Who… should you be talking about after the race?
Martin Truex Jr. scored his first 2019 win, but more surprising is that it was also his first ever Cup win on a track less than one mile. That’s right, in 80 short-track tries, he came up empty. The 81st time was the charm for Truex, who led four times for 186 total laps, including the final 79 circuits around Richmond Raceway. Truex didn’t have the fastest car at the end, but he had the advantage of the lead. Passing at Richmond was at a premium with the current package, with many drivers commenting on not being able to make moves despite a faster car. For Truex, though, that meant a ticket to the playoffs and another trophy for his case.
Sometimes, it’s about the big picture. That was certainly the case for Ryan Newman, who finished ninth at Richmond, his second straight top-10 finish. That might not seem like much for an 18-time Cup winner, but Newman’s Roush Fenway Racing team is very much in rebuilding mode. A third of the way through the series’ regular season, Newman is in playoff contention, currently sitting 15th in points. Teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is just six points out of 16th, giving RFR a shot at a pair of teams in the playoffs. If that happens, it would be the first time since 2013 that RFR would be represented by two teams. There’s a long way to go, but Newman is making some inroads so far this season.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
In the closing laps on Saturday night, Truex’s lead looked a bit precarious. Clint Bowyer was closing in on Truex. Joey Logano was closing in on Bowyer. Kevin Harvick was stalking them all. It looked wide open for the win with 20 or so laps to go but it wasn’t. Both Bowyer and Logano made advances on Truex for the lead, and both fell short as they couldn’t complete a pass and couldn’t get close enough to use the bumper. Harvick was never a factor at all.
Still, there was the illusion, at least, that the win was there for the taking. And that, in the end, is exactly what NASCAR needs. One of the things that made racing fun in the late 1990s was the illusion that with a little luck and just the right strategy (and an interstellar alignment) that anybody could win. It didn’t happen all that often, though. In fact, reality says the number of different winners was similar to what it is now.
One reason for that was TV coverage. An underdog having a strong run was highlighted. You knew where the whole field was and what was going on with most of them. What that did was give their fans hope. If their driver was in the top five on a pit cycle, it was possible to believe for a lap or two that a caution might benefit him. If the leader thought he was hearing a vibration, well, what if his teammates were having the same issue and that might change everything.
Fans need to see possibility in each race, for each driver. Racing should make them hope. Racing should make them dream. No, everyone can’t win, but it’s sure nice to think, just for a moment, that they just might.
Where… were the other key players at the end?
Polesitter Harvick led the first 30 laps of the race, but after that, struggled to keep up with the racetrack quite enough to contend for the win. He wasn’t unhappy with his fourth-place finish, figuring that the team had a seventh or eighth-place car and made it better. While he hasn’t set the torrid pace he did a year ago, Harvick is having a solid season.
Active Richmond win leader and defending race winner Kyle Busch led 101 laps, but the changing track and a slow pit stop left him with an eighth-place finish. Once mired in traffic, Busch couldn’t find the same speed he’d demonstrated earlier, and that left him loutside the top five for just the third time this year.
Defending Cup champ Logano had the best car at the end but not quite enough laps to make a pass of the win. He took his second runner-up finish of 2019 and his second top three in the last two races. So far his title defense has been strong.
When… was the moment of truth?
Remember Kyle Larson’s last top-five finish? If not, that’s understandable, because he hasn’t had one since Phoenix last fall. Larson’s 2019 season is off to a terrible start, with a cut tire at Richmond handing him his second DNF in three races. Adding insult to injury, he finished dead last Saturday night after completing just 125 laps. He hasn’t finished on the lead lap since Martinsville and hasn’t cracked the top 10 since finishing sixth at Phoenix.
Larson flirted with several wins last year but could not capitalize as bad luck plagued him, and that has seemingly carried over to 2019. He won four times in 2017 and was touted as a future title contender, but he’s struggled to maintain that reputation over the last year. He’s got plenty of time to turn things around (he’s only 26), but his Chip Ganassi Racing team has not ever been able to put two cars in Victory Lane in a season. And with Kurt Busch knocking on that door, the organization needs to keep Larson from falling behind. There’s plenty of time to turn 2019 around, but first the No. 42 team needs to stop the bleeding.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
2019 got off to a relatively tame start in the inspection line after NASCAR introduced some stiffer penalties for failing, but for the second week in a row, drivers had to start from the rear Saturday. Is this going to be a trend? Probably not. Impound races have a less-lenient approach to pre-race inspection because it’s also post-qualifying inspection, so it only takes one failure to send a team to the back, whereas Kevin Harvick’s Bristol penalty came after multiple failures. Still, it’s something to keep an eye on going forward as NASCAR’s optical scan is notoriously picky about how the cars are rolled through.
Richmond saw yet another qualifying change, shortening all three rounds of Cup Series time trials to five minutes. Drivers spoke in favor of the change, but whether it will make a difference in the games teams play at intermediate tracks, where the draft gives drivers who go out late a huge advantage, remains to be seen. That opportunity probably won’t come until Kansas in May. If nothing changes, though, NASCAR still has some tough decisions to make.
How… come all eyes should be on Talladega?
Looking ahead a couple of weeks, the next race after the Easter off-week is at the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway, and it’s the first race for NASCAR’s new superspeedway package. The big question is whether the tapered spacer will make a difference in the way the race breaks down.
Will cars have enough throttle response to be able to avoid trouble and cut down on the multi-car Big One wrecks that are commonplace? Will the pack be broken up so that they never materialize? Those are the big questions as NASCAR heads for yet another unknown.
The other question is how fans will react if there is a different kind of racing than what they have been accustomed to. Superspeedway races in recent years have often featured margins of victory barely wider than a bumper. If that doesn’t happen, or if the Big One doesn’t materialize, will they walk away satisfied or frustrated?