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.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Watkins Glen race

Five thoughts following Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen International…

1. Total Toyotas

Fans can be upset and drivers (coughBradKeselowskicough) can politic all they want, but Toyota is absolutely dominating the series right now.

After a slow start for Joe Gibbs Racing, the four-car team has joined Furniture Row Racing to put six of the fastest cars on the track every week. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s a big track or a road course — Toyotas are likely going to be running up front most of the day.

Just check out Sunday’s finishing order: Toyotas swept the top four spots (for the first time ever) and had all six of its main cars in the top 10. And Toyota drivers also combined to lead 59 of the 90 laps.

As Kyle Larson has faded (he’s now third in the point standings behind Truex and Kyle Busch), it’s increasingly looking like the Toyotas will roll into the playoffs just as strong as they were last year.

Of course, a Chevrolet ended up winning the 2016 title — so that doesn’t mean a Toyota championship is a sure thing.

But it’s certainly looking good at the moment, particularly with Truex holding 34 playoff points (plus staring at another 15 if he hangs on to be the regular season champion).

As a reminder, that means Truex would start each round of the playoffs with at least 49 points — close to a full race — and could still add more points in the regular season and the playoffs races themselves.

So is Truex a lock for Homestead?

“It doesn’t mean that it’s a free pass or we’re just going to skate through,” Truex said. “We’re still going to work hard and try to do the best we can. But I do think that as the playoffs start, the thought process probably shifts more toward, ‘How do we figure out how to run really well at Homestead? Have a shot at winning there?’ Because that’s what it’s going to come down to.”

2. Blink and you’ll miss it

Sunday’s race was the shortest full-distance Cup Series points race in NASCAR’s modern era (1972-present). It was actually three minutes shorter than Saturday’s Xfinity Series race, which is kind of amazing in itself.

The last time a full-distance Cup points race was less than the two-hour-and-seven-minute run-time of Watkins Glen? Hickory in August of 1971, according to NASCAR.

One big reason was there were only three cautions — and NASCAR let the race play out at the finish, with the final 36 laps all under green.

That’s becoming a trend lately, since NASCAR seemingly has stopped calling late debris cautions after an outbreak of criticism following the Michigan race in June.

A recap:

— At Sonoma, the final 55 laps were green.

— Daytona was an overtime finish, but that was set up by an accident.

— Kentucky was an overtime finish, but that was set up by Kurt Busch blowing up after a 100-lap run.

— At New Hampshire, the final 35 laps were green.

— Indianapolis finished in overtime, but that was set up due to multiple wrecks.

— At Pocono, the last 55 laps (all of Stage 3) were green.

I love that. Yeah, it might be more exciting to see a crazy double-file restart in overtime — but if a caution is not warranted, then it’s good to let the race play out. And that’s what NASCAR seems to be doing.

Plus, a long run at the end doesn’t mean it’s a boring race. The finish Sunday was still in doubt and had plenty of excitement right down to the final seconds. So those are all positive things, and I like how NASCAR is officiating these races. I hope this trend continues through the playoffs, when the races mean so much more.


3. Brad and Kyle, Part 389

Based on his radio chatter, I thought Busch was going to go punch Keselowski in the face after the race, but that didn’t happen. Instead, Busch shook hands with AJ Allmendinger and laughed about something, then walked briskly toward the garage with reporters trailing behind.

He didn’t say anything notable (“Imagine that,” he said about the contact) — saving his thoughts for a mid-flight Twitter Q&A on the way home — but it was clear he was once again upset with his nemesis.

This is my favorite rivalry in NASCAR. On the surface, the two men have a lot in common: Both Busch and Keselowski are such unapologetically hard racers, both each have one title, both own a Truck Series team and each has a child who was born days apart from the other.

Yet there is ZERO common ground between the two, who have no relationship (despite Keselowski’s attempt at an olive branch through his blog a couple years ago). And they conduct themselves in a much different manner.

I think both are fantastic for the sport and are compelling, interesting people. They add spice to the race weekends on a regular basis. So it doesn’t bother me that they don’t see eye to eye, because that’s entertaining for the rest of us.

Oh, and don’t expect them to ever chat about Sunday’s incident, either.

