Race Weekend Central

No Contact Zone

Let me set the stage for you. It’s NASCAR’s final regular season race, the eve of its much-hyped Chase format and for several drivers, the mission is simple: “Win or you miss the playoffs, along with the millions in endorsements and exposure that comes with it.” The pressure to perform, in theory should be immense, like an NFL team with a “do or die” playoff bid on the line. Among those needing a Herculean effort to make the field included three of the sport’s biggest stories: the tragedy of Tony Stewart, the youth of Kyle Larson and the Spingate anniversary moment of Clint Bowyer. Surely, there would be fireworks on a Saturday night short track, right? Drivers would let it all hang loose with nothing to lose?

2014 Richmond II CUP Tony Stewart racing CIA

For half the evening, at what’s supposed to be NASCAR’s most competitive oval you couldn’t tell if it was Richmond or a rolling traffic circle in a lazy small town. Cars were giving each other so much room to race, it was like all drivers got thrown in jail for speeding, sent to court and issued a restraining order. Richmond produced four cautions, just one accident (Matt Kenseth) and the most interesting moment to keep everyone awake was a drunk guy, climbing up a pole that television refused to even show. What’s supposed to be one of the top 5 races on the circuit, guaranteed turned into a great way for many NASCAR fans to shout “boring”… on one of the most important nights of the season, no less.

“Tonight could have gone so many different ways for so many different individuals with ‘win and you’re in,’” said Kurt Busch. “So I knew there would be some chaotic moves. But it all seemed like it was a pretty normal race.”

By normal, he means “napworthy.” Honestly, even those comments put too positive a spin on what I’d term the anti-Spingate. Not a single major battle occurred at a short track where contact is supposed to be the rule, not the exception. There were no desperate strategy calls, on top of the pit box in order to try and earn a Chase bid. Instead, while Brad Keselowski’s car was dominant, it seemed for much of the night many of the drivers with “locked in” playoff bids wound up sleepwalking through top-10, in some cases top-15 performances.

What’s happened to Richmond, once NASCAR’s raciest track that let all the air out of the balloon? Two theories, and neither one of them look good for the sport.

Up first, we can thank the world of science and Sir Isaac Newton: For every reaction, there is an equal and opposite reaction. On the year anniversary of Spingate, which led to a comedy of errors, team order revelations and a 13th car in the Chase, all antennae were up as to every bubble car’s behavior on-track. Every spin was going to be scrutinized, every bump written about as reporters, other teams, and NASCAR officials were looking for some version of history to repeat. Michael Waltrip Racing, with its two cars on the fringe, would be looked at closest of all, leaving Bowyer and Brian Vickers in the awkward position of tiptoeing on a night when aggression was their one and only option.

The best way not to be accused of bad behavior is to play it extra safe, right?  That appeared to be the modus operandi, across the board as every agenda came paired with a conservative style of competition. The Chasers on the bubble tried to race in on points, not through wins; those inside the playoffs just tried to keep their car in one piece; and finally, those already eliminated chose not to risk tearing up equipment. It was one big, long list of drivers whose endgoal was to finish, not fight their competition while racing through it. That’s a notable difference.

There’s also a change in the race cars, now sleek engineered-style machines that bring aerodynamics into play on a short track that wants to be an intermediate. Which brings me to my second point, the dreaded “aero push” and loss of speed that comes from a crumpled right front fender. When’s the last time you saw a car with a beat-up hood, side, heck any type of sheet metal damage win at Richmond? Keeping your nose clean has become just as important at a three-quarter mile oval as the “cookie-cutter” intermediates like Chicagoland. What people should expect at Richmond and what they actually get in return are two wildly different endings.

Keselowski’s dominance didn’t help matters much, his raw speed resulting in 383 of 400 laps led, along with four lead changes (the lowest in the Cup Series all season.) Clearly, the No. 2 team was on a mission to prove itself, heading into the playoffs and made their emphatic statement.

It just seemed like everyone else was sleepwalking, in one of the most important races NASCAR is supposed to have all season. And when you have to say, “Richmond needs to right the ship,” well, hopefully someone who’s really important, in a position to adjust the rules package for 2015 can recognize there’s a problem.

About the author

The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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Bill B

I’m not sure what you think guys should have done differently. I agree with your aero observations but I didn’t see anyone laying back either. The lack of cautions meant that there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to take a chance or make a move. Specifically, what did you see someone do (or not do) that you feel could have been different. Did someone like Bowyer or McMurray have the chance to put the bumper to someone and move them out of the way for the win and didn’t do it? Should Larson have put Biffle in the wall when he had the chance?

To me this was just proof that you can’t manufacture an exciting sporting event. I suppose NASCAR could have thrown more fake debris cautions to keep bunching up the field but that’s the only lost opportunity I saw.

Tim S.

Had Gordon not qualified for the Chase, and needed a win, I’m sure your opinion would be different, Bill. Just like I’m sure that if my favorite had raced his way in with a performance like that, I wouldn’t think it was nearly as dull.


Really, we are all like that. Being objective sort of takes the fun out of fandom. Since none of it matters I don’t see the harm in a little self delusion for entertainments sake.

Bill B

I’m confused. Are you saying that I wouldn’t have found the race dull if Gordon had led every lap? If so, you are correct but I wasn’t addressing whether Saturday night’s race was boring or not in my comment above. I was asking Tom what he expected the guys that weren’t in the chase to do differently. You can’t make a 10 place car a winner by wrecking everyone in front of you.


well I’m like Bill B, always happier when Gordon wins. He ran 2nd to Kez all night and that was pretty darn good, but the race was still a bore based on the no passing and other issues. Hey I’m all for a clean race but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be more interesting than what was going on at RIR on Saturday night.


I read that Nascar told the drivers to keep it clean. So there you go.


I am blaming the “new tire” on this snoozefest, but given the crap of last year (and I am leaning towards Nascars crap) what team would want to deal or bother???


It was a dull race, due to both the aero dependence issues and the tire that Goodyear brough, along with Kez having a dominant car (which is fine – he won fair & square). Gordon also had a pretty good car although he certainly wasn’t happy with it. I fully expected to be able to just enjoy the race since Gordon was locked in so I didn’t have to stress but wow, there wasn’t much racing to watch or enjoy. Most of the field lapped, the rest of them running in place and no chance to do much passing. Tom, I don’t agree that these are sleek machines – they still look pretty ugly to me.

NASCAR needs better engineers to deal with the aero dependence problem – that is totally a NASCAR issue and Goodyear needs to bring tires that actually wear out – and that is part of NASCAR’s problem, too.

I used to really like Richmond (before the chase, before the COT) but now there’s really no reason for me to buy a ticket & drive there to see the race. I was surprised I stayed awake for the end, but I was glad to turn off the tv and go to bed instead of having to be stuck in the parking lot for 4 hrs waiting to go home AFTER wasting 3 plus hours of my time.

It’s bad when the drunk on the fence photos (from twitter) and Johnson’s fainting after the race were the big items of excitement.


After 23 years of not missing a race at RIR, I have decided to give up my tickets. The racing there has become boring. There is more entertainment on the highways around Richmond than on the racetrack. The cars carry to much speed through the corners, the tires do not wear, and the progressive banking without yearly coats of sealant have made this this track not worth the money. It breaks my heart to see a track that I literally grew up at and loved turned into the snooze-fest that it has become.


I had to go back and watch the end of the 1998 Richmond fall race with the duel between Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon to get the bad taste out of my mouth for what we were subjected to Saturday night.

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