Who… should you be talking about after the race?
For the second week in a row, it’s Martin Truex Jr. stealing the headlines. The driver of the No. 19 Toyota showed his strength early, winning stage one handily and finishing second in stage two at Richmond Raceway. All in all, Truex led three times for 109 laps, but in reality, he probably had a more dominant car than that. He spun on lap 315 from the lead with a little help from Ricky Stenhouse Jr. But the damage was minimal and he raced his way back to the top spot by lap 375, passing teammate Kyle Busch and avoiding Busch’s front bumper when he tried to get into Truex to battle for the win. Truex pulled away from Busch to take the win in the Federated Auto Parts 400, his sixth of 2019 and second of the playoffs in two races.
Drivers not in the playoffs don’t get much attention, and most of the attention Daniel Suarez got was speculation over whether he’d lose his Stewart-Haas Racing ride to Cole Custer this offseason. But while the heads were talking, Suarez was taking home a ninth-place finish, the best among the non-playoff drivers for the night.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
The road to the championship this year goes through Joe Gibbs Racing. The organization placed four teams inside the top four at Richmond (yes, you read that right), though Erik Jones was subsequently disqualified after failing post-race inspection, losing the fourth-place spot. Truex, Busch and Denny Hamlin were contenders all night, only allowing Brad Keselowski to make any kind of run at a top finish. Truex and Busch combined to lead 311 of 400 laps, and while Hamlin didn’t lead, he was never far from the front. JGR drivers have 15 wins this year, with 13 divided between all other organizations.
But, we’ve seen this song and dance before. Being the title favorites doesn’t necessarily translate into a title, and being the favorite puts a massive target on JGR’s back. A disqualification could also be a chink in the armor. Was Jones running something drastically different from his teammates, or did he wind up the unlucky one to have a similar setup wind up out of NASCAR’s tolerance while the others squeaked by?
Where… were the other key players at the end?
Polesitter Keselowski was the only non-JGR driver to lead laps and he led 89 of them, certainly enough to make a statement, finishing fourth. With three wins of his own this year, Keselowski is one of the drivers gunning to play the spoiler come Homestead.
All-time active track winner and defending race winner Kyle Busch was looking for Richmond win number seven Saturday night, and he certainly made it known he was in the hunt, leading 202 laps before finishing second. He also made it known he’d move a teammate for the win, trying to lay his bumper to Truex when the No. 19 squeezed by him. Busch is in full title mode.
Richmond native Hamlin was never out of the conversation on Saturday night. He didn’t lead laps, but he didn’t make waves, either. And his third-place finish leaves him a solid fifth in points heading into the Charlotte wild card. He’s not locked into round two yet, but he’s not someone you want to count out by any stretch.
When… was the moment of truth?
Let’s talk about Ryan Newman for a minute. He made the playoffs at the eleventh hour but wasn’t expected to stick around long. Heading into Charlotte, Newman sits ninth in points, and he had a strong run at Richmond, finishing fifth after running as high as second after a late restart. Newman’s no road course whiz with 11 top 10s in 37 road course races, but he doesn’t need to win at Charlotte. He just needs to be solid and he’ll advance. He’s got three wins at Dover and one at Kansas, so he could be strong in the second round even if he doesn’t win a race.
It’s too soon to call Newman a dark horse title favorite, but it’s certainly a possibility that he could make himself one in the coming weeks.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
While most of the talk is still all playoffs all the time, it’s also still very much Silly Season. Stewart-Haas Racing seems to be the wild card right now. Will the organization hang onto Clint Bowyer? How about Suarez? And if not, will those seats be automatically handed to Custer and Chase Briscoe?
If that happens, there will be four top-of-the-line Xfinity Series rides up for grabs, and Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick are expected to move into the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series next year. Expect the No. 20 to be filled with a development driver of Toyota’s choosing (Harrison Burton is probably the most experienced viable candidate).
Will a scorned Cup driver like Daniel Hemric take a good Xfinity ride and make a title run? Will teams take a chance on a Gander Outdoors Truck Series youngster like Ross Chastain or Tyler Ankrum? And if that happens, who fills those top Truck rides.
In other words, keep an ear to the ground in the coming weeks. The playoffs might be the subject of most of the talk, but there’s a lot on the line looking ahead to 2020 as well.
How… come the playoffs don’t start all at once?
Is there any logical reason why the playoffs for all three national series can’t start at the same time? The Truck and Xfinity playoffs are shorter than the Cup ones, which would mean off weeks somewhere if they all started at Las Vegas and ended at Homestead, but it seems as though this should be a thing.
Trucks have completed round one, Xfinity just one race and Cup two in their first rounds. While it would be difficult to align them because of the different formats, it seems like a uniform start would be a smart way to get fans engaged in all three playoffs. With schedule realignment coming, maybe it’s time to think about it.