“I don’t think he is really the listening type, so that is pretty doubtful,” Keselowski said.

4. Points battle blown open

If you haven’t paid attention, the points gap for the final playoff spot (see below) is only getting wider with four races to go.

Joey Logano is now completely out of the picture — he’s 106 points behind Matt Kenseth for the final spot — and in a must-win situation. That’s crazy, by the way.

Meanwhile, Kenseth added to his lead over Clint Bowyer and is now up by 28 points. Bowyer needs either Kenseth, Chase Elliott or Jamie McMurray to have a bad race (or two) while he has really solid results at Michigan, Bristol, Darlington and Richmond.

Of course, this all changes with a new winner. But it’s fairly obvious after Sunday there won’t be 16 different winners, so there should be at least a couple spots available to make the playoffs on points.

5. Must-See TV

NBCSN’s experiment with using a radio-style call for its TV broadcasts this weekend was a smashing success and as well-received on Twitter as any new thing can possibly be these days.

Mike Bagley of the Motor Racing Network fame was phenomenal in his role at the top of the esses, bringing all the excitement and enthusiasm from the radio to a TV screen. But just as impressive was Parker Kligerman, a driver with no formal announcing training, being able to pick up Bagley’s lead and call the action through the inner loop. Jeff Burton also brought a ton of insight in a fast-paced environment.

In addition, Leigh Diffey’s play-by-play announcing from the booth was top-notch. The F1 announcer was filling in for Rick Allen (who was in London for the track and field world championships) and was perfect alongside Steve Letarte, who was typically excellent in breaking down the strategy.

All in all, it made for one of the best NASCAR TV broadcasts in recent memory.



By patron request, I’m going to start including the playoff picture at the bottom of the Top Five each week. Here’s how it looks now:

IN (13): Truex, Larson, Harvick, Ky. Busch, Keselowski, Hamlin, Johnson, Blaney, Ku. Busch, Newman, Stenhouse, Kahne, A. Dillon.

Points Bubble with four races to go:

14. Chase Elliott +39

15. Jamie McMurray +34

16. Matt Kenseth +28


17. Clint Bowyer -28

(Everyone else more than 100 points or one win behind)

The Top Five: Breaking down the Sonoma race

Five thoughts on Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway…

1. Harvick’s legend grows

It’s hard to be known as one of the greats while competing in the Jimmie Johnson Era, because many of the wins and championships end up getting hogged by the No. 48 team.

But let’s not overlook what Kevin Harvick continues to do at age 41.

After winning for the first time this season, the versatile driver now has victories at every Cup track but Pocono, Texas and Kentucky. Sunday was his 36th career win — which is fourth among active drivers — and he has the second-most wins to Johnson this decade.

At the same time, Harvick has switched teams and now manufacturers during his run — which can sometimes make for a setback in performance. In fact, it probably should have cost him much more speed than it did this season — but everyone took it for granted Harvick and Childers would be winners again soon after changing to Ford.

Internally, though, Stewart-Haas had a lot of work to reach victory lane again on a non-plate track.

“I can say this now, but I had mixed emotions about how the year was going to go just because of the fact that we had a lot on our plate to switch over,” Harvick said. “… One day, I think everybody will actually learn all the details of all the things that it took to get to this particular point. But it’s a huge undertaking.”

The cars have been fast again, though, and for the most part Harvick hasn’t missed a beat. That could set the No. 4 up as a title threat again when the fall rolls around.

2. Clean and green

After a controversial debris caution last week at Michigan, the final stage of the Sonoma race was caution-free — this despite several spins and off-course cars.

It seems crazy to think there could be 55 laps without a caution at Sonoma — where drivers are sliding all over the place and running into one another — but that’s exactly what happened.

No one was complaining about the lack of a debris caution, though. Several competitors found it refreshing, including Brad Keselowski — who praised NASCAR’s “restraint” on Twitter with a thumbs up emoji.

“Good for NASCAR, man,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had addressed the topic on his podcast. “I think they heard the voices last week. There were some opportunities for sure for them to throw some yellows without much of a gripe from anyone, and they let it play out. That’s a race in my book.”

Tony Stewart, one of the vocal critics about the caution at Michigan, praised NASCAR for essentially swallowing the whistle.

