Who… should you be talking about after the race?
It took nearly six months for the NASCAR Cup Series to see a driver go back-to-back, but Kevin Harvick showed that old age and treachery still have an edge, holding off a hard-charging Christopher Bell to win the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway. It was Harvick’s fourth win at the Virginia short track but his first since moving to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.
If Harvick won a week ago at Michigan International Speedway on strategy and opportunity, he won Sunday (Aug. 14) on raw speed. Harvick hunted down then-leader Joey Logano with 66 laps to go and then, after giving the lead up to Denny Hamlin briefly, took it back for the final 48 laps of the race.
Suddenly Harvick, who hadn’t made a lot of noise since a nine-win season in 2020, has a ton of momentum with just two weeks left until the playoffs begin. Last week, he was a sentimental favorite, a last-minute addition to a crowded field. Now, he’s suddenly emerging from the shadows as a possible title threat.
And don’t forget Chris Buescher. He had one of the fastest cars in the late going and got to within half a second of Harvick as the laps wound down. Buescher used up his car trying to take the lead (nothing wrong with that!) and finished a promising third. He’s been the stronger of the RFK Racing drivers this year and is starting to show the promise co-owner Brad Keselowski saw in him.
Looking ahead, Buescher has finished in the top 10 on the last three road courses. Could he be gearing up to crash the playoff party next weekend?
What… is the buzz about?
Silly Season is well underway. Most recently, Bubba Wallace re-upped with 23XI Racing in a multi-year deal while Daniel Suarez hinted he’s close to the same at Trackhouse Racing Team. Noah Gragson locked up the No. 42 at Petty GMS Motorsports earlier in the week, following the re-signing of new teammate Erik Jones in the No. 43 a couple of weeks ago.
So who’s still up in the air? Number one on the list is still Kyle Busch, who remains unsigned for 2023 and beyond. Toyota recently indicated that “nothing is off the table” in its efforts to keep Busch in the fold, but Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing don’t seem much closer to an agreement.
The other big question mark is the No. 10 ride at Stewart-Haas Racing, being vacated by Aric Almirola after this season. While Almirola is reconsidering his impending retirement, the veteran still seems ready to step aside. Is that the most logical stop for Busch? Or might it be SHR’s No. 41 car, which has struggled with Cole Custer in the driver’s seat?
Most other teams have their 2023 ducks in a row at this point, but these big questions still loom over the sport.
Where… did the other key players wind up?
Pole winner Kyle Larson found speed on Saturday but never quite had enough on Sunday. After leading the first few laps, Larson got worse as the race wore on. In the final stage, he faded to 14th, one lap down, and was never in contention for the win down the stretch. Larson’s one driver who hasn’t appeared to adapt to the Next Gen car as quickly as the competition, and his 2022 results pale in comparison to a dominant 2021.
Spring Richmond winner Hamlin was hoping to take his third win of the year at his home track (Hamlin grew up a stone’s throw away in Chesterfield, Va.). He had a top-five car and led twice for 22 laps, but a slow final pit stop was enough to take him out of the picture. Hamlin finished fourth, nearly four seconds behind Harvick.
Active Richmond win leader Kyle Busch survived an early spin to finish a solid ninth. While Busch was quick to blame Ross Chastain, the incident was not Chastain’s fault. Entering a corner, Busch expected Chastain to drop to the inside and moved to follow suit, but Chastain was not clear on the inside and held his line, meaning the racing quarters were simply too close for the situation.
Replay: Contact between Ross Chastain and Kyle Busch triggers a multi-car crash in Stage 3 at Richmond. https://t.co/SbrHTvbDU6 pic.twitter.com/wjlPhDmlGm
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) August 14, 2022
Point leader Chase Elliott showed why he’s the point leader Sunday. Despite saying after the race it was a difficult one for him and his No. 9 team, Elliott finished fifth, earning stage points in stage two and one lap led. Sometimes, if a driver doesn’t have a winning car, he has to change his focus just a little to maximize the day, and that’s exactly what Elliott did.
Race lap leader Joey Logano paced the field for 222 of 400 circuits, possessing a rocket ship of a car early in a run. However, Sunday was a long run kind of day, and Logano wasn’t quite able to keep pace as the final laps wore on. He won stage two but finished sixth in the one that counted most.
When… was the moment of truth?
