Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: Will Chase Elliott Grab a Third-Straight Top 5 in Richmond?

Will Chase Elliott Grab a Third Straight Top 5 in Richmond?

Following back-to-back top 5s for Chase Elliott this season, the Sprint Cup Series rookie will look for a third this weekend at Richmond.

Will he do it? One thing he has going for him – unlike most tracks on the circuit – is past Sprint Cup experience. One year ago, Elliott made just his second series start, and it came on the 0.75-mile short track. That day, the then-19-year-old started and finished in the 16th spot, proving to be his best in both categories during his five starts of 2015.

Additionally, Elliott is a winner on the Virginia track, winning in the XFINITY Series just six months ago. He also finished second in his first two XFINITY starts there in 2014 along with another top 5 in spring of 2015.

With that in mind, Elliott seems to be a spot-on favorite to once again contend in the top 5 this weekend. Last week at Bristol he was as high as second before he lost ground to Carl “The Dominator” Edwards in the final 30 laps.

Atlanta was excellent, Las Vegas was strong until a late crash and Fontana stole a top 5 by the skin of his teeth at the line. Two weeks ago at Texas, it was about time Elliott brought his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet home where it belonged.

Since then, the momentum has seemed to speak for itself. By the look of things, he can do what Kyle Larson was surprisingly unable to do in his rookie season of 2015 – not just get a third straight top-5 finish, but win.

What Can We Expect in Cole Custer’s XFINITY Debut?

Cole Custer will make his XFINITY Series debut this weekend at Richmond driving the JR Motorsports No. 5 Chevrolet. The second-tier series will surely pack a punch for the 18-year-old youngster, who has 22 starts in the Camping World Truck Series.

(Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)
Though he’ll be in a familiar home with JR Motorsports, this weekend will be a whole new game for Cole Custer. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

However, for the first time since Daytona, the series will lack the appearance of Kyle Busch. Whether or not this will aid Custer is yet to be seen, however, you must believe it could open another position unless Matt Tifft can show strong speed, which he can easily do.

With no prior series experience to guide, everyone will look at his Truck stats to see what he is all about. Indeed, with two wins, 467 laps led and 10 top-10 finishes, Custer is a proven talent already. Though his first full-time season is off to a rocky start, Custer has been dubbed one of the championship favorites.

In terms of Richmond, however, his Truck experience does little since the series stopped running at the Virginia track in 2005. What I look at is his K&N Pro Series East time, when he grabbed victory here in 2014, leading more than half the race.

Like anybody else since 1949, Custer will need that building time adapting to a new series. Some new faces, new vehicles and a fairly new track are perfect ingredients for a tough weekend. Having teammates Elliott Sadler, Justin Allgaier and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. by his side, that alone will be crucial in his opening weekend.

Will Tire/Aero Changes Impact Clean Richmond on Sunday?

For a short track – heck, for any track – Richmond has been among the cleanest races of the past couple years.

An early spring date joins a fall race that ends the regular season, setting the Chase field of 16 drivers in the process. With two races like that, you’d think the on-track attrition would be through the roof. However, the last three Richmond races have been fairly tame opposed to the track’s history up till 2014. In those three races, the race winners all led nearly 300 laps or more toward their dominating wins while there was less than eight cautions in each race – including the fall race of 2014, with only four.

That same race saw the field switch to the outside lane on the long runs while Brad Keselowski led all but 17 laps and a hammered fan sat atop the turn 4 stands, stealing the headlines for the afternoon.

Though the lead changes were on par with Richmond (four, 12 and 13 in the last three races), there has seemed to be something missing on one of the most historic tracks in NASCAR. Could it be a new aero and tire package?

For the first time in Goodyear’s history, the company will use tire codes D-4674 on the left sides and D-4676 on the right sides for both Sprint Cup and XFINITY action this weekend. In efforts to put more rubber down on the track, it will naturally put more grip into the surface, likely leading to better passing.

(Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images)
Multiple grooves is what the drivers and fans want to see on Sunday. (Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images)

Unlike recent years, the race will be run on Sunday afternoon. Along with a slicker race track, the teams will now finally be able to practice and qualifying during the day for an actual day race. They appreciate that way more than any fan could.

Shockingly, the top nine in Sprint Cup points have all won at Richmond. That’s an incredible stat and one that can lead to a highly competitive afternoon. Mix that with the so-far successful aero package and the first planned day race this weekend and it could be a whole new Richmond on Sunday afternoon.

Is Penske or Ganassi the Favorite in Barber?

Well, we’re almost there. After this weekend, the Verizon IndyCar Series field will pack its best goodies into the state of Indiana for the month of May in Indy. But first, the series will compete for the seventh time at Barber Motorsports Park for round No. 4 of 2016.

Like many years before, Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing – much like Joe Gibbs Racing in NASCAR or Mercedes in Formula 1 – are the talk of the town. Through three races, Penske has two wins while Ganassi has one. Both teams have led an outstanding 422 of 440 laps this year while they lead the top four spots in the championship.

One week removed from a controversial steal of a win from Penske’s Simon Pagenaud in Long Beach, there could be some hot blood between these two mega-teams once again.

Per track history, this has been a Penske place, as it won the first three races here from 2010-2012. Since then, there’s been variation, with Ryan Hunter-Reay victorious in 2013 and ’14 while Josef Newgarden grabbed his first win one year ago.

With three straight wins for an American, could they be on a run themselves? That’s another topic for another time as Penske and Ganassi are the top dogs in the open wheel fight.

In terms of star power, I have been putting my money on Penske for the past couple years. Juan Pablo Montoya and Will Power are crazy fast while Helio Castroneves, though he hasn’t won since 2014, is a constant contender on the podium. Pagenaud has been the weakest link, but he has turned that around quick with three straight podiums to start this season.

With Scott Dixon on the Ganassi side, I believe he is the main threat to the Penske dominance. Charlie Kimball and Tony Kanaan still have to show a bit more to beef the team up enough to contend in Barber.

About the author


Growing up in Easton, Pa., Zach Catanzareti has grown his auto racing interest from fandom to professional. Joining Frontstretch in 2015, Zach enjoys nothing more than being at the track, having covered his first half-season of 18 races in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2017. With experience behind the wheel, behind the camera and in the media center, he thrives on being an all-around reporter.

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