NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2021 Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond

What happened?

Martin Truex Jr. won the Federated Auto Parts Salute to First Responders 400 at Richmond Raceway on Saturday night (Sept. 11) after leading the final 51 laps.

Denny Hamlin, Christopher Bell, Chase Elliott and Joey Logano rounded out the top-five finishers.

How did it happen?

Pole sitter Kyle Larson started at the rear after multiple inspection failures, so it was Hamlin and Truex on the front row. Truex, on the inside, beat Hamlin, the control car, to the start/finish line on the initial start and was hit with a drive through penalty. He stayed on the lead lap, re-entering the track just ahead of Hamlin.

Hamlin led to the competition caution at lap 30 but was passed exiting pit road by Kurt Busch. Kyle Busch was hit with an equipment interference penalty on his pit stop, dropping to the rear of the field.

Kurt Busch struggled on the restart, allowing Hamlin to get back out front and Logano to grab second as Busch and Ryan Blaney battled for third. Just five laps after the restart, Busch’s left rear tire went flat while he was outside Blaney in turn 1. Busch spun and slammed hard into the outside wall, ending his night.

Hamlin led on the restart with 33 to go in stage one, jumping out to a comfortable lead over Blaney, Logano and Elliott. Elliott eventually got around Logano in the final laps of the stage as Hamlin crossed the line first.

After Hamlin led the first lap on the following restart, Elliott passed the No. 11 to grab his first lead of the night at lap 91. Elliott and Hamlin then pulled away from the field throughout the early part of stage two. Green flag stops began at lap 132; Hamlin pitted a lap earlier than Elliott and eventually passed him once they rejoined the track.

Elliott stayed close behind Hamlin and got by him for the lead with 73 to go in the stage.

The final green flag stops of stage two began at lap 180. Hamlin again pitted one lap earlier than Elliott, but the No. 9 had massive issues on its pit stop. Ross Chastain and Elliott made contact as Elliott entered his box, then Elliott thought he overshot the box (he didn’t) so he backed up while the jack was under the car. That resulted in a nearly 40-second pit stop, and he came out just behind Hamlin, one lap down.

Elliott and Hamlin traded spots on the track before Hamlin ultimately got away and lapped Elliott, Austin Dillon and William Byron. Over the final 10 laps in stage two, Elliott got around Dillon and Byron to secure the free pass and finish the stage in 13th. Hamlin won his eighth stage of the year with his teammates close behind.

In the final stage, Hamlin held the lead on the restart with 156 to go until another caution with 151 to go. This time it was Bubba Wallace, who got into the outside wall after a parts failure.

The final restart of the night came with 146 to go, as Hamlin and Truex pulled away at the front. Truex challenged Hamlin for multiple laps before finally taking the top spot with 131 to go.

There were two green flag stops during the final run. The first began with just over 100 to go, with Truex entering the pit sequence as the leader. Chastain cycled to the lead after pitting a few laps early, but was passed by Kyle Busch after leading four circuit. Truex moved back up to second as Busch continued to lap playoff cars in Alex Bowman, Brad Keselowski and Aric Almirola.

The final pit stops of the night began with 56 to go. Truex pitted before Busch, allowing him to cycle to the lead. Busch was nabbed for a speeding penalty, though, so he pitted under green and dropped to 10th, the final car on the lead lap.

Hamlin assumed the runner-up spot after Busch pitted, just over eight seconds behind the leader because he stayed out a few extra laps. This allowed Hamlin to have fresher tires later in the run. He chipped away at Truex’s lead, getting it down to around 4.5 seconds with 15 to go, 3.3 seconds with 10 to go and 2.7 seconds with five to go. He couldn’t get close enough, though as Truex ultimately won by 1.417 seconds.

The victory was Truex’s fourth of the season, third at Richmond and 31st of his career.

Who stood out?

Truex proved he’s capable of winning at any moment after a tough summer stretch. In 15 races between his win at Darlington Raceway in May and his win Saturday night, MTJ had four top fives, six top 10s and four finishes outside the top 20. It was an inconsistent stretch, to say the least, especially for a team that routinely competes for wins. After finishing fourth at Darlington and winning at Richmond, Truex has shown he’ll be a threat this year to win his second title.

The No. 19’s speed on 750 HP tracks is especially notable, as that rules package is used for the final two races of the season. All four of Truex’s wins this year are at 750 HP tracks (Phoenix Raceway, Martinsville Speedway, Darlington, Richmond). Even though Truex hasn’t been the most consistent in 2021, he could have the right formula to win the championship.

