Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud at Richmond: The Last NASCAR Playoff Spot Belongs to… Everyone?

What happened?

Kevin Harvick held off a hard-charging Christopher Bell and Chris Buescher in the closing laps of the NASCAR Cup Series race at Richmond Raceway to earn his second consecutive victory in 2022. Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott were the last two drivers to finish inside the top five of Sunday’s race (Aug. 14).

Harvick is the first driver to win back-to-back Cup races and seventh to have multiple wins this season.

How did it happen?

In typical fashion for The Closer, Harvick wasn’t in contention for the lead until within the final 70 laps of this 400-lap race.

It was a day that mostly saw only two cars in contention prior to Happy’s surge to the front. First, it was Ross Chastain that led the majority of stage one en route to winning the playoff point. Then, Joey Logano overtook the Melon Man shortly after the beginning of stage two and appeared to have the car to beat even after he won the second playoff point.

It wasn’t until lap 334 that Harvick’s car came to life enough for the Stewart-Haas Racing driver to take the lead. However, shortly after that began the usual pit strategy mayhem Richmond has come to see thanks to its easily-worn tires.

Hamlin, who won at the Virginian track in April, opted to pit nearly 10 laps after the rest of the field in order to have fresher Goodyears over the course of the final green flag runs. As a result, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver led 11 laps during the final flurry of pit stops.

However, in the end, it was still Harvick that cycled to the front. From there, he had to fend off two challenges. Buescher came first, who was slowly gaining on the No. 4 until he ran into lapped traffic.

Then, it was Bell, who pitted at the same time as Hamlin, had the freshest tires and was two laps away from taking the lead. Despite making some shifting mistakes over the final few straightaways, Harvick was still able to hold on until the end and win the 60th Cup race of his career.

Who stood out?

Don’t let the fact he already has two wins this year fool you. Before Sunday, Logano had not led over 200 laps in a single Cup race since Martinsville Speedway in April 2020.

The Connecticut native didn’t end up in victory lane, but for a majority of Sunday’s 400-lap main event, it was the No. 22 team’s race to lose. In fact, for 222 laps, Logano looked like he was on his way to a surprise third win this year.

See also
Up to Speed: Richmond NASCAR Speed is a Good Sign for Ford

Despite challenge after challenge from drivers like Kyle Larson and Hamlin, Logano was still able to outpace the field by wide margins during the first two stages. However, the track conditions changed in Harvick’s favor later on, leaving Logano fading to a sixth-place result.

Now, a win from Logano wasn’t going to shake up the fragile playoff standings. But a win from Buescher might have, and it got real darn close.

The driver of the No. 17 Ford was almost within bumping distance of the No. 4 of Harvick with less than 20 laps to go in the 400-lapper. Buescher, who pitted only one lap before Harvick on the final green flag pit stop cycle, ran down the SHR Ford and trimmed his two-second lead to merely three car lengths.

Unfortunately for the Texan, lapped traffic played a big factor in the No. 17’s momentum. The RFK Ford was unable to recover after using up his car trying to pass some slower drivers, settling for a respectable third-place finish.

Who fell flat?

Despite a strong start on Sunday afternoon that saw a stage one win, Chastain fell off entirely at the beginning of stage two and wasn’t heard from for the rest of the race.

Well, except for that one restart.

Chastain has been known over the years to be an aggressive racer. Some folks love that about him.

Others, however, do not. You now might as well add Kyle Busch to that list.

The incident ended Erik Jones‘ day while both Busch and Martin Truex Jr. both recovered to earn top-10 finishes. Chastain would wind up 18th.

No matter how you feel about the Melon Man, the last couple months have seen the Floridian become involved in multiple crashes that are often of his own doing. On Sunday, when he was involved with the wreck involving Busch and Truex, it only added to the list of possible enemies the driver of the No. 1 has made.

With the playoffs beginning in just three weeks, it may be a good idea for the Trackhouse Racing Team driver to start crossing some of these people off the enemies list – if that’s even possible.

Maybe he can at least start investing in some apology gift baskets? They can even have watermelon…

What did this race prove?

There are a large number of strong teams that still have not won a race this year, but because NBC wants to show Truex and Ryan Blaney every five minutes, that’s easy to forget.

On Sunday, though, Buescher reminded everyone how many of those drivers are still out there.

Buescher was so close to becoming the 16th different winner in 2022, completely filling the playoff field a whole two races before the end of the regular season. That’s been par for the course this year, hasn’t it?

There are still two races before the playoff begins, and with Truex and Blaney separated by 26 points, is there really a reason to be making them the biggest storyline, watching them battle for 15th on-track?

Keep in mind, one of those final races is likely the biggest wildcard race of the year with Daytona International Speedway, an event that has produced a first-time winner in three of the last four seasons.

Additionally, while Watkins Glen International may not be unpredictable, it still can provide a surprise first-time winner. After all, four of the five road course races run this year already have, while the fifth was a second-time winner.

On the other hand, yes, Truex and Blaney both drive for two of the best teams in the sport and usually win fairly often. Besides, what team not already inside the top 16 in points could possibly spoil their playoff fun?

Well, there’s Buescher, who almost won on Sunday and has also shown speed at road courses. There’s Michael McDowell, who is also good at road courses and has his only career win at Daytona. Bubba Wallace continued his best career Cup streak of races with a 13th-place finish on Sunday. Aric Almirola finished eighth, too.

So, maybe we shouldn’t be acting as if the battle for the last playoff spot is only between Truex and Blaney. After Richmond, it seems like the odds might be against them no matter who comes out on top in the standings.

