RICHMOND, Va. — As the NASCAR Cup Series’ Toyota Owners 400 unfolded at Richmond Raceway, two race teams clearly separated themselves from the rest of the pack: Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports.
The matchup made sense, as JGR came into today winners of six out of the last 10 Cup Series races at Richmond, while Hendrick Motorsports distinguished itself as the team to beat so far in 2023.
“At Richmond, the Gibbs cars are going to be the cars to beat,” race winner Kyle Larson said post-race. “They just have a package, I guess, for this track.”
However, it was advantage HMS out of the gate as William Byron and Larson pulled away to duel for the top spot. When the green-and-white checkered flag flew to signify the end of stage one, Byron collected the stage win, Larson was right behind him in second and polesitter Alex Bowman came across in seventh.
However, as the race progressed into the middle stages and the track went through changes, the JGR Toyotas began to make their presence felt. Christopher Bell, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr., all thrived on the long runs during stage two; ultimately, Hamlin piloted his No. 11 to the stage two victory, with Bell in second and Truex in fifth. Byron led the Hendrick stable in fourth, Bowman in seventh and Larson faded to eighth after contact on pit road with the No. 99 of Daniel Suarez.
“There were times when the Gibbs Toyotas were the best cars on the long run,” Hendrick Motorsports Vice Chairman Jeff Gordon said in the media center afterwards. “But right now, I like the way we see our teams executing.”
Down the stretch, JGR and Hendrick took their turns in command, with both teams having their fair share of good and bad luck. The complexion of the race changed significantly when Tyler Reddick spun his No. 45 Toyota in turn 2 to bring out the caution with only 29 laps remaining. This led to trouble for JGR when Truex had to put on scuff tires while everyone else got new sticker tires.
To make matters worse, Hamlin sped on pit road for the second time on the afternoon, forcing him to restart at the back.
The climactic moment of the JGR vs. HMS duel occurred on the ensuing restart when Bell moved up in turn one to make room for Ross Chastain and got into Byron, spinning the No. 24 Chevrolet around and into the wall. Bell and Byron both noted Chastain’s role in the incident afterwards.
“The wrecking ball (Chastain) came through and made us move up the racetrack,” Bell said. “The [No.] 24 (Byron) probably didn’t get the memo that we were going to be three-wide because I barely got one.”
“It just looked like the [No.] 20 (Bell) got in there and the [No.] 1 (Chastain) was three lines underneath him and caused him to move up,” Byron explained on pit road.
Chastain also gave his side of the story after the race, not offended by Bell’s new nickname for him.
“I never saw the [No.] 24. I knew I was bottom of three, but I never saw the [No.] 24,” Chastain said. “[Bell] can say what he wants. Like others, he walks by and doesn’t say anything to me.”
The final 14-lap green flag run saw Larson pull away for his first win of 2023 and the third already for HMS in 2023. Josh Berry utilized pit strategy to put the No. 9 in the runner-up spot, Bowman slotted into eighth position, and Byron’s bad luck late relegated him to 24th in the final running order.
JGR, meanwhile, remains winless this season despite a strong showing. Bell showed the way in fourth position, rookie Ty Gibbs tallied his third-straight top 10 in ninth, Truex fell to 11th on older tires and Hamlin settled for 20th.
“[JGR] were probably still better than we were today,” Larson said. “But historically, this has been a really bad track for Hendrick. To lead as many laps as we did between William and I, it was the best day I think Hendrick has had at Richmond in decades.”
About the author
Andrew Stoddard joined Frontstretch in May of 2022 as an iRacing contributor. He is a graduate of Hampden-Sydney College, the University of Richmond, and VCU. He has a new day job as an athletic communications specialist at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.
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