Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2022 Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway

What happened?

Denny Hamlin passed William Byron with five laps to go to earn Toyota’s first NASCAR Cup Series victory of 2022 at Hamlin’s home track, Richmond Raceway. Kevin Harvick also passed Byron to finish second while the driver of the No. 24 ended his afternoon third. Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson completed the top-five finishers.

It’s the first time a driver over the age of 30 has won in Cup since Hamlin’s last win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Sept. 2021.

How did it happen?

With time, tires and a whole lot of traffic.

Since the stage racing format began in 2017, Richmond has been home to the one-or-two-stop pit strategy call. Much like something we have seen at Darlington Raceway, Richmond’s surface tends to wear out tires over a long green flag run much faster than other racing surfaces.

Thus, tires are far more valuable at Richmond. In fact, it’s even more valuable than fuel. Shredding rubber then gives teams the gambling option of pitting one time over the final green flag run if they choose to do so.

With one stop, teams can optimize track position and are able to lose less time on pit road. However, with two stops, drivers can get the most out of their tires. If you’re a fan of Formula One or open-wheel racing, it’s a gamble that probably sounds very familiar.

So, with less than 100 laps to go, the leaders began to pit. Byron, who led over a quarter of the race by the end of the day, came early with the intent of completing a two-stop strategy. Truex, who was following close behind the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, decided to wait before he came to get fresh tires.

Truex finally did around 15 laps later and rejoined the racetrack over 14 seconds behind the race-leading Byron. But with fresher tires, Truex cut away at the lead of the 24-year-old over the course of nearly 60 laps.

The gap closed significantly, then trailed off to where Byron was in position to outrun Truex on the tires he already had. Coming to that realization, crew chief Rudy Fugle decided to keep his No. 24 car out rather than taking a planned second stop.

See also
William Byron, Rudy Fugle Finish 3rd After Gamble Nearly Pays Off

With the Joe Gibbs Racing veteran slowly reeling in Byron, all eyes were on those two drivers as it seemed the duo were going to be the ones to watch for the race win.

That’s very likely why nobody noticed when Hamlin came in for a second pit stop with 46 laps to go.

With 36 laps remaining, Hamlin was still a lap down behind the lead cars. It meant the hometown hero was going to have to unlap himself, navigate through the entire field of lapped traffic, and then catch the leaders again if he wanted a shot at winning.

But remember, tires matter at Richmond. Especially when they’re over 40 laps fresher.

With 10 laps to go, suddenly Hamlin had closed to within a straightaway of Byron.

With five laps to go, the lead was his.

Hamlin then had to hold off fellow veteran Harvick, who pitted near the same time he had, for only four laps on the way to his first win of 2022.

Who stood out?

It has not been an easy start to the Next Gen era for Joe Gibbs Racing. Before Sunday (April 3), Christopher Bell and Kyle Busch were the only ones among JGR’s four drivers to earn a top-five result in 2022. Hamlin hadn’t even finished with a top 10 through any of the season’s first six races.

The word “panic” is something that is thrown around often when we see a team such as JGR struggling at the beginning of the season. While Toyota’s top outfit has had rough starts before, the Next Gen car has provided many unknowns teams could take months to navigate through.

People were wondering if perhaps JGR’s Cup program was really starting to falter this time. Richmond, which has been a historically great track for Toyota, was going to be a test to prove just how far the team had fallen.

Instead, after Sunday’s race, JGR and its fans can breathe a sigh of relief. In a race that earned the organization’s 18th win at Richmond, all four JGR Toyotas finished inside the top 10, easily their best result so far as they attempt a turnaround to their sluggish 2022 start.

What’s even better, they seemingly did it with not only strategy, but speed. While Hamlin only led five laps, including the most important one, his teammates were perhaps even faster throughout the day.

Truex, who finished fourth, led 80 laps in the 400-lap event and even won stage two. Bell led a season-high 63 laps on his way to a sixth-place result. Busch, despite serving a penalty for illegal tape on the front grille of his No. 18 Toyota, recovered to wind up ninth. He hovered around the top five for most of the day and finished top 10 (fifth and eighth) in the first two stages.

Who fell flat?

It’s amazing how much things can change in one week.

After five consecutive top-five results and their first win at Circuit of the Americas, both Trackhouse Racing Team cars finished outside the top 15 for the first time since February’s Daytona 500.

Ross Chastain, who was still riding off the emotion of his first win a week ago, placed third in both stages, proving to be a contender lurking in the top five as he had done for most of the season. Meanwhile, Daniel Suarez played the strategy game. With around 90 laps to go, he was running in the top 10 right in front of his teammate.

With 35 laps to go, both drivers remained inside the top 10.

But by the final laps of the race, both cars were well outside of contention after being passed by several oncoming faster late-pitting drivers and their fresh tires. Suarez finished 16th, with Chastain in 19th, erasing some of the momentum from COTA’s exciting weekend.

If you’re a fan of the new team, don’t be too discouraged after Sunday’s race despite the lackluster results. Both Suarez and Chastain still showed plenty of speed throughout the event. But speed is only half the battle – or at least it is at Richmond.

While both cars are fast, Trackhouse appears to still be working on perfecting their strategy calls.

See also
The Underdog House: Daniel Suarez Leads Quiet Day for Richmond NASCAR Dark Horses

What did this race prove?

