Race Weekend Central

 

 

It took a bit of time before things really picked up at Richmond Raceway, with Chesterfield’s own Denny Hamlin chasing down William Byron for the NASCAR Cup Series win in the Toyota Owners 400, but pick up they did.

On the heels of two down-to-the-wire wins on Friday and Saturday with the Whelen Modified Tour and Xfinity Series, respectively, it happened again on Sunday afternoon, the sequel to 2021’s return to a day spring race at Richmond. NASCAR held day Cup races in April from 2015-17 after years of night events, followed by a return to similarly scheduled races stretching from dusk into nightfall.

Sure, Sunday’s race was generally uneventful in terms of incident: for a race where some thought the Next Gen’s short track debut might lead to beating and banging, some flared tempers and side-by-side racing, it was generally very calm and played out more in terms of strategy than flurries of cautions. The only interruptions in the opening stage were for Kurt Busch losing fuel pressure and the caution that ended the 70-lap sprint, but Ryan Blaney led every lap – and 58 more consecutive circuits – regardless.

Blaney’s domination faded as the afternoon wore on and the sun came closer to setting, followed by some Joe Gibbs Racing domination before William Byron took control. Byron led twice for 122 laps, able to afford to play the strategy card and gamble with a win already in the No. 24 team’s pocket.

Already locked into the playoffs and barring more than 16 winners in the 26-race regular season, drivers with victories like Byron, Austin Cindric, Chase Briscoe and Ross Chastain can make these gambles without too much fear. It nearly paid off for Byron, who managed to hold onto the lead until lap 395 of 400.

Watching the ticker within the last 50 laps brought forth something rarely seen in NASCAR, at least in terms of being successful: new tires allowing a driver or drivers to slice their way through a significant amount of lapped traffic and take the lead. That’s exactly what Hamlin and Kevin Harvick were doing, though it appeared they would run out of time; they didn’t and finished 1-2.

The late-race drama came on the heels of the weekend’s other two races with similar battles: Justin Bonsignore chased down Tommy Catalono for the Modified win on Friday, while Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Ty Gibbs and John Hunter Nemechek fought tooth and nail as the laps wound down Saturday afternoon. Gibbs used a bump and a door to scoot past Nemechek for the Xfinity Series win, his second of the year, and Hamlin made it a sweep of the weekend for the Toyota stable with the Sunday victory.

He is also the seventh different driver to win in the first seven races of the season, matching 2021’s opening streak, and half of the first six winners were first-timers. There’s a good chance that Daniel Suarez and Tyler Reddick could win and equal 2011’s run of first-time winners (Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith, David Ragan, Paul Menard and Marcos Ambrose) and even Harrison Burton or Todd Gilliland could win and make it six or seven in 2022.

With Hamlin’s win, though, it’s entirely possible JGR has finally found its stride. All four of the team’s Toyota drivers finished in the top 10 at a place they’re known for success at: Kyle Busch has six Cup wins in the Commonwealth and has finished outside the top 20 just once in 33 Cup efforts at Richmond; Truex has won three of the last six races at RR; Hamlin’s hometown track has been good to him in the past; and Christopher Bell won three Richmond races during his tenure in the Xfinity Series.

Busch’s pit crew, in fact, turned in a 9.19-second time during one pit stop, which is the fastest recorded four-tire effort in NASCAR history.

Gibbs as a whole is expected to perform well at a track that’s essentially their wheelhouse, probably even more so with the Toyota branding that adorns the Richmond facility, but heading to the Commonwealth the team had just eight top-10 efforts in 24 total results between the four cars; none of those belonged to Hamlin. Less than 36 hours after initial practice and qualifying, Hamlin now has JGR’s only win of the season.

It also helps that NASCAR as a whole is staying in Virginia for Martinsville this coming weekend and that’s a place Gibbs has performed well at, with Hamlin, Busch and Truex each having won at least twice at “The Paperclip.”

Let’s also not forget Team Penske’s Blaney, whose performances at Richmond were the butt of bad-luck jokes for years: it took the driver of the No. 12 a full 10 starts before claiming his first top 10 in the Commonwealth. That came after an 11th last spring, and to keep the improvement going he ended up seventh on Sunday afternoon. Blaney surged late in 2021 with wins at Daytona and Michigan after an Atlanta triumph earlier in the year, just missing out on the Championship 4.

The next month will also set the tone for the rest of the season. Beginning with last week and a visit to Circuit of the Americas, NASCAR knocks off a number of different track types between then and the end of April; a road course in COTA, the first regular short track in Richmond, a half-mile in Martinsville, a dirt race in Bristol and another superspeedway in Talladega.

Every road course is different, but COTA’s caution issues may have provided NASCAR with some ideas of how to handle yellow flags that eat up laps and double-digit minutes of broadcast time. The two Virginia short tracks will be previews to Richmond’s second race, which is held in the lead-up to the playoffs, and Martinsville’s fall race, a playoff cutoff event and held near Halloween for even more dramatic flair.

Bristol’s spring event is, of course, the only dirt race on the slate, but the tour’s late April visit eliminates a big question mark from the schedule and the following week at Talladega gives everyone another taste of how the Next Gen races at a superspeedway.

Richmond might have been uneventful, but it and its surrounding events provided us with a looking glass into how a chunk of the season might play out, provided Joe Gibbs Racing with an outlet to shine and proved that straget

About the author

adamcheek30
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Adam Cheek joined Frontstretch as a contributing writer in January 2019. A 2020 graduate of VCU, he works as a producer and talent for Audacy Richmond's radio stations. In addition to motorsports journalism, Adam also covered and broadcasted numerous VCU athletics for the campus newspaper and radio station during his four years there. He's been a racing fan since the age of three, inheriting the passion from his grandfather, who raced in amateur events up and down the East Coast in the 1950s.

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