1. Joe Gibbs Racing hitting its stride, Hendrick faltering?
At one point, Joe Gibbs Racing ran 1-2-3-4 on Saturday night at Richmond. Hendrick Motorsports, while close behind, didn’t seem poised to challenge the Toyotas up front. Sure, Chase Elliott led some laps and Kyle Larson came from the rear to the top five in no time, but Alex Bowman was a non-factor after winning in the spring and William Byron was “terrible,” in his own words.
It’s only two races into the playoffs and potentially too early for overreactions, but the numbers don’t lie. Denny Hamlin opened the postseason with a win at Darlington, Martin Truex Jr. backed that up with another Richmond win, and with Christopher Bell (+17) and Kyle Busch (+8) above the cutline with one race to go in the round, JGR is sitting pretty.
Bowman (-0, loses tiebreaker with Tyler Reddick) and Byron (-18) are in precarious positions heading to Bristol, though. The former joked that the guy he’s tied with, Kurt Busch, hasn’t had much success at Bristol (he has), and Bowman has two top 10 finishes in 11 races.
The younger Busch brother has also had his fair share of success at BMS, winning eight times. Bell finished third at Richmond and has yet to run on the “regular” Bristol track in JGR equipment. The 750-horsepower tracks have seemed to favor JGR, hence them being 2-for-2 this round, while 550 tracks have favored more HMS cars this season.
But only two races have come and gone with seven more to go before the championship in Phoenix. Lots more can and will be decided. But so far, it appears JGR has taken a major step forward in challenging Hendrick for the title and moniker of “best team in NASCAR” at the moment.
2. Richmond’s lack of action
For a place nicknamed “The Action Track,” Richmond sure hasn’t lived up to its name lately.
The number of natural cautions have drastically decreased over the last few years, with stage breaks and competition cautions making up most of the stoppages. There were no multi-car incidents on Saturday night, either, with Kurt Busch and Bubba Wallace‘s single-car incidents bringing out the only non-planned yellow flags.
The character of the races @RIR changed a lot over the years. Look at how the number of cautions has gone down over the years. The hatched areas are stage ends and competition cautions. #BuildingSpeed pic.twitter.com/axDyYvvfhD
— Diandra (@drdiandra) September 13, 2021
I can’t recall how great the racing was “back in the day” when the sealer was on the track, but I do recall the drama and intrigue of Richmond being the final race before the playoffs. The image that sticks in my head is Jeremy Mayfield jumping into his team’s arms after winning in 2004 to vault himself into the first ever Chase for the Cup.
It feels like that’s a long way away now. According to Jeff Gluck’s “Was It A Good Race?” poll, five of the last seven races in the commonwealth have gotten under a 60% stamp of approval, including this past weekend’s event. That poll isn’t the end all, be all, but neither are the “this racing was fine 30 years ago” crowd clamoring that long green flag runs are a part of racing and beauty is found in the struggle.
The truth, as it always does, lies somewhere in the middle. For whatever reason, Richmond isn’t the same as it once was. And neither are expectations and attention spans.
3. Noah Gragson getting hot at the right time
For the last 49 races, Noah Gragson hadn’t visited victory lane. And in the last two, he’s done that. Nobody is hotter than the JR Motorsports driver in the Xfinity Series at the moment, and it comes at a great time with one race before the playoffs.
Plus, the series heads to Bristol this weekend, where Gragson won last season, as the final race before the playoffs begin. Only Austin Cindric (5) and AJ Allmendinger (3) have more victories than Gragson at this point in the season, and if driver No. 9 can keep running up front, more playoff points are sure to follow.
Gragson, who is one of the more polarizing drivers in the sport, also seems to have gained a new perspective that has bled on and off track. Picking and choosing battles can go a long way with your competitors, especially when you may need to take more than you can give racing for a championship.
By no means am I saying Gragson is the title favorite, as Allmendinger and Cindric have a firm stranglehold on that honor, but with how he’s running, I wouldn’t put him too far behind the No.’s 16 and 22.
4. The Dale Earnhardt Jr. effect
Each year, we’re reminded for one weekend of how much fans really love them some Dale Jr. This weekend was that time, as he strapped back behind the wheel of his No. 8 JR Motorsports Chevrolet in the Xfinity Series at Richmond Raceway.
I was standing by his car as he climbed in, and let’s just say Junior Nation was out in full force.
This couple yelled towards @DaleJr. He yelled back “congratulations!”
— Davey Segal (@DaveyCenter) September 11, 2021
Part of it may be COVID related, part of it may be the sheer number of fans he has, but even for the Xfinity race, where the stands were maybe half full, the noise was unmistakable. I found myself thinking “wow, Dale Jr. must be racing today!” and then looked at the big screen to see him walking out during driver intros to cheers that reverberated throughout the venue.
Even during the race, fans drowned out the cars whenever Junior made a bold move. Heck, I heard a collective “awwww” when his speeding penalty was posted late in the race.
It’s hard to remember, at least for me, what the “peak” was like in the mid/late 2000s: packed grandstands, booming sponsorship and television numbers, and a sea of red for Junior Nation. It wasn’t quite what it once was, but Saturday at Richmond was an annual reminder that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is still as beloved as he was in his full-time driving days.
5. Formula 1/NASCAR crossover
With Daniel Ricciardo‘s victory in Monza, McLaren CEO Zak Brown is about to pay up.
— Zak Brown (@ZBrownCEO) September 11, 2021
Ricciardo, a noted NASCAR fan, will get to drive this beautiful Dale Earnhardt No. 3 car thanks to his win, seeing that Brown told his driver if he scored a podium finish, he could take it for a spin.
Today’s F1 winner @danielricciardo w/ NASCAR superstars @chaseelliott and @DaleJr years ago! Big day in Italy for Ricciardo – 1st win since 2018! #MonzaGP #McLaren Ricciardo huge Dale Earnhardt fan and podium means he gets to drive late champ’s ‘84 Cup car – per bet w his boss. pic.twitter.com/7nPfMhAnct
— Holly Cain (@_HollyCain) September 12, 2021
Not that it’s an easy thing to do, but how cool would it be to see Ricciardo race in NASCAR? I’m not saying he needs to run for JGR or Hendrick in Cup, but even a Truck or Xfinity start would be pretty cool, wouldn’t it? Not all F1 and NASCAR crossovers have gone well (see also: Kimi Raikkonen), but it would seemingly be a win-win for all parties involved.
Ricciardo is an international motorsports icon who has repeatedly transcended the world of racing. Why not come over stateside for a joy ride? No real expectations of winning, but something that would be beneficial for both sanctioning bodies and fans alike.
About the author
Davey is in his fifth season with Frontstretch and currently serves as a multimedia editor and reporter. He authors the "NASCAR Mailbox" column, spearheads the site's video content and hosts the Frontstretch Podcast weekly. He's covered the K&N Pro Series and ARCA extensively for NASCAR.com and currently serves as an associate producer for SiriusXM NASCAR Radio and production assistant for NBC Sports Washington. Follow him on Twitter @DaveyCenter.
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