Who’s in the headline – Matt Kenseth is peaking at the right time. The 2003 champion has won three of the last six races and heads into the Chase as the hottest driver in the sport. Joe Gibbs Racing had three of the top-six finishers, and at one point early in the race, had all four cars in the top four. The garage perceives that JGR has a significant horsepower advantage and that has to be playing on their minds. Unless the rest of the field catches up it just might be a battle among JGR drivers in Homestead for the wavy silver trophy.
What happened – Kenseth started on the outside of the front row and took 14 laps to get past polesitter Joey Logano. Over the final 386 laps, Kenseth led 352 of them. Logano restarted next to Kenseth for the majority of the restarts for the night and got the better of Kenseth on most of them. When it came down to the last one Kenseth made sure he didn’t go late, and maintained the lead that ultimately led him to secure the win. Outside of those shenanigans, the biggest story of the night was Michael McDowell hitting a safety truck that was on the track cleaning up debris under caution. His crew chief and spotter were invited to spend some time in the big yellow truck after the race.
Why you should care – After all of the hype and attempts to build excitement around the battle for the final Chase positions, it turned out to be all for naught. The top 16 that came into the race were the 16 who left with a shot at the title. The JGR teams have established they are the ones to beat. Stewart-Haas Racing is going to be in the mix, but this race was not their best effort to lay the foundation for their Chase run. Hendrick Motorsports is off, and while they have teams near the front at the finish, they are not contending for wins like champions should be.
What your friends are talking about – Restarts are the hot topic in the series and continue to be a confusing topic for fans and the drivers alike. Kenseth clearly went before the restart box on the final restart of the race, but in his defense, the rule reads ‘in the vicinity’ of the box. With the shown dependency of the 2015 rules package on clean air, there is no doubt that restarts, especially at the end of races, will decide this championship. NASCAR needs to get their arms around this issue and start calling people for violations or chaos is going to rule during the playoffs.
The hype began the moment that the checkered flag flew at Richmond and it will be all that we hear about over the next 10 weeks. The 16 drivers in the Chase will be paraded around like show ponies this week to any media outlet that will have them. The PR machine will be trying to play up perceived rivalries and you can be sure the altercations that occurred on pit road and in the garage during last season will be replayed constantly. The Chase might not be the way many people think a racing series should determine their champion, but it will generate excitement for sure.
The spring race at Richmond is probably going to be moved to Sunday afternoon. The facility has reportedly put in a request to NASCAR to have the start time moved to the daytime. The reasons are many but it is, at least in part, for fans to have more opportunity to experience the race weekend and to drive home during the day instead of late at night. The preponderance of night races has watered down the competition in the series and the new aero package, combined with daytime racing, should put on a fantastic show. Hopefully more tracks will follow suit and the product will be better in the end.
Who is mad – Aric Almirola did everything he could at Richmond to make it into the Chase, but he fell 17 points short of the final spot. While he might have done a few things differently during the season and certainly could have benefited from faster cars, he could have easily made it with one simple strategy maneuver- scored one bonus point this season. Had he taken the time to stay out and lead a lap on the first caution of every race of the season, he’d have made 25 more points and he’d have made the Chase by eight points.
Jack Roush dominated the sport in the early 2000s, to the point that it had to institute a rule to limit the number of drivers a given team could field. The organization has chased the memory of Kurt Busch‘s 2004 championship while managing a couple of runner-up finishes in the points. Since 2011, when Carl Edwards finished second in points and Kenseth finished fourth, the company has slid dramatically. This isn’t the first time they have lost their way, but this is the first time they have failed to put a single car in the Chase. Not only did they miss the Chase, but they were nowhere close. With the amount of money that Roush is pouring into the organization he cannot possibly be pleased.
