NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2021 Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond

What happened?

Alex Bowman won the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway on Sunday (April 18) following an impressive late-race restart where he lined up in third place.

Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Christopher Bell and Martin Truex Jr. rounded out the top-five finishers.

How did it happen?

A beautiful day at Richmond began with Truex, the pole sitter, leading the first 30 laps until the competition caution. Hamlin passed Truex during the pit stops and held the lead on the restart. The first stage was relatively uneventful after that, as Hamlin led the next 44 laps to secure the stage win over Truex and Logano.

Hamlin retained the lead on pit road and on the track until lap 105 when Truex got back out front. Bowman, who started 24th, made his way up to fourth early in stage two.

Green flag pit stops began with 97 to go in the second stage. As cars were cycling back to their original positions, Ryan Newman spun into the outside wall after help from Austin Cindric.

Six drivers had yet to pit (Brad Keselowski, Austin Dillon, Matt DiBenedetto, Tyler Reddick, Corey LaJoie and Daniel Suarez) while just 11 cars were on the lead lap at the time of the caution. This incident forced William Byron, Kyle Busch, Aric Almirola and five other contenders to take the wave around.

On the restart, Truex pulled ahead of Hamlin and those two were the undisputed favorites. They pulled out to a massive lead over the field ahead of green flag stops with 51 to go in the stage. Hamlin cycled back ahead of Truex under green and eventually got by Keselowski, who stretched it and didn’t pit under green. Keselowski was lapped in the final laps of the stage, as crew chief Jeremy Bullins’ decision proved to be a failure. The two stage wins gave Hamlin a series-leading five on the year.

Bowman was penalized for an uncontrolled tire on the pit stops during the stage break and forced to restart at the rear in 12th, last on the lead lap.

Hamlin again led on the restart and held the top spot following green flag stops with just over 100 laps remaining. Truex, who was running third, got busted for speeding and served a pass through penalty under green but stayed on the tail end of the lead lap. That left Logano to challenge Hamlin, and he did, clearing him for the lead with 66 laps to go.

The final green flag stops came with just over 50 to go. Logano held the lead through the cycle while Hamlin stayed close behind in his tire tracks.

The two were dueling up front when, with 20 laps left, Kevin Harvick cut a right rear tire and spun into the outside wall while running inside the top 10. Only eight cars were on the lead lap at the time (including Harvick).

Hamlin won the race off pit road with Logano, Bowman and Bell just behind. Restarting from the inside, Hamlin appeared to be in the clear when he got by Logano and Bowman scooted into second. Instead, Bowman went up and took the lead, showing the speed we hadn’t seen all day as he was mired back in traffic.

Bowman was never threatened in the final 10 laps, as he got around traffic on the final lap to secure his third career victory. The win was Bowman’s first on a short track (Hendrick’s first at Richmond since 2008) and marked the third consecutive year he’s won a race. It was the first win for the No. 48 since Dover International Speedway in June 2017 and the first time the number has won with a HMS driver other than Jimmie Johnson. (The late James Hylton won with his self-owned No. 48 car in the 1970s).

See also
Alex Bowman's Richmond Win Caps Off Big Day for Drivers of No. 48

Who stood out?

For the second straight week, an unlikely victor rose in the final laps of a grueling race. This time it was Bowman and the famed No. 48. Bowman had solid speed all race long. I don’t think anyone thought he could challenge Hamlin, Logano and Truex for the win, though. The final caution gave him a shot, and the 27-year-old delivered in the clutch.

Thinking bigger picture, this win was huge in multiple ways. Bowman is still on a one-year contract with Hendrick Motorsports. He’s driving a car that’s fully funded with Ally sponsoring. If Bowman didn’t win like his teammates, he could’ve been in danger of losing his ride and/or sponsor. Now, he’s the third HMS driver to win and only defending champion Chase Elliott is winless. This season continues to look like Hendrick’s best since the early 2010s, when Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon routinely won races. 

Richmond was the same old story for Hamlin, the hometown hero. Over the past two races, he’s led 483 of 900 total laps. Finishing third at Martinsville and second at Richmond is good; it’s just not good enough when you dominate like that.

See also
Denny Hamlin Not Worried Following Runner-Up At Richmond: "We're Smashing Everyone"

Hamlin has finished top five in eight of nine races this year and might already have the regular season championship in hand. But until he starts finishing races, he’s going to be leaving the track frustrated. Playoff points are slipping away with every race not won and it could end up costing him if there’s bad luck for his No. 11 team in the playoffs. The good news is that he’s consistently better than anyone in the sport right now and that doesn’t look like it’ll change anytime soon. A win is certainly coming. It has to be, right?

Almirola and DiBenedetto needed good runs more than anyone at Richmond, and boy, did they get them. Almirola finished sixth and had a real chance at finishing better after that final restart. He ran inside the top 10 for most of the day. It was the type of performance his team needed after eight finishes outside the top 10 (and four of 30th or worse) to begin 2021.

