Race Weekend Central

Four Burning Questions: Richmond – Can Tony Stewart Right The Ship?

“The perfect racetrack.” That’s the phrase that many in the NASCAR world utter when describing Richmond International Raceway, the site of Round 9 of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. This popular, 0.75-mile oval will be inheriting another load of racing drama this weekend, but for once, it’s not “Boys, Have At It.” Instead, the main focus on everyone’s minds will be “Boys, What’s The Call Now?” revolving closely around the onslaught of penalties NASCAR has dumped onto some of the biggest names in the sport.

One week after the pole-turned-win that now kind-of, sort-of counts Matt Kenseth will be looking to rebound from a 50-point penalty post-Kansas.

The latest victim of their penal justice system, Matt Kenseth, enters the weekend with deflated hopes and a de facto confiscated victory just six days removed from what seemed like a high point in the Wisconsonian’s career. That’s nothing compared to Joe Gibbs, long one of the sport’s most respected car owners who could spend the next six-plus weeks with a suspended license; or Toyota, who now has to face questions as to whether they’ve been “fudging” their engines. Add in the Penske penalties, still fresh in everyone’s psyche to boot and the question amongst NASCAR followers has to now be this one: who’s going to be the next victim? Could it be Jimmie Johnson, who enters the weekend with nearly a full race lead over second place in the Cup standings? That’s just one of many questions fans will silently ask themselves as we dive headfirst into a crucial stretch of the Sprint Cup Series season.

1. Could more teams face penalties in Richmond?

NASCAR once again dropped the proverbial penalty hammer this past Wednesday, and it just so happened that Matt Kenseth’s No. 20 team were the offenders en vogue for the week of April 21st. Citing weight issues in Kenseth’s race-winning engine from Kansas, NASCAR walloped the team with a slew of penalties. They range from a 50-point penalty for Kenseth, to a six-week suspension of the team’s crew chief, Jason Ratcliff that’s paired with a whopping $200,000 fine. These infractions came down only a week after NASCAR issued similarly weighty punishments upon the entire Penske Racing organization, albeit for entirely separate issues. We haven’t seen such a run of technical infractions in years, suggesting that NASCAR really does mean business when it comes to messing with their prized Gen-6 race cars.

It is now clear to everyone in the garage area that NASCAR is taking a hardline stance on operating in the gray area with any mechanical piece. That even goes for the boys back in the shop, as evidenced by the Kenseth penalties which, despite being a Toyota Racing Development issue, resulted in massive fines for largely innocent members of the No. 20 team. Insiders have suggested that NASCAR is inspecting cars more carefully than ever in an effort to keep teams from finding “tricks,” such as the rear-end skew setups of the 2012 season that give certain teams a competitive advantage. As such, if someone is operating in the gray area, NASCAR will find it, now more so than ever.

It’s notable that the last three teams to receive penalties (JGR, Penske, and MWR) all received their infractions after patterns of dominant on-track performances. So if some team darts to the front at Richmond, winning by a large margin watch out – they will likely be subject to intense scrutiny, courtesy NASCAR’s nitpicky officials. Expect a thorough post-race examination of the winner, regardless of affiliation and after this week, it’ll be hard to trust they’re penalty-free until days later. One has to imagine the No. 48 team, what with their massive point lead and all, will also be under the microscope for inspection as much as they have been all season.

For better or worse, NASCAR is on a crusade against “cheaters” right now, and there is no telling who or what could be next in their path.

2. Will we see the beating and banging this weekend that we saw in Bristol?

Richmond is a curious little racetrack. Depending on a variety of circumstances, races here can be complete wreckfests or quick, clean, and green. Juxtapose the 2010 and ’11 Fall races at Richmond; you can easily see what I’m talking about. That 2010 Fall event saw only three cautions, seemingly unheard of for a track this size. Only one year later, the field went berserk, causing 15 yellows and providing us with the memorable Jimmie Johnson / Kurt Busch fiasco. The 2012 races went back towards tame, combining for just a modest 11 cautions over two events. However, from 2007-‘09, every race (six total) run at Richmond had at least ten yellow flags, showing the track can, in fact have just as much bite as Bristol and Martinsville.