Kyle Larson came into the Cup series like a whirlwind in 2014, scoring eight top-five finishes during the season. This year, it has been a struggle to say the least for Larson. Attribute it to a sophomore slump, a reduced racing schedule away from the Cup Series, or a lack of feel for the new aero package. Whatever the case may be, the luster is off this year and the pressure is certainly mounting, not only on Larson but on his team. Larson has two years left on his contract and there are rumors that he’s destined for other teams when that expires. Chip Ganassi has to be pressing to see a return on his investment and belief in the young phenom before that contract runs its course.
Who is happy – Paul Menard has continued to develop as a racecar driver. He’s always been a quick starter, but has tailed off as the season unfolded. Progressively, over the last 5-10 years, his tail off has come later and later in the year. This season it came late enough that he made the cut for his first Chase. With the pressure of the Chase now on his shoulders it will be interesting to see how Menard and his No. 27 team perform.
Jamie McMurray has been in this game for 14 years. He’s won some of the biggest races in the sport, but until Saturday night he had never made it into the Chase. In 2010 he won three races but only managed a 14th-place finish in the points. With Matt McCall now on his box calling the shots, McMurray has been showing consistency that has put him in the running for a title. How long he will be able to stay in the conversation will be seen.
Denny Hamlin was in the news for the wrong reasons leading into Richmond. Tearing an ACL for the second time in his career, he brought the spotlight onto himself and his team. Hamlin maintains that, while there is pain, he can drive through it and manage it while in the car. Fortunately for Hamlin, he brought home his car in sixth place and proved to the fans, his team, and himself that he could race well with this injury. We’ll see if he can make it to Homestead with a shot at the title.
When the checkered flag flew:
Kenseth put his car in Victory Lane for the 35th time in his career. It took 570 starts for Kenseth to reach that plateau. The win is Kenseth’s fourth triumph of 2015. This is Kenseth’s second career victory at Richmond International Raceway. Kenseth is 20th on the all-time wins list, two behind Bobby Isaac.
Kyle Busch came home in second for his sixth top-two this season. This was Busch’s ninth career top-two run at Richmond. Busch has finished runner-up 30 times in his career.
Logano came home in third for the fourth time in his career. This is the third career top three at Richmond for Logano. Logano has finished in the top three seven times this season.
Brett Moffitt finished 35th to win the Rookie of the Race.
The field is set, so now it is all about the Chase for the Championship. For the remainder of the season, we’ll track the points for the title contenders and who is locked into the subsequent rounds via victory. For now, the top 16 and their point position:
- Jimmie Johnson
- Kyle Busch
- Matt Kenseth
- Joey Logano
- Kevin Harvick
- Dale Earnhardt Jr.
- Kurt Busch
- Carl Edwards
- Brad Keselowski
- Martin Truex Jr.
- Denny Hamlin
- Jamie McMurray
- Jeff Gordon
- Ryan Newman
- Paul Menard
- Clint Bowyer
Takin’ it to the Bank:
Cup winners this year have pocketed $8,858,287 in 26 races, while the last-place finisher has taken home $2,037,746.
In the Xfinity Series it has been $1,760,022 for the winners and $327,415 for last place in 25 races.
After 14 Truck races the winner has $723,941 in his coffers and the last loser has banked $136,682.
What is in the cooler – There are times in racing where a team hits it and just dominates a race. Saturday night was one of those nights. Kenseth led 352 of 400 laps. It was his world and everyone else was just a squirrel trying to get a nut. The 2016 aero package will hopefully bring better racing back to Richmond. For now, this one was a stinker. We’ll give it two, lukewarm, Magic Beaver Pale Ales from Lickinghole Creek Brewery.
Where do you point your DVR for next week – And so it begins. The field is set and the final 10-race run to the championship is ready to begin. The first race toward deciding the 2015 NASCAR Cup Champion is at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday September 20th. Coverage begins at 3:00 ET on the NBC Sports Network. It can also be heard on your local MRN affiliate and SiriusXM Channel 90. It can also be streamed on NBCSports Liveextra.