The same can be said about DiBenedetto, who came home in ninth. He’s been in the top 20 for sixth straight races and inside the top 15 for four straight. The beginning of the season killed the No. 21, but the team is inching back toward relevance. Now headed to Talladega, Almirola and DiBenedetto are two of the series’ best superspeedway racers. Both of these drivers are on the rise at the perfect time.

Who fell flat?

Harvick was having his best run of the season until his right rear tire blew in the final laps. It wasn’t anywhere near the level he performed last year. It was, however, a huge improvement from where he’s been the last several weeks. Harvick was consistently in the top 10 and occasionally in the top five; the late-race incident ruined an otherwise productive day.

Finishing two laps down in 24th definitely wasn’t what Harvick wanted at Richmond, but there has to be some optimism with that overall performance. He still has a level to climb to contend with the likes of Hamlin, Truex and Logano. That’ll be the next challenge for Rodney Childers and this No. 4 team.

The most puzzling performance of the race was Kyle Larson. Richmond is one of Larson’s best tracks (one win, five top 10s in 12 prior starts) and he just wasn’t a factor on Sunday. From the jump, he just lacked competitiveness compared to the other contenders. The No. 5 Chevrolet lost a lap early due to the oddly-timed caution and then lost a few more throughout the race, finishing two down in 18th.

This was the first time all season where Larson just wasn’t in the mix. His two other finishes outside the top 10 this year (Daytona Road and Bristol Dirt) both came due to accidents while he was running near the front. This time, they just never had it. It’s worth noting because Richmond is a playoff track and his teammate won the race, so we’ll see if they can figure it out in September.

What did this race prove?

JGR is the organization to beat right now. I know, I know. Hendrick has won three races with three different drivers. Right now, though, Gibbs has the most speed from top to bottom. Hamlin and Truex top the points standings. Bell and Kyle Busch have been consistent top-10 threats in most races. In terms of laps led and speed, JGR is a tick above HMS.

The mixed-up stage lengths give races a different type of intrigue. I saw a lot of questions and complaints on social media about stage two being so much longer than stage one. Personally, I really enjoy the difference. Each week, we go to tracks where the first two stages are the same distance and the final one is longer. Last season, Richmond changed it so the second stage was much longer than the first. The change brings some character to the track, especially when the middle stages of Richmond races are usually tame.

Now, I don’t want to see this type of change every week. Once in a while, though, it’s fun to have something different for strategy. Every time we go to Richmond, you know it’ll be the funky stage lengths and that’s something the track can make its own.

Paint scheme of the race

I’ve mentioned this in the past and I’ll say it again: Caterpillar’s one-off schemes are always clean. From Ryan Newman’s No. 31 to Daniel Hemric’s No. 8, there’s a good-looking special CAT scheme seemingly every year. This year, Tyler Reddick had the honor of running the latest CAT-sponsored beauty …

Better than last year?

There was no spring Richmond race in 2020 due to COVID-19, so let’s compare it to the 2019 event. Only five drivers led laps in 2019, but all five of them led at least 30 laps. Truex, Logano and Kyle Busch dominated most of the race, while the final run came down to a battle between Truex and Logano. Truex prevailed on the final lap, holding off a hard-charging Logano for his first career short track win. It was a solid race at a track that’s had some not-so-solid races in the past.

This year, the race had a lot of the same tendencies as most Richmond races. There were a lot of long, green-flag runs. Three drivers (Hamlin, Truex and Logano) were better than the rest of the field most of the race. The race-winning battle between Hamlin and Logano before the final caution was great. Then, the final 12 laps after the restart were both entertaining and surprising. Overall, that was a really good race for Richmond. Better than 2019, in my opinion.

Playoff picture

We’ve officially filled half the playoff field following Bowman’s victory. This win is especially notable because Bowman was 17th in points entering Richmond. He wasn’t one of the top guys (Hamlin, Elliott, Harvick, etc.) who feels safe with or without a win.

Michael McDowell finally fell out of the top 16 after Richmond, so he’s currently bumping 16th-place Chris Buescher out of the playoffs. DiBenedetto has rocketed up to 18th in the standings, while Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is holding down 14th as he heads to one of his best tracks in Talladega Superspeedway.

Here’s a look at the full standings following Richmond.

What’s next?

After three straight short tracks, the Cup Series is heading to the longest oval on the circuit. The Geico 500 at Talladega is set for Sunday (April 25) at 2 p.m. ET on FOX, as Ryan Blaney will look to defend his victory from 2020. The 188-lap event will have stage breaks after laps 60 and 120.