Better than last time?

Sunday’s race at the Virginian short track wasn’t necessarily a barn burner, and even late charges by Bell and Buescher for the lead that didn’t pan out won’t make this race one for the history books.

However, that’s sort of been the case for short tracks in 2022, hasn’t it?

Regarding the last time the Cup Series visited Richmond, there wasn’t much variation in competition nor caution flags. In April, there were seven leaders and 14 lead changes. On Sunday, there were nine leaders and 16 lead changes.

But let’s be honest, a majority of those leaders and lead changes were only because of varying pit strategies, which seem to be the most interesting thing about Richmond’s racing product nowadays.

That’s not entirely a bad thing. After all, Hamlin’s heroic surge to the lead to win in April was fun to watch, and we almost got a repeat of that on Sunday with Bell. Plus, Sunday’s race provided an odd sight of cars actually using the top lane of the 3/4-mile circuit. That provided some fun side-by-side competition.

But having a leader lead 100 laps with an unabated two-second gap is frustrating to watch. Especially when you compare it to other tracks this year that have proven much more competitive, intermediates where aerodynamics ruined the racing before the Next Gen.

Despite that, we can say Richmond will always have a place in NASCAR – and it should. However, with a series schedule that is constantly moving, deleting, and adding track dates, the short track and its two events may be a venue NASCAR will look at down the road when considering adding new, similar facilities, which they most likely will do.

After all, one just reopened in North Wilkesboro.

See also
New Track President & Bubba Wallace Provide Spark for Richmond

Paint scheme of the race

The 23XI Racing team already dunked on the rest of the field with a Jumpman Brand-themed paint scheme back in Kansas Speedway, but nearly three months later in Richmond, they’ve done it again.

The Concord 11, shoe-inspired livery was a reminder of how branding a sponsorship on a car doesn’t have to include crazy designs of sharp lines and faded colors only to be bolstered by multiple brand stickers and decals, turning a scheme into a complicated mess. Sometimes, a simple color pattern can do the trick and still promote a sponsor.

Furthermore, in this case, the design of the paint scheme was the sponsor.

Even with a prestigious brand like Air Jordan on the car, there doesn’t need to be additional stickers and letters on Ty Gibbs‘ Toyota, even with the additional space given after NASCAR pushed the numbers forward in 2022. Instead, that space was simply there to reveal the design of the brand’s shoe alone. No marketing slogans or letter designs necessary.

Despite its simplicity, it still got the job done. Great look for this team.

What’s next?

NASCAR returns to the Finger Lakes.

The Cup Series travels to Watkins Glen International for its final road course race of the regular season. Cup qualifying begins on Saturday, Aug. 20 at 1:05 p.m. ET with the Go Bowling at The Glen televised live on USA Network on Sunday, Aug. 21 at 3 p.m. ET.

Follow @PitLaneLT

RACE WEEKEND CENTRAL: RICHMOND

About the author

Dalton Hopkins began writing for Frontstretch in April 2021 after a staff writing position with 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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DoninAjax

Is getting Chastained the same as getting Clijstered?

Charlie

The thing I really enjoyed about the race is NASCAR let the strategies play out without fabricating a silly caution flag. We need more of that and fewer late-race stoppages. This shows the crew chiefs’ crafts and makes it enjoyable. Of course, I like fuel-mileage races as well.

Bill B

I didn’t think the race was that great to watch but it was an honest race. Refreshing to see only 14 cars on the lead lap (at one point in the race). Not a lot of chances for wave-arounds to get everyone (that didn’t deserve to be on the lead lap) back on the lead lap.

Would have loved to see Buescher win just to mess up the playoff narrative. That would kill the predetermined Truex/Blaney playoff bubble story line and they’d have to talk about the race and not the playoffs.

Nice to see the “old guy” (even though I don’t like him) make everyone (including me) eat our words by winning back to back races. With the crapshoot nature of the playoffs who knows, he could back into a championship if SHR has finally figured out this new car.

As for Busch whining about being “Chastained”, I think everyone needs to back off a little. Sometimes chit happens and it’s just a racing deal and not the result of one driver doing something totally stupid. IMO, that was what yesterday’s deal was, a run of the mill racing deal.

Jeremy

Who thinks the 16th different winner will be Bubba, after NA$CAR gives him the less restrictive plate at Daytona?

DoninAjax

And then they find a way to change the made-up as they go “rules” to get Marty in to replace Kurt because of his “injury” and Little Gibbs gets to finish the season in the 45.

DoninAjax

Sometimes it rains in Florida during an event at Daytona.

Echo

Sometimes lol I hope someone takes bubba out the first lap at Daytona. I really do. Or the wheel comes off entering turn 1 on the first lap.

Dale EarnHog

I think you dropped your tinfoil hat.

Echo

Nascar is not above giving someone a huge advantage at Daytona, or anywhere. They even throw flags to make sure their guy wins. Get your bet in on bubba now for Daytona, better odds for you.

Dale EarnHog

Gotta love all the conspiracy theorists here that think whenever a driver they don’t like wins/runs good, it’s fixed.

Bill B

LOL… way to rile up the natives.

Jeremy

Can you imagine if Bubba drove for Hendrick? LOL

Last edited 1 month ago by Jeremy
DoninAjax

That could be another reason for the CHIEF to hate on Mr. H….or the opposite.

CHIEF

I think Mr. h. is great, he keeps all his golden boys and nascar bubbas’ riding around nice new complimentary cadillac’s !

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