The race at Richmond International Raceway last weekend was tame by short track standards. What caused the lack of action, and should fans be worried?
Jerry Jordan, Contributor: There was plenty of action at Richmond. No, it wasn’t what most are accustomed to when they go to a short track, but there were a lot of different scenarios playing out behind the leaders. Then we saw Aric Almirola work hard to get to the front, but he came up a little short. And I think it is worth noting that the official score is now tied: NASCAR Safety/Clean-up vehicles -1 NASCAR Sprint Cup Cars – 1. Obviously, the jet dryer lost the battle with Juan Pablo Montoya, but Michael McDowell‘s car was ripped apart by the safety truck.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: The biggest reason for Saturday’s Richmond Rewind was the fact that Matt Kenseth‘s team found the best setup. For the third time in as many races, the driver with the right setup dominated the event. Fans are seeing a natural part of a track’s evolution. Maybe Richmond’s pavement is aging into maturity, or maybe it’s the energy that surrounds races there. To me, the primary factor for Saturday’s snoozefest was the No. 20 team doing its homework and making all the right choices
Clayton Caldwell, Contributor: Richmond has been that way as of late. Really the last time the final race of the regular season made headlines was for Spingate back in the 2013 season. The last two times we’ve been there it’s been a real tame race. I think NASCAR’s rules have played into that because when you take 16 drivers in the Chase there really aren’t a whole lot of competitive drivers on the outside looking in. Take 2015 for example. Almirola was one the few drivers with a chance at making the Chase. Prior to Richmond that team had one top-10 finish all season long. Sometimes there just aren’t a lot of great teams to go around.
Phil Allaway, Senior Editor: Life in general. Having it be the Chase cut-off doesn’t help. Richmond hasn’t really been exciting since before the Chase was created. It’s become very hard to pass there since the Car pf Tomorrow was created. These types of races at Richmond are nothing new. That’s the only reason why fans shouldn’t be worried because it’s more of a Richmond problem than anything else.
Amy Henderson, Senior Editor: It really wasn’t a bad race. There wasn’t a lot of action up front (the Joe Gibbs Racing cars were just that good), but there was a fair amount of racing in the pack. However, does the Chase hurt this race most years? Absolutely. You have a handful of drivers who might actually take a risk to try and win their way in, but more who will play it safe to preserve their points position or so as not to get in the way of the contenders. I’ve said it before, but the best way to make the individual races worth something would be to dump the Chase, completely devalue the championship, raise individual race purses and give a bigger points bonus for winning at the time of the race.
There was some controversy Saturday night as both Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth appeared to jump restarts, but neither was penalized by NASCAR. Should NASCAR have handled either situation differently?
Caldwell: Yes, no doubt. The biggest problem with NASCAR and these restarts have been inconsistency in its rulings. A couple of times this season we’ve seen NASCAR rule on restarts, including nearly costing Ryan Blaney a victory in the Truck race at Bristol in August. Blaney’s infraction was borderline compared to Kenseth’s infraction on Sunday. Yet NASCAR came out and said that drivers will police themselves on restarts. It just seems to me like NASCAR is doing that to avoid making rulings and affecting important races.
Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer: If you’re going to have rules you have to enforce them. And perhaps clarify them a bit better. The lead driver must start “in the vicinity” of a re-start zone. Well, as I see if it, if you’re stranded on a mastless sailboat in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, you’re in “the vicinity of Texas.” Bless their pointed little heads, Cup drivers are like toddlers in their terrible twos. The leader is going to grab for any cookie he can get his hands on. The driver who restarts second is going to always say the leader went early, while the third-place restarter will say the leader started to accelerate and backed off. Because they all want a cookie. And you can’t nod and wink at a toddler when he filches a cookie and not expect to come down the next morning and find the cookie jar empty and your child a Type 2 diabetic. Eventually NASCAR will penalize a leader for jumping the restart and without denying he broke the rule that leader will use another 2-year-old defense, “everybody does it.” Given what’s on the line, if NASCAR doesn’t want to end up with a hullabaloo on its hands, it needs to enforce the rules on the books and nip this issue, nip it in the bud.
Henderson: Absolutely NASCAR should have handled those restarts differently. Remember when David Ragan changed lanes at Daytona and the penalty cost him the Daytona 500? Busch should have been equally penalized. In the case of Kenseth’s jump, the yellow should have flown again immediately and Kenseth given one more shot to restart cleanly. At that point, a second jump should mean another yellow and Kenseth sent to the rear. NASCAR’s inconsistency in policing restarts correctly, especially coming after it made a big deal out of saying it’d look into it, reeks of favoritism, even if there was none.
Jordan: Yes. In the NFL they throw flags and teams are penalized if they jump the snap. In NASCAR, if a driver goes too fast on pit road, drives through too many pit stalls or if a crew guy comes off the wall too soon, they are penalized. NASCAR could set a limit and give tolerances like it does with templates, speeding, etc. and if the driver busts the tolerance, they are sent down pit road.
Howell: Racing is a people sport, and people are prone to 1) make mistakes and 2) look for any advantage possible. We’ve been seeing this recently with restarts and, short of electronically quantifying the timing of a car crossing the start/finish line, there’s very little NASCAR can do to improve the situation. More officiating means more company control, and we know how fans react to that. As long as the green flies at an appropriate time, and as long as drivers are paying attention to their location on the track and the cars around them, I think restarts should be left up to the competitors. Don’t like how I handled a restart? See me in the garage after the race. That stuff makes for great television.
