Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud at Richmond: Does the Championship Already Belong to Hendrick?

What Happened?

Kyle Larson pulled away from a restart with 15 laps to go to win his first race of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season at Richmond Raceway on Sunday, April 2. His temporary teammate, Josh Berry, earned his best career result in only his sixth career Cup start by finishing second. Ross Chastain, Christopher Bell and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five.

The victory is Larson’s second at Richmond and his 20th overall.

See also
Kyle Larson Finds Redemption & His 1st Win of the Season at Richmond

But What Really Happened?

A combined 55.25% of Sunday’s 400-miler was led by a driver from Hendrick Motorsports en route to the team’s third win and its second 1-2 finish of the year. At Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the team led for 88.9% of the event.

Last month at Phoenix Raceway, the championship track and one of the circuits closest resembling Richmond, HMS alone led a combined 83.6% of the event.

Are you starting to get the point?

For 210 laps on Sunday, it was the familiar sight of Larson and William Byron alone sharing the lead as the two sat in positions first and second for a majority of the first two stages.

We’ve come to expect that nowadays from the dynamic Hendrick duo.

Toward the end of stage two, Joe Gibbs Racing had taken the reigns for a total 153 laps between Bell, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. To its credit, the team really seemed like it was about to earn its first win of 2023.

Alas, with a late-race caution, HMS retook the lead thanks to some fast pit stops and some restart craziness. Larson never looked back as Gibbs fumbled their opportunities to earn the victory.

With all that said and done, the Hendrick had three cars finishing in the top 10. If it weren’t for some contact from Bell, Byron very likely would have joined his bowtie counterparts.

Considering the resemblance Richmond has to the championship deciding circuit of Phoenix — another track where the team also dominated and won — is it that farfetched to think that maybe Hendrick already has a hand on that championship trophy?

It’s led a collective 798 of 1,735 laps so far in 2023 — more than three times the amount of the second-most team in the Cup field of Joe Gibbs Racing, which only has 238 laps led and also has still yet to win this year.

There’s also the fact that the team leads the regular-season standings with Alex Bowman — who has only one finish outside the top 10 so far this season. If Bowman continues his consistency long enough, he may even win the regular-season title, which will grant him a whole 15 playoff points.

Of course, that comes only after the team was reinstated all of their points after being hit with a huge penalty a couple weeks ago by NASCAR — something that’s still hotly debated by everyone in the garage.

The NASCAR season is a long one and team statistics often shift and change as the season progresses into the meat and potatoes of the year. With glimpses of speed for much of Sunday themselves, it’s clear the Toyota JGR team is starting to rise to the challenge — at least on the short tracks.

But after seven races, the storied HMS team has the clear advantage over the rest of the field, and that’s with only three of its four full-time drivers. Although it’s not yet announced when Chase Elliott will return or if he will receive a playoff waver, it’s unlikely NASCAR will not grant the sport’s most popular driver a return without allowing him to compete in the championship.

So, the question remains, however, which one of the four will win it?

Who stood out?

Despite leading the most laps, there was only one HMS driver that didn’t finish in the top 10 on Sunday.

The No. 24 team led 117 laps during the 400-lap event in Virginia and until his contact with Bell on the penultimate restart, Byron was a favorite to win a whopping third race of the season.

It’s the second year in a row Byron had led over 100 laps at the short track only to still lose in the end.

Despite his 24th-place result, Byron appears to be the favorite among all of his teammates to be the favorite for the championship. That’s including race winner Larson.

In fact, out of those aforementioned 798 laps led by Hendrick Motorsports in 2023, Byron has credit for 385 of them. That’s almost half. Additionally, thanks to the points reinstatement, he also now has 22 playoff points in the bank thanks to his stage one victory, which places him as the top seed in the playoffs.

At this point, you may be experiencing a little deja vu.

That’s OK. It’s only because the 25-year-old has been here before.

Last year, Byron was the first driver to have multiple wins after winning at Martinsville Speedway, and yes, he appeared to be the championship favorite too.

So, for all of you saying, “Hold on. It’s too early to tell who’s a favorite and who isn’t,” you’re absolutely right.

It’s up to Byron and his team to see how long this gravy train will last. However, based on his performance in most races so far this year, he always seems to be running up front.