Hamlin once again showed race-winning speed — a great sign for the title race at Phoenix, should he get there. Speaking of 750 HP speed, Hamlin — like Truex — has it. He has top fives at Richmond (twice), Darlington (twice), Martinsville, Phoenix and the Bristol Dirt Race. Hamlin has been consistent all season, and he’s definitely peaking at the right time. Richmond wasn’t the win Hamlin wanted, but he did grab two playoff points to carry into the next round.

Saturday certainly qualifies as a successful night for the No. 11 team — they likely learned a lot for Phoenix, where they could be racing for a title down the line. Hamlin was fourth of four championship-eligible cars in 2020, and it seems like crew chief Chris Gabehart and Co. are determined not to let that happen again in 2021.

Another potential win got away from Elliott, but he salvaged a much needed top five at a track he generally doesn’t like. The No. 9 looked fast enough to win at Richmond, at least in stage two. Elliott was competitive with Hamlin, but the pit stop fiasco nearly caught him a lap down and ruined his day. Recovering to finish fourth was huge for a team at a deficit after crashing at Darlington. One more solid, uneventful race next weekend and Elliott’s title defense should continue in the Round of 12.

Despite another mental mistake from Elliott and the team, the speed shown at Richmond was encouraging. Elliott has spoken about his distaste for Richmond. Leading 58 laps, falling a lap down and recovering to finish top five is the type of day that can build some momentum for this team. The playoffs are often about how you respond to mistakes, and the No. 9 team stepped up in a big way after a crucial one.

Who fell flat?

A speeding penalty doomed Kyle Busch, and now he remains in danger entering Bristol. Busch seemed well on his way to a seventh Richmond win before speeding on the final green flag stop. The victory would’ve locked him into the Round of 12. Instead, he finished ninth and has just an eight-point cushion on the bubble. Like his three teammates, Busch had potential race-winning speed at Richmond. He won’t be happy with the result, but he’ll be dangerous if he can survive Bristol.

Bristol, by the way, happens to be Busch’s best track. He has eight wins in 31 career starts, earning top fives in six of his last seven races. One extra pit stop can cost you multiple laps at Bristol, so there’s no safety in this elimination race (unless you’re Hamlin, Truex or Larson). However, if there was one track Busch wanted to race with his season on the line, it would be Bristol.

Byron was off the pace all night and now he’s in jeopardy of an early playoff exit. That was a baffling performance from the No. 24. We haven’t seen Byron that off very often this season — but perhaps we should’ve seen this coming after he finished 21st at New Hampshire. Byron ended up 19th at Richmond, two laps down and outside the top 10 all night.

See also
William Byron Finishes 19th at Richmond: "We Were Terrible"

When Byron rattled off 11 straight top 10s early in the season, he seemed like a potential dark horse title threat. Even though he tailed off slightly over the summer, I don’t think many had him being eliminated in the Round of 16. Hendrick’s speed this season alone seemed like it would guarantee all four drivers at least a Round of 12 bid. Now, Byron (and his teammate Alex Bowman) could be bounced early.

Kurt Busch’s promising race ended before it really started. The No. 1 was quick in the early going, running right behind Hamlin in second and winning the race off pit road during the competition caution. Everything changed, obviously, when Busch’s tire blew and he slammed into the wall. It’s tough to have a one-point race and advance to the next round. Busch is currently tied for the final playoff spot, so he could end up pulling it off. Still, he’ll need to be above average at Bristol. And luckily for Kurt, he’s nearly as good as his brother there. The Chip Ganassi Racing veteran has six wins in 40 starts, earning four top 10s in his last five races.

What did this race prove? 

Joe Gibbs Racing still rules at 750 HP tracks, but Hendrick Motorsports might have found something. The 750 HP races include ovals under 1.5 miles and road courses. While HMS dominates the road courses, JGR has shined at 750 HP ovals. JGR has won five of the ten 750 HP ovals (including the last two), compared to three for HMS. While JGR was likely a Kyle Busch penalty away from finishing first through fourth, HMS did show promise, specifically with Elliott. The No. 9 hasn’t had that type of speed on 750 HP ovals all season. I still have JGR as the favorite at Martinsville and Phoenix, but HMS might’ve found something with Elliott’s setup at Richmond.