Everyone in the industry is still getting used to the Next Gen car and the new rules NASCAR has implemented with it. That includes the sanctioning body itself, apparently.

Around lap 150 in the 400-lap race, Busch came down pit road for a routine four-tire change. The crew did its usual choreographed dance around the No. 18 Toyota, placing a piece of tape on the grille. It’s an adjustment that has been done in the past to increase straightaway speed with the cost of running hotter water temps. The tape placement went as routine as everything else.

However, beginning in 2022 with the Next Gen car, placing tape on the grille is illegal.

With 50 laps to go – a whole 200 laps after the tape was placed – NASCAR finally noticed the small sliver of bright-colored plastic. Busch was penalized and forced to come to pit road as a result.

The No. 18 team claims the tape was meant to go over the brake duct area instead, a misunderstanding that proves these teams are still getting used to the new rules that surround the Next Gen car.

It was likely a race that was not going to end with a win for Busch, although a top five seemed to certainly be in the cards. A ninth-place finish was a decent recovery but crew chief Ben Beshore remained upset, pairing up with his car owner to complain about the awkward timing of NASCAR’s call.

Paint scheme of the race

It’s pretty rare that you see two different cars use the exact same paint scheme in the same race in NASCAR – and for good reason.

The Nos. 6 and 17 of Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing may have been a headache for their spotters this week, but at least the team brought another lovely-looking wrap on their Fords again in 2022.

The appropriately-colored Violet Defense Ford Mustangs of Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher showed another excellent livery design for the RFK race team. It’s not very often purple is used as a primary color on a Cup car; it’s even more rare to see it done simultaneously with the same design.

Better than last time?

Richmond is still Richmond.

For the last six weeks, we have entered each race with a question about how the new car would perform on various racetracks. For most, we have been introduced to the new car with positive results. While questions are still being answered, the new car appears to work well on road courses, excellent on superspeedways, and it’s a vast improvement over the dreadful 550 horsepower package previously used at 1.5-mile ovals.

But do they work on short tracks? Well, while the Los Angeles Coliseum Clash may have answered a little bit, it was still hard to tell how the new car would work in points-paying events on the bigger short tracks with a full field.

Richmond seemed to be the first test. Did it work out?

Kind of.

Much like Phoenix Raceway, Richmond appeared to offer a similar type of racing we’ve seen there over the past several years. In terms of competition, Sunday’s race actually saw fewer lead changes than last September, where there were 21 lead changes versus Sunday’s 13.

However, there were only eight different leaders in September. There were nine on Sunday while the potential race winner remained in question until the last few laps of the event.

See also
Up to Speed: Richmond Raceway Gets its Groove Back in 2022

So, varying strategies will certainly make things interesting toward the end of the race. Having a pass for the lead with five laps to go certainly will make some look at Sunday’s 400-miler more favorably.

All in all, however, Richmond’s race seemed to be only marginally better compared to what we have seen there in previous years. For a track that has been rumored to be at risk of losing one of its two race dates, just “good” might not be good enough.

What’s next?

The Cup Series goes continues its Virginia short track streak as it heads to the paperclip-shaped Martinsville Speedway.

Cup practice begins on Friday, April 8 at 4:30 p.m. ET and will be followed by qualifying at 5:05 p.m. ET with TV coverage provided by FOX Sports 1. The Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 400 will follow on Saturday night, April 9 at 7:30 p.m. ET on FS1.

RACE WEEKEND CENTRAL: RICHMOND

About the author

Dalton Hopkins began writing for Frontstretch in April 2021 after writing for IMSA. A race fan since he was three years old, he began freelance writing in 2018 and graduated with a B.S. in Communications from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2019. Simultaneously, he also serves as a First Lieutenant in the US Army.

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Carl D.

The race was more interesting than exciting. There were patches of side-by-side racing, but there were long patches of “meh” as well. Not terrible, but not memorable.

While I really like the RFK cars’ paint jobs, it’s too much of a good thing. I can’t tell them apart on the track if my tired old eyes can’t make out which number is on the car.

janice

i swear i must watch a different race. i just saw lots of follow the leader racing. i think around 5 pm i was saying “it’s not over yet”?! last 70 laps came down to pit strategy. truex gambled and stayed out. i know one time i looked up at the tv and i saw them trying 4 wide at richmond. was surprised that didn’t end in someone being wrecked.

so hamlin can stop lamenting now, he won. toyota won.

i was kind of surprised at the empty stands. i know gas and everything costs more, but i thought it would had been closer to a sell out. be interesting to see martinsville next weekend.

Bill B

During stage two, Truex made 2 stops and Hamlin made 1, with Truex prevailing by the end. During stage three, Hamlin makes 2 stops and Truex makes 1, with pretty much the same results. WTF?
The only way the #19 team’s call works is if there is a caution with under 20 laps, in which case they all would have probably come in for tires with Truex leading Hamlin by several positions (and of course Byron leading Truex, assuming they held there positions through the pit stop). So the 19 threw away almost a sure thing gambling there would be a late caution. Not a bad gamble most races but they still crapped out.

Otherwise, the race was OK by Richmond standards. The tire wear factor always creates some drama even if it isn’t the type of drama most fans tune in for.

I am getting tired of the races not ending until 7PM on Sunday night. It really takes some of the enjoyment out of it for me. If they would just drop the green flag by 3PM it would be bearable. Looking forward to a Saturday night race.

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