea what’s going on with tech, inspection and standings.

      Stop celebrating Championship podiums the night of a race and do it the following week. Problem solved on exposure. Make Friday the new place to be to see winners (regular season) and lineup (playoffs) do their photo ops.

      It also prevents the awkward scenes like the stupid forcing for Truex to wait until the following week for the “crown”, in a race which NASCAR expressly took his win from him.

      If all drivers know they aren’t cemented 6 seconds after the flag, then your scenario doesn’t matter and it would be the entirely FAIR AND JUST thing to do.

      Or, you know, keep letting them cheat, and keep ending up with clusterf… ruits, like the MWR fiasco and all the “exceptions”.

      Remember that? You know, when kicking out people in the Chase, plus points screw ups and forced pit stops end up causing that mayhem? We survived.

      For the finale, pony up the dough and do official inspection on site for the race winner, the runner up and the Champ winner and their runner up.

      Four cars to be inspected on the immediate before going to Victory Lane.

      Nearly every problem solved.

  8. Here you go Jeff. Not bad, not bad at all. Of course I’m going to remember these predictions too. ????????

    2017 NASCAR Playoff Picks
    Here are my picks for the 2017 NASCAR Cup playoffs (alphabetical order):

    Clint Bowyer
    Kurt Busch
    Kyle Busch
    Austin Dillon
    Dale Earnhardt Jr.
    Chase Elliott
    Denny Hamlin
    Kevin Harvick
    Jimmie Johnson
    Kasey Kahne
    Matt Kenseth
    Brad Keselowski
    Kyle Larson
    Joey Logano
    Jamie McMurray
    Martin Truex Jr.
    A few expanded predictions:

    — Clint Bowyer will get back to his old competitive self after joining Stewart-Haas Racing. By September, any hiccups SHR has in the transition to Ford will be forgotten.

    — Four Toyotas will make it, but rookies Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez will barely miss out because of a few late-race mistakes.

    — All four Hendrick drivers will be in the playoff, including Kasey Kahne after his best season in several years. Dale Earnhardt Jr. will finish the regular season within the top 10 in points.

    — Both Chip Ganassi Racing drivers will be in and Kyle Larson will win two times in the regular season.

    — Austin Dillon will win his first Cup race by late August.

    — Overall, Hendrick Motorsports will be the best team in the regular season (with Jimmie Johnson having the most wins), followed by Team Penske. Joe Gibbs Racing will experience a slight drop-off after two great years, just part of the usual cycle in racing.

    — I hate leaving Ryan Blaney out, but I’m not a Blaney detractor. I picked him to make it last year, and it’s certainly possible he could have a great year.

    — Joey Logano will win his first championship in 2017.

  9. It will probably never happen, but it is long past time to clean house of the current executives and replace them with a new team that cares more about racing than the almighty dollar. I understand that the sport needs new fans and sponsors to keep it going, but this current team is going about it all the wrong way. They tried to push the things that they think “millenials” will like, such as the failed COT, tech gadgets, younger clean-cut drivers, wireless accessibility, and pop music concerts. This is supposedly what the majority of the new generation is into, but here’s the honest truth; auto racing was never meant for these people. Auto racing was meant for the people who like cars, like to work on cars, drink beer, like the outdoors, and just generally have a good time. They care very little about the things mentioned above. I know there are still plenty of younger people that can identify with this demographic, the problem is that NASCAR can’t even appeal to these people anymore because they feel like these are things that NASCAR no longer stands for. This should be NASCAR’s target demographic, but these people would now rather spend their time and money on Friday night at the local dirt track where they feel more at home. If you can somehow start to bring these fans back, the attendance and tv ratings will eventually return, because trust me there are still more than enough people that fall in this demographic left in this country. When it is portrayed as “cool”, blue-collar/redneck sports and activities are immensely popular with all kinds of people. Don’t believe me? Look at how successful the tv show Duck Dynasty was. So NASCAR, it’s time to stop barking up the wrong tree. It is incredibly hard to win the time of people who don’t have an inherent interest in the sport. Start promoting and going after the blue-collar fan again, and just maybe others will follow.

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