The Chase kicks off this weekend at Chicago. Of the 16 drivers in contention, who’s the early favorite… and who will fans say an early goodbye to after Dover?
Allaway: Right now, the early favorites are those drivers putting it to the field right now: Kenseth, Busch and Joey Logano. After Dover, we’re kissing four dudes goodbye. Based on what I’ve been seeing, those drivers are probably Paul Menard, Jeff Gordon, Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Newman. There’s always a chance of a bad batch of parts claiming some engines. Hendrick Motorsports knows that feeling quite well (see: 2002 EA Sports 500, where all six cars with Hendrick engines blew up).
Henderson: I’ll pin the “favorite” banner on Kevin Harvick, Logano and Kenseth. Jimmie Johnson has four wins (but none since June) and unless he’s lying about being behind, he’ll fall back early. Busch also has a piece of the lead, but he’s never been able to hold it together in the Chase. So call them the longer shots along with Truex, who could surprise with his consistency. Who will fall out after Dover? Right now, my money’s on Menard, Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jamie McMurray. They have been a bit lackluster in recent weeks.
Howell: The early favorites have to be Johnson, Busch and Logano. Those three have the momentum and the experience to manage this new format for the Chase. I think we’ll say goodbye to McMurray, Bowyer and Menard after Dover. As much as I like these three and respect their talent, I don’t see them adapting to the demands of this first elimination round of races.
Caldwell: I would say the favorite is either Kenseth or Harvick. Busch has won one Chase race in his career and that came in 2005 at Phoenix; that is why he is off my list. An early goodbye in the Chase will be Menard. Not sure Richard Childress Racing is where it needs to be and I don’t believe Menard, who has just four top-10 finishes all season long, has what it takes to get past Dover.
McLaughlin: With the convoluted method of determining a champion it’s impossible to handicap the Chase. Right now Kenseth is hot and Harvick has been strong all year. Busch usually suffers an autumn meltdown and perhaps some sports psychologist told Gibbs that if Busch started the season 11 weeks late his biological clock wouldn’t register “autumn” until December. I hate to downgrade any driver’s achievements, but Menard’s making the Chase has a lot of fans left scratching their heads. He’s been virtually invisible all season; I mean, with a total of two top-five finishes all year (most recently in May at Talladega) and an average finish of 17th, it’s hard to envision him making the postseason in any other form of racing. Of course a NFL team that averages a second-place finish all year is called “winless.”
With his win at Richmond, Chase Elliott is within shouting distance of the Xfinity Series point lead. Can Elliott repeat as champion or is his one win too little, too late to make a serious charge?
McLaughlin: Now hold on thar just a minute, Bubba-louie. Yes, Elliott has only one win. Of 25 NXS races run to date, only seven of were won by anyone without a Cup ride, and two of them were won by Erik Jones, who declared himself a Truck Series points contender, not NXS. Points leader Chris Buescher has won two races. If my math is correct, that’s one more than Elliott. Check me on that. Yes, Elliott and for that matter Ty Dillon have some catching up to do, and perhaps they need Buescher to have just one bad race to tighten things up, but that scenario is not outside the realm of possibility. But we’re only discussing this because the NXS doesn’t have a Chase points system. Thus it will be fun to watch and whoever does grab the crown will be rewarded for a full season of effort. What a concept!
Allaway: Sure, Elliott can charge; there’s still a number of races left and there’s no reason for me to believe he can’t put together a bunch of great results from here to Homestead. He definitely needs to stay out of trouble, though. With Roush Fenway Racing, you never know what’s going to happen over there; it’s had some intra-team strife this year. I wouldn’t be shocked if something strange happens between now and the end of the year. As it stands, Buescher’s performance has been dropping off recently, regardless. There’s a window of opportunity for Elliott to capitalize on.
Jordan: It’s a long shot for Elliott to repeat. He had an incredible 2014 but this year has fallen a little short. Buescher is stout and it looks like he isn’t going away easy. Prior to last weekend’s NXS race, the Texas native told me he wasn’t good at Richmond International Raceway but he went out and salvaged a decent finish. Going forward, he has some strong tracks and his personal goal is to lock up the title by the time the series gets to Texas. It probably won’t happen, but he was confident about his upcoming performances.
Howell: I think Elliott’s biggest challenger is the calendar. There’s not enough time left on the schedule for him to mount a realistic charge for the NXS title. Others have been running too well for too long (drivers like Buescher come to mind), and I don’t believe Elliott’s success at Richmond was the start of a lasting trend. I can’t help but think that Elliott’s NXS season was hijacked by his progression into the Cup Series. There’s a ton of pressure on Elliott for 2016. Unfortunately much of that pressure began months ago when he was tapped to drive the No. 24 Chevrolet next season.
Caldwell: I have to see more from Elliott to say he is a contender. It’s nothing against Elliott’s ability, I just don’t think JR Motorsports is as strong as they were in 2014. Elliott and his crew chief Ernie Cope don’t seem to have the same mojo as he and Greg Ives did. Plus, I think Buescher is strong everywhere we go and will be extremely hard to beat this season.