“It’s so easy for cars to go off track here and it happened all day long,” Stewart said. “A couple cars even spun out and kept going. So there was a lot of opportunity where we could have gotten that debris caution or whatever during the race, but it was nice to see the race actually got to play out.”

Stewart chided the Joe Gibbs Racing cars for trying to get NASCAR to throw a debris caution after pitting, calling it “gamesmanship” on their part.

“They’re smart; they know how to play the game,” Stewart said of JGR calling for the caution. “I’m glad NASCAR didn’t bite on that one today.”

3. Strategy race

One of the great things about Sonoma — and there are many — is even if the race goes green for an entire half of the event, that doesn’t mean it’s boring.

In addition to the curbs and esses and hills and hairpin turn, the strategy makes the race enjoyable. Unpredictable is a positive thing in racing, and Sonoma certainly fits that description. It’s why only one active driver — Kyle Busch — has more than one win here.

The stages only added to the strategy this year. Harvick crew chief Rodney Childers said he agonized over it in the nights leading up to the race.

“It’s been trying to figure out what’s the right thing to do, how many tires do we have laying in the pits, when should we pit, when should we not, do we go after the playoff points in the first stage or do we not or do we pit early,” he said.

That certainly enhances the viewing experience, because it jumbles the field and creates different leaders (there were a race record 10 on Sunday, along with a record 13 lead changs) with all the various strategies.

“I had no earthly idea what was going on,” Jimmie Johnson said. “I passed so many cars. I don’t even know what strategy won. It was very difficult to know what was going on from inside the car. I would assume that caused a lot of great viewing and entertainment that was fun to watch, but I had no clue what was going on out there.”

4. Hang up on the ringers

For all the talk about road ringers, the Cup regulars shined once again. These heavy, bulky stock cars are very difficult to drive and require some level of mastery that someone parachuting into the series can’t match.

Every driver in the top 10 — Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Earnhardt, Kurt Busch, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Jamie McMurray — was someone you would expect to see run in that spot on any NASCAR track.

The highest-finishing driver who might be a surprise was Michael McDowell, who finished 14th — but he’s 26th in points and drives these cars every week (and won an Xfinity road race). A driver with a road racing background can definitely shine more than an oval (like AJ Allmendinger) — but not unless they are used to the cars.

The ringer results on Sunday weren’t all that impressive. Road racer Billy Johnson — fresh off Le Mans — finished 22nd in the No. 43 car. Boris Said finished 29th, Alon Day was 32nd, Kevin O’Connell 33rd, Tommy Regan 34th and Josh Bilicki 36th.

Granted, those drivers weren’t in great equipment — but it still shows a racer with Cup experience would be a better bet for road course substitute duty than a driver who hasn’t had much stock car seat time.

5. More bad luck for Kahne

With all the SAFER barriers at tracks these days, it’s a bit of a shock when a car has a hard hit with a concrete wall. But that’s what happened to Kasey Kahne on the last lap of the Sonoma race following contact with Kevin O’Connell — who was two laps down.

I caught up with Kahne after the race when he visited his team — and destroyed car — in the garage. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Denny Hamlin also arrived to check on Kahne and survey the damage.

“No. 15 (O’Connell), we were going down the frontstretch taking the white flag and he turned left and went to my (inside),” Kahne told me. “Then I was going to his right and like right before we got to the corner, he just turned right into me and just shot me into the wall.

“It was weird what he was doing. I hope something broke on his car, but I’m not sure it did.”

Kahne acknowledged he was shaken after the hit but said he started to feel better following the ambulance ride to the track’s medical center.

“My right shoulder and right side took all the impact,” he said. “I feel good now, but I’ll be sore tomorrow. That was a pretty good shot.”

It’s just more misfortune for Kahne, who seems to have something go wrong for him every week. He ended up finishing 24th after the crash, but before that he had fresh tires late in the race and enough speed to pass eventual winner Harvick and unlap himself.

Kahne is 21st in the standings — 122 behind Clint Bowyer, who is the current cutoff on points thanks to the variety of different winners this season.

Kasey Kahne explains his last-lap crash to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Denny Hamlin after the Sonoma race. (Photo: Jeff Gluck)