In what was a rather entertaining race, Friday night’s ToyotaCare 250 at Richmond Raceway came down to a duo of Joe Gibbs Racing teammates duking it out until the very last corner for the victory.
Christopher Bell had a stout car, leading 120 laps, and all but a few in the final stage. However, he was forced to play defense in the closing laps as Noah Gragson closed the gap, but Bell kept No. 20 car remained out front en route to his first victory of 2018.
“Had to work for it,” Bell said in Victory Lane. “My teammate was really good. I knew throughout both practices that both of our cars were going to be really strong. Joe Gibbs Racing has been producing really, really fast Camrys for the last couple weeks and it’s really shown.”
Coming into Richmond, Bell had three poles in the opening seven races, leading 72 laps. On Friday, he more than doubled those laps led in his second career XFINITY start at the track.
In the Dash 4 Cash, Elliott Sadler is $100,000 richer after finishing third, leading 30 laps and winning Stage 2. Matt Tifft recorded his best finish of the season in fourth, while Austin Cindric rounded out the top five.
The past two races, last week at Bristol Motor Speedway and Friday at Richmond, have been great duels, even if Joe Gibbs Racing has dominated. Last weekend, it was Ryan Preece and Brandon Jones that were the class of the field. Tonight? Bell and Gragson put on a show late, that could have gone either way.
Bell would get out to a big lead, and Gragson would chase him down. Repeat. Repeat. It happened a few times over the final 100 laps but ultimately Gragson could never make it by Bell.
In the top 10, drivers such as Ryan Truex and Jeremy Clements were able to be competitive and have solid runs. Prior to Friday night, Clements best finish of the season was 15th at Auto Club Speedway in early March.
Compare this race to last fall’s race when Cup drivers dominated and it was another Brad Keselowski vs. Kyle Busch battle, which was good racing, but they are expected to run up front. With no Cup drivers in the field, and there is no clear-cut favorite. Next weekend at Talladega will be the same, in fact, I predict a big upset next weekend, and it will be awesome.
In a race that had just two cautions due to incidents, with 86 laps to go, Justin Allgaier spun in front of the field forcing drivers to swerve left and right to avoid the No. 7 machine.
Allgaier ended the night 14th, while Gallagher was 17th, Annett 20th, Briscoe 26th and Grala 30th.
Daniel Hemric had an eventful race, including a stage victory. During the second stage, unfortunately, Hemric’s night went to hell, as within the first few laps, he knew there was something wrong with the right front tire.
The brake rotors were glowing, crew chief Danny Stockman Jr. was screaming and team owner Richard Childress suggested Hemric pit, but ultimately it was left up to the driver, and he decided to stay out. Going one lap off the pace, the No. 21 car limped around the racetrack until two laps remained in the stage when the right front tire finally blew out, and up into the Turn 4 wall he went.
“We had a really fast racecar, and I thought we executed on our end the best we could, it just wasn’t meant to be,” Hemric said of his night. “We had a little pinhole in the tread of the right front tire, could feel it going down and five laps into the run I stalled out, which is abnormal because the car was really good on the long run. 10 laps later I felt like I had a tire going down, and at that point you’re in a no-win situation. You lose two or three laps, but if you don’t you might be able to nurse it. We almost nursed it to the end.”
On the team’s radio, there was a lot of confusion on whether or not to pit. Childress absolutely wanted the No. 21 to pit, but the end result was Hemric finishing 29th, four laps down.
— Dustin Albino (el-bee-no) (@DustinAlbino) April 21, 2018
Stockman added: “You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t” for being in that position. Hemric has started the season off strong, but tonight he was racing for an additional $100 thousand with the Dash 4 Cash.
Underdog Performance of the Race
Noah Gragson made his doubters look like fools on Friday night, finishing second in his first career XFINITY Series race.
Heading into the race, he admitted that he was nervous, really nervous.
.@NoahGragson "I'm more nervous than the first time I leaned in to kiss a girl."
— Jim Utter (@jim_utter) April 20, 2018
But it didn’t take long for those nerves to settle, as the No. 18 car finished 22nd in the opening stage, because Gragson pitted during a caution with just a few laps remaining in the opening stage. Once he found his way to the front with pit stops changing up the order and putting him in fifth, he stayed there… the rest of the night.
“No, that’s all I had right there,” he said after the race. “Found something there at the end of the second stage on old tires and I knew there was speed in that part of the racetrack that I found. I just kept that in the back of my mind until I knew I needed to break it out there at the end. With about 18 to go, I told my spotter I’m going for it. He said don’t show him too early.”
Though the No. 18 crossed the finish line as the runner-up, Gragson learned a lot for his next two starts at Talladega and Dover.
“We win as a team, we lose as a team,” Gragson said. “It’s all about learning, but I wish I would have went with 18 to go, I think I could have got Christopher. We raced each other clean. I didn’t wreck him or anything. I wanted to earn this one, but hell of a way to start off my XFINITY Series career with a second-place finish. I’m going to bed for the next 20 years and think about going back to that night at Richmond and maybe I could have done something a little different.
Double Duty Interlopers
For the first time since 1982, there were no Cup Series regulars in an XFINITY Series race at Richmond. Then, it was because it was the first race at the track in series history with Tommy Houston going to Victory Lane. Fast forward 36 years, and it was for the Dash 4 Cash where Cup drivers were ineligible to compete for the second consecutive week. Surprise, surprise, it was another great showing.
“That was more work than I thought I was going to have to do tonight. We were definitely a top-three car, we just needed a Cup race worth of distance to get there. Track position was pretty important.” – Austin Cindric
“It’s just frustrating because I think we had a really good car, but it is what it is.” – Cole Custer
“It should have been a lot better. Our car was on a rail at first. I think we got up to the top 15 and I was being conservative. We had issues this morning in practice and I didn’t want to give the guys anymore more than they’ve already had. I think we really could have turned it on at the end there and maybe been a top 10 car.” – Tony Mrakovich
Richmond was one helluva short track race. No, it may not have had the casual chaos that we saw at Bristol last weekend, but it had good, hard racing.
That’s what we want right? The leader never had a big advantage on Friday night. Cole Custer started on the pole and led 43 early laps. Then Bell got by for the lead, and eventually, Hemric won the first stage.
The second stage was also good, hard racing, though going caution free. Sadler saved his tires, in what was a stage of comers and goers. The No. 1 car was able to hold off Gragson and Bell to record his first playoff point of the season.
Thus far, the XFINITY Series has had two short track races, and they have both been on point. One was a wreckfeast, while this one was a clean, competitive race. This is what NASCAR needs, especially in its lower series.
The XFINITY Series heads to Talladega Superspeedway next weekend for its second restrictor-plate race of the season. Aric Almirola is the defending race winner of the Sparks Energy 300, though this year Talladega is a Dash 4 Cash race, meaning Cup Series regulars are ineligible.