What do those numbers tell us about 2013? The answer comes by digging deeper, discovering how these cautions unfold. Well, for one thing, it is difficult to predict how many yellows will be from “naturally occurring accidents.” By “naturally occurring accidents,” I mean those which result from drivers simply losing control of their car due to a difficult to maneuver track surface. We usually see this phenomenon at Richmond when the track either heats up a lot, causing the exits of the corners to get slick, or when the tires wear substantially and experience blowouts. These two things don’t happen often, however, thus meaning a third cause of cautions will be the biggest one to watch for: Payback.

Jimmie Johnson knows all too well the dangers of “payback” cautions at Richmond. Kurt Busch, the perpetrator has already gotten away…

That’s right; a common thread among the Richmond events, with a high number of cautions is a trend of early race mishaps between feuding drivers creates a “cautions breed cautions” scenario. What will happen is that two guys will wreck each other early in the race, causing the field to bunch up for a restart, which leads to a separate accident. That leads to another restart, then two more drivers start feuding, and the vicious cycle continues. Since Richmond is generally wide enough to avoid excess beating and banging after a few laps of green-flag competition, option three is the primary way wreckfests happen. Given that we already have a few driver feuds simmering under the surface, it’s safe to say we could head in this direction Saturday night.

3. Can Tony Stewart jumpstart his season at one of his best racetracks?

Stewart-Haas Racing’s struggles in 2013 have been well-documented. All three of the outfit’s teams have been markedly off the pace all season long, with their greatest struggles coming at engineering-oriented tracks such as Texas and Kansas. Most head scratching of all in the team’s problems have been those in the No. 14 camp. Boasting a driver and team that are only a year and a half removed from a Sprint Cup championship, they are not used to running in the back. Notoriously a slow starter, Stewart winless through April is nothing new but 21st in points, eight races in is the worst early season performance of his career.

TONY GIBSON: SHR Is Struggling Right Now

Enter Richmond International Raceway, one of Mr. Stewart’s best tracks. Although he hasn’t won here since 2002, Smoke has the highest average finish (5.76) of anyone in the past four events at this oval. If there were ever a place where Stewart could get the ship righted, once more it would be here.

But for as bad as this driver has performed all year long, is there truly reason to believe that he will “snap out of it” this weekend? You bet there is. Richmond is a driver’s track, meaning that the setup tricks and engineering advantages that are necessary for intermediate success (both things that SHR has been lacking in as of late) are not nearly as important down in Virginia.

So can the driver/owner, one of the best in pure talent put the whole organization on his back when they need him the most? We’re about to find out. If Stewart can’t perform on a weekend like this one, when his driving ability ought to shine through more than any other, it could be a rather telling indictment on how the rest of the season will unfold for this SHR bunch.

4. Can Jamie McMurray continue to perform?

Lost amidst much of the drama and storylines that have rained down upon the Sprint Cup Series as of late has been the resurgence of Jamie McMurray. Once every three years or so, McMurray seemingly comes out of nowhere and quietly puts together a solid season. We saw it in 2010, we saw it in 2007 (albeit to a lesser degree) and it appears to be happening again in 2013. Driving for a team that has fallen from grace, barely relevant at the Sprint Cup level, McMurray has been consistently performing, week in and week out. Quietly, he’s climbed to 10th in points on the strength of three top-10 finishes, including a solid seventh-place result last Sunday at Kansas. So is McMurray “back,” after all or is he teasing us with B-level performances like he has for most of his career?

The jury is out on that last bit for now, but given that McMurray is now firmly in Chase contention, a different set of expectations will be placed upon him, and his team, starting this weekend in Richmond. This track has never exactly been one of McMurray’s stronger ones – just three top 10s and a 23rd-place average finish in 20 starts – but this driver has demonstrated in the past that when he gets hot, that makes him a threat just about anywhere. Remember back in 2010, when McMurray came out of nowhere to run second at Darlington? That could happen this weekend, as it appears this Earnhardt Ganassi Racing veteran is getting ready to embark on one of his now-famous streaks.

So if you’re looking for a dark horse, the No. 1 team will be one to keep an eye on this weekend. Another top-10 finish would go a long way in validating the team as a true Chase contender for the rest of 2013.

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