The race had a bit of an unexpected outcome (Harvick’s last Richmond win came over a decade ago with Richard Childress Racing) but overall, it wasn’t the action-packed event fans have come to expect at a short track. While Richmond has always raced a bit like an intermediate hybrid, it was the third race for the Next Gen on this type of oval, and for the third time, the race was… not particularly exciting.
While Bell might have made the finish memorable with a couple more laps, time ran out, and even a great finish would not have masked the lackluster show.
This take is dead on, and it does warrant some hard looks after this season.
I feel like this NASCAR Cup Series season has a lot in common with “Stranger Things” – intermediate tracks have had the best racing while short tracks and road courses not as good pic.twitter.com/Va2TACol3Y
— Pete Pistone (@PPistone) August 14, 2022
It’s possible that a higher-horsepower engine package could be what it takes to bring back the short track excitement. If that’s the case, NASCAR should definitely look into a change.
Speaking of changes, it’s also time to consider changing the rule stating if a driver exits his car during a race, his day is over. If it’s following a crash, that’s one thing, but when there’s smoke in the cockpit, the driver needs to get out. If the car is able to continue after that, he should be allowed to get back in.
This week, it was Chase Briscoe, who finished 23rd and had to endure a few hot moments in the pits as his team quenched the smoke and sent him back on track. It turned out to be the right move under the rules because the car did continue, but at some point, a driver could be put in danger by trying to ride out a situation.
Right now, drivers are staying in their cars while the smoke pours through the cockpit and fire extinguishers deploy. That means they’re inhaling all of those fumes during the process. If drivers could get out when they roll into their pit, let the team put the fire out, and get back in, it would be safer.
And safety is the reason for the rule in the first place.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
With just two races remaining in the regular season, the Cup Series heads north to Watkins Glen International for a Sunday drive on the road course.
Even without the variety of playoff scenarios, it could be a wild day. The Glen is also one of the last chances for drivers already in the postseason to grab some valuable playoff points. Unlike some years, no driver has enough playoff points to cruise through the first couple of rounds, so every one they can grab now could make the difference between staying in the title hunt and seeing a year of hopes dashed.
There are a lot of players to watch, too. Tyler Reddick has won the last two races on this track type and outraced road course ace Elliott on the way to victory lane both times. Elliott will be looking for redemption while others just hope to crash the winners’ party.
Don’t forget Chastain and Suarez, both of whom got their first career wins on road courses earlier this year; each could use a shot of momentum. Michael McDowell is a good road racer making a last-ditch effort for a playoff spot.
Between the playoff drama and the Silly Season intrigue, it’s a good bet something is about to ignite.
How… does the playoff picture look now?
Well. Conventional thought says that two new winners in the next two weeks is unlikely. But 2022 has been far from conventional, with five first-time winners and a changing of the guard becoming apparent. So let’s throw caution to the wind for a minute and look at some possibilities here.
Buescher’s got a little momentum and heads to a road course, where he’s been strong this year. If he wins, he’s in. Maybe.
Buescher is 22nd in points, so another winner at Daytona could send him packing, especially if Kurt Busch is back in the car next week and has a strong finish. If that doesn’t happen and Buescher wins, it’s Busch who would fall out in the 17-winner scenario.
McDowell is also an accomplished road racer, though he’s far enough behind Busch in points that he’d likely be eliminated if Busch returns. Remember, too, that if Busch remains hurt, the 17th winner takes his place in the postseason.
It’s also possible we see a new winner at Watkins Glen who kills the possibility altogether. Yes, that’s right. Another winner could keep the 17-winner playoff scenario from happening, because that person could be AJ Allmendinger.
Allmendinger is plenty capable of coming out on top next Sunday, and if that happens, he’s not eligible for the playoffs in Cup as he’s running for an Xfinity Series title. It would throw a wrench in the owner’s championship race, but not the driver points.
This craziness continues on to Daytona and, well, anything could happen there. Wallace has been strong this summer, plus he’s an excellent superspeedway racer, so he could toss that Hail Mary. So could McDowell. So could Justin Haley. Or Austin Dillon or Erik Jones or Ricky Stenhouse Jr. or Brad Keselowski. Heck, at this point, pick any driver with a shot at the top 30 in points and he could win his way in.
In other words, there’s still plenty of chaos to see here.
RACE WEEKEND CENTRAL: RICHMOND
About the author
Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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About halfway through the 1st stage saw that the 10th place car was 9.5 seconds behind the lead and everything was stretching out. At that point I realized the race was going to be a stinkfest with little competition for the lead. Most lead changes were the result of pit stop timing cycles. Short track have not had the best racing this year.