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16 Comments
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Bill B

The race ran more like a 1.5 mile track even though it’s a short track (it was still better than a 1.5 miler overall though). Long green flag runs, lots of single file racing with cars 1 to 2 seconds apart, not many cautions, etc.. I liked the short first stage with two longer stages. Get that first stage out of the way quickly since it is already marred by the stupid, weekly competition caution. That let the rest of the race flow more naturally.

Hamlin was robbed again (thankfully). He has got to be getting frustrated. Coming within grasp of the win and having it snatched away late in the race. This can’t last forever, he is bound to have circumstances fall his way one of these weeks.

Good to see DiBenedetto and Almirola finally have a decent week. They have been invisible at the front most weeks. Hard to believe the champion is the only HMS driver not to win yet.

Echo

Did you see his face as he got out of the car ! He is very frustrated, so he talks about whooping them all by leading stage points, race points, series points lol Joey was upset cause he didn’t win, Denny talks about points and ballooned tires lmao. He is very frustrated.

Bill B

Yeah I know. He is saying all the right things but his face tells a different story. What comes out of his mouth doesn’t go with the look in his eyes.

DoninAjax

The 20, 9, and 18 got a free pass.

The 11, 19, 22 (1st, 2nd, 3rd in both), 48, 24, 20, and 4 all finished top ten in both segments.

The cars that start up front stay up front. Reverend Joe, Mr. H and Penske. Amazing how some get a free pass when they need one.

Jo

Richmond proved once again that NASCAR races are only interesting when there a lot of cautions. Most of it was as boring as a cookie-cutter track. At one point, there were 8 cars on the lead lap. Complete waste of time. So now, we go on to the wreck-fest at Dega with Jennifer Jo Cobb looking to start the first Big One!

Mr Yeppers

She’s now referred to as JenJo Cobb according to the creepy Vince Welch.

Bill B

I don’t mind seeing 8 cars on the lead lap. You show me a race where there are less than 10 cars on the lead lap and I’ll show you a race that NASCAR didn’t meddle with. What I call, an honest race. I’d stop watching if that was the way it was every week, but I expect and am fine with it a few times a year. Doesn’t mean I won’t say it was boring in my comments the next day just that, as a fan, you have to accept that and see the beauty of a race where just finishing on the lead lap is an accomplishment. Sort of like watching a baseball game with no scoring or a football game where the defenses of both teams squelch the other’s offense.

I used to dread Dega when I had a driver that I cared about. Now I just hope no one gets seriously hurt and watch the mayhem.

WJW Motorsports

Pockrass reported today that NASCAR didn’t approve her to run the race. Sounds like they are thinking just like you on this one..

Jo

I just saw that. I’m glad they pulled the plug on that bad idea. Even NASCAR gets things right once in a while.

wildcatsfan2016

Except for the end of the race, it was pretty ho hum. Richmond races just don’t seem to have the same short track feel that tracks like Martinsville do. I’m not counting Bristol because they dumped dirt all over it and made it a faux race IMO.

It was nice as Bill B says that NASCAR managed to stay out of the way and not meddle with the race.

Bil I’m also with you re RP tracks (or spacer tracks – doesn’t have the same ring to it). I don’t have a favorite these days so now I watch the carnage and hope that no one gets hurt but I don’t feel the level of concern that I did when I had a favorite driver.

DoninAjax

They ruined Richmond like they ruined Atlanta by turning them into tri-ovals. They wanted a longer front stretch for more seats($$$$$). Karma sucks.

Dan

It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if the caution won’t have come out because of Harvick’s tire issue. Wonder if Hamlin would have put the bumper to Logano. Surely Logano would have done everything possible and more to keep the lead to the checkers.

janice

i watched a little of the race. turned it on to see the replacement for waltrip’s grid walk, something with bowyer talking to drivers on the grid prior to the race from his spot in the booth.

i don’t know that bowyer stuff is starting to annoy me.

onto dega. hopefully mother nature will cooperate. hopefully no one ends up injured. the field must need cars as there seems to be a few field fillers running in this race.

Bill B

Janice, I can’t tell you enough how nice it is to not have to deal with MW every week. I can deal with everything else going on in the booth. I have not felt the need to mute the TV several times a race. I’d prefer a little less jocularity but it’s not so off the chart that it ruins it for me. Every week I notice the improvement in my overall enjoyment of the race just by the absence of MW.

DoninAjax

He’s still making the Truck events mute-worthy. TSN showed the truck example of Brian’s product at Bristol and they haven’t shown the trucks for a long time or since.

Jo

I still find it confounding that these races with no practice are so lacking in excitement. We had two cautions for on-track incidents and the rest of the race was a pit road strategy race. I don’t think it is due to NASCAR “staying out of the way.” They had no opportunity to throw any cautions because the drivers were so well-behaved. There seems to be very little aggressive driving. The entire field was concerned only with “points racing” which is the bane of NASCAR’s existence. Denny’s comments after the race clearly reflected that mind set. Why watch a race where nobody is racing to win?

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