NASCAR needs more short tracks. Duh. Richmond doesn’t race like a typical short track (Bristol, Martinsville) and Saturday night was by no means a great short track race. Still, the side-by-side racing and heavy off-throttle time was a welcome sight. Short tracks should be littered throughout the schedule, especially as the sport tries to promote rivalries, contact and close racing. Richmond should not make up 40 percent of the short track schedule (Martinsville twice and Bristol are the other three).

This competition is all making me that much more excited for the Auto Club Speedway short track, currently set to debut in 2023. That track will be a half-mile, like Bristol and Martinsville, making it much more of a true short track than Richmond. There’s no reason to limit it there, though. The more short tracks, the better, and the schedule could always use a few more.

Paint scheme of the race

Aric Almirola’s No. 10 Smithfield Ford is the pick here for multiple reasons. It’s a beautiful paint scheme — it’s hard to go wrong with a patriotic design. More importantly, the scheme was run for a great cause. The Gene Haas Foundation and Smithfield are donating $50,000 to Tuesday’s Children, a non-profit organization that supports families affected by 9/11.

Better than last time?

Last year, Austin Dillon was a surprise competitor at Richmond. He led early in the race before Hamlin took over to win stage one. Keselowski and Logano battled throughout stage two, with the No. 2 taking the green-and-white checkered flag. Keselowski continued to dominate throughout the final stage, leading a race-high 192 laps in the win. There were no cautions outside of the stage breaks and competition yellow, making for a relatively quiet and uneventful night.

This year, things started off interesting with Truex’s restart penalty and Kurt Busch’s crash. After that, it became an intriguing battle between Hamlin and Elliott. There were limited cautions throughout the race, though several drivers had to race through the field due to penalties or slow pit stops. Even though Truex won without much competition in the end, there were still moments of doubt (Kyle Busch penalty, Hamlin’s late charge, etc.).

Hamlin led 197 laps, more than Keselowski last year, but it never felt like he was cruising to victory — and he obviously didn’t. That was as solid a Richmond race as you can ask for — the bar is pretty low based on recent races at the track — so I’ll take it over last year.

Playoff picture

Truex joined Hamlin as the second driver to clinch a spot in the Round of 12 after his win. Larson (+98) also clinched a Round of 12 berth during the race after accumulating 14 stage points and finishing sixth. That means there are nine spots remaining, with 13 drivers set to battle it out at Bristol.

Logano (+40), Blaney (+28) and Kevin Harvick (+25) have built solid cushions on the bubble, though their advancement is far from guaranteed at Bristol. Elliott (+19), Bell (+17) and Keselowski (+13) are bunched up closer to the bubble. Kyle Busch (+8) and Almirola (+3) hold positions 10 and 11, respectively. Kurt Busch and Bowman are tied for 12th, with Busch currently holding the tiebreaker. Tyler Reddick (-5) still has a chance on points, while Byron (-18) and Michael McDowell (-38) could be facing must-win situations.

Here’s a look at the full point standings along with where all the playoff drivers stand.

 

What’s next?

The Round of 16 concludes next week at Bristol Motor Speedway as four drivers will be eliminated from championship contention. Bristol is the second of three short tracks in the playoffs, with Martinsville still to come. The Bass Pro Shops Night Race will go green on Saturday, Sept. 18 at 7:30 p.m. ET with television coverage provided by NBC Sports Network.

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Echo

bubba must be starving. Michael Jordan doesn’t pay losers.

Mr Yeppers

well, he does own the Charlotte Hornets so…

DoninAjax

This example of Brian’s product was way more watchable than the dull and boring follow-the-leader parade F1 (real) race from Monza, wasn’t it. They are soooo predictable.

DocWatson

Can someone please explain why Hamlin wasn’t penalized for the loose tire the left his pit box during his last stop?!? It was plan as day and rolled 3 feet over the white line into the pit lane and there was no mention of it!

Bill B

It was pretty obvious early on that JGR was the team to beat.
Glad Truex won instead of Hamlin winning a 2nd race.

Another week with sloppy performances by several playoff contenders. Mistakes (or lack of mistakes) seem to be more important than speed. Geez guys, don’t try to over perform in these early rounds, just perform normally and you will be better off.

Looking forward to Bristol. As someone said during the post race show, I feel like it’s been a long time since I saw a race at Bristol because the spring race on dirt wasn’t technically a “Bristol race”.

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