The Top Five: Breaking down the Richmond race

Five thoughts after Saturday night’s race at Richmond Raceway…

1. How times have changed

Kyle Busch has a pretty good memory, but he couldn’t remember a time when he had ever climbed into the grandstands after win before.

So why did he think Saturday night at Richmond — Cup Win No. 46 — was the right time to try such a celebration?

“It was a 10‑year anniversary,” he said with the hint of a grin, referencing the infamous 2008 Richmond race where he spun Dale Earnhardt Jr. while racing for the lead.

Except if he’d gone into the stands 10 years ago, the fans might have left him bruised and battered instead of giving him high fives and pats on the back, as they did Saturday.

Busch might not be a crowd favorite, but he no longer needs a security escort just to leave the track. And the public sentiment has evolved to the point where he can go celebrate with fans if he feels like it.

“I was wondering if I’d come out alive,” he joked. “It certainly was different tonight.  I saw a lot of yellow (M&Ms colors) there at the front fence line.”

Team owner Joe Gibbs didn’t see the celebration and was borderline shocked to hear Busch had done it.

“Did you?” he asked Busch, incredulous.

“Yeah, buddy!” Busch said.

“Oh my gosh!” Gibbs replied. “You should not do that! That’s a risk.”

Gibbs said he wouldn’t encourage Busch to do it again, but then added: “I think that’s great though. He went up there and came back.”

Let’s be clear: Busch has a long way to go until he’s viewed positively by the majority of NASCAR fans. But is there starting to be a thaw in the longtime deep freeze between Busch and his detractors? That’s too early to say, but it will be worth watching as the season progresses.

2. Cautions Cut

Earth Day isn’t supposed to be until Sunday, but NASCAR drivers seemed to celebrate Saturday night by going green for much of the race.

After 354 of 400 laps, the only cautions had been for the two stage breaks.  That’s it. At a short track!

Richmond isn’t Martinsville, to be sure, but there are typically at least six cautions per race here (there had only been less than that number once in the past eight races).

So what gives? And why has this seemed like a season-long trend?

“The drivers are really, really good,” Joey Logano said with a laugh. “The drivers are amazing, really.”

OK, but for real. Is that the actual reason?

“I think the drivers are good, yes,” he said. “But there’s also not as many (mechanical) failures, so the teams are getting better. There’s not as many tires popping, there’s not as many motors blowing — a lot of cautions (used to come) from stuff like that.”

The crash damage vehicle policy likely has had an impact, too. Logano noted if there is a crash, the cars don’t then return to the track with damage and blow out a tire again.

In general, though, the durability of the cars plays a large role in the green-flag runs.

“These cars are fairly reliable now,” Denny Hamlin said. “The drivers take care of their cars more so than they used to. It’s just kind of a product of that.”

Plus, as Chase Elliott said, the two stage cautions are basically two planned debris cautions. Last June, drivers ripped NASCAR for all the perceived fake cautions, and NASCAR stopped calling the races that way.

“NASCAR has chosen to let these races play out fairly for the competitors,” Hamlin said. “Might not always be the best for TV, but it’s certainly fair for us.”

3. That said…

Despite the lack of yellows, it wasn’t a bad race. The Richmond race 10 years ago? That was a bad race until the end, in large part because Denny Hamlin led almost every lap.

But on Saturday, no one driver was dominant. There were 16 lead changes among seven drivers, which is pretty decent considering how much of the race was green before the four late cautions.

“Nobody dominated, really,” Busch crew chief Adam Stevens. “You saw four‑car races for the lead pretty much the entirety of the race.”

The various battles were indicative of position changes through the field, which happens when some drivers conserve tires better than others and some cars are set up better for the long run.

“The cars were coming and going and moving around the racetrack,” Logano said. “I’d get passed early in a run and get them all back and vice versa sometimes. And it came down to a late-race restart. It was really fun for me as a driver. I thought it was a good product today.”

Ultimately, as so many of these races do, it comes down to the track surface/tire combination. If the tire wears, it’s a good race; if not, well…

“If the car runs the same speed every lap, you can run 100 percent every lap,” Logano said. “But you can’t afford to do that here.”

4. Busch vs. Harvick, revisited

Earlier this weekend, I posted a story where drivers weighed in on who was the bigger championship threat right now: Busch or Harvick. The drivers who commented seemed to think Harvick was faster at this point in the season.

And despite Busch’s victory on Saturday, that probably won’t change. Even Busch noted he didn’t have as fast of a car as Harvick.

“I thought the 4 and the 14 (Clint Bowyer) were probably best on the long haul,” Busch said.

Harvick certainly has the raw speed, but his team seems to be having trouble putting a full race together at times. That happened again at Richmond, when he got a penalty for his crew throwing equipment — which happened when a crewman tossed a wrench over the pit wall.

Overall, though, Harvick was pleased to leave with a top-five finish.

“This race was really important just for the fact that we hadn’t run as well as we needed to run here,” he said. “Tonight we contended, and that is a much better building block than we had coming into the weekend.”

5. Golden opportunity

Remember the whole “What if there are more than 16 different winners?” storyline? Yeah, that’s definitely not a thing this year.

Busch and Harvick have combined to win six of the first nine races, meaning there have only been five different winners so far. While it’s certainly possible for others to win, this season is shaping up to be dominated by the familiar frontrunners.

That means for teams like Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (19th in the standings), Elliott (20th) or even Jamie McMurray (24th), next week’s race at Talladega Superspeedway is almost a playoff race.

Yeah, it’s still only April — but there are not going to be many opportunities to move up in the points (particularly if stage points are hogged by the top drivers). Aside from fuel-mileage races or rain-shortened events, superspeedways are the best chance to steal an unexpected playoff spot.

Since there are only two of them left on the regular season schedule, there’s absolutely an urgency to make something happen.

But good luck to whoever goes into Talladega needing to win.

“I think it’s easier to win the Powerball than to win at Talladega,” Busch said.

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

  1. I think the definition of “good product” defers between fans, drivers, and NASCAR. I agree with Joey, but I’m probably the minority. We must all come to an agreement on the definition first before we can achieve it.

  2. Kyle Busch is now one of the elder statesman of NASCAR and it’s showing.

    He speaks his mind not to mention also being a truck team owner.

  3. I thought it was a good race with racing all over the track. Would love to attend the race sometime but it’s a major undertaking from California and the ever present threat of rain delays makes it even tougher. I’m becoming a Kyle fan. Very classy to go into the stands.

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