Who fell flat?

For a second there, we all thought Hamlin was going to have a repeat win at his home track.

Virginia’s newest podcast star led 71 laps on Sunday, which was third most on the afternoon, and went on to win stage two. What’s more, he didn’t inherit the lead thanks to strategy, he and teammate Bell drove up to the HMS leaders and took it.

Although, that came after some unfriendly contact with Rick Ware Racing driver JJ Yeley.

He was less than pleased.


It also came after a speeding penalty, which made his triumphant return to the lead on his home soil even more gallant.

Alas, it was not his only penalty.

During the final round of pit stops under the race’s penultimate caution, Hamlin was caught speeding again.

Hamlin earned a 20th-place result, not at all reminiscent of his team’s efforts.

One thing is for sure, however. After a rollercoaster day that saw him earning a possible new enemy in Yeley, he’ll certainly have plenty to talk about on his podcast.

See also
Gibbs vs. Hendrick Duel Culminates With Bell & Byron Contact

Better than last time?

Richmond is still Richmond.

Whether that’s a good thing, that’s a little up for debate.

The competition was certainly better. In 2022’s fall race, there were 16 lead changes among nine leaders. Sunday’s race had 22 changes for 11 leaders, albeit only four of those leaders weren’t from the shops of JGR or HMS.

Then there’s the tire wear.

There is no arguing the amount of thought that goes into calculating tire falloff versus lap times is a fascinating attribute that goes into the Virginia circuit. In fact, it’s likely the most falloff seen out of almost every speedway on the NASCAR calendar.

But we saw that last year.

What we didn’t see in 2022 was the often-found short-track chaos that NASCAR fans have come to know and love. It wasn’t one for the history books, but it still had plenty of paint traded and even some feelings hurt.

And thank goodness, too. For a little while there, thanks to the Next Gen car, Cup Series short tracks were endangered.

Paint scheme of the race

It was revealed a few months ago, but everyone’s been waiting for it to make an appearance.

Finally, on Sunday, Erik Jones‘s US Air Force Thunderbirds paint scheme took to the racing surface.

And yes, it looked as good in real life as it did in the renders.

In the past, the Air Force liveries have often been dedicated to certain groups and aircraft. This time, it’s reminiscent of the modern-day F-16A Fighting Falcon complete with the famous Thunderbird livery with golden numbers, swooping red secondary colors, little blue stars and all.

LEGACY MOTOR CLUB has had some wonderful schemes paying homage to the military branch in the past and this is only another bird in the sky.

See what I did there?

What’s next?

The Cup Series does its annual dance on the dirt.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt surface for its third-ever mudslinging race at the Last Great Colosseum. The 250-lap feature’s starting lineup will be settled with four 15-lap qualifying heats that will begin at 6 p.m. on Saturday night, April 8. The field will take the green on Sunday, April 9 at 7 p.m. ET. with coverage on FOX.

About the author

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Dalton Hopkins began writing for Frontstretch in April 2021. Currently, he is the lead writer for the weekly Thinkin' Out Loudcolumn and one of our lead reporters. Beforehand, he wrote for IMSA shortly after graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2019. Simultaneously, he also serves as a First Lieutenant in the US Army.

Follow Dalton on Twitter @PitLaneLT

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Bill B

The race was OK. I’m not willing to appraise whether or not the short track package has improved until we get to Martinsville. That will be the true test.

As for the championship, being good doesn’t mean much. Maybe for predicting a spot in the final four but, as we’ve seen previously, the championship comes down to who of the final four has the best pit stop at the end, not who was the best all year.

DoninAjax

I was switching channels on Friday and came to the WWE program and realized the the final NA$CAR event for the title reminded me of a WWE Fatal 4-Way bout where the winner wins whatever title is up for grabs. It is the ultimate influence of Vince on Brian that they would decide a title the same way.

Bobby DK

IRL # 1
F 1 #2
Craftsman truck #3
Xfinity #4
Cup cars # 5.
First to worst this past weekend.

DoninAjax

The Cup event will always be the worst. It’s good they don’t list the Outlaw Late Models or Big Block Modifieds or Outlaw Sprints.

Kurt Smith

It wasn’t the best or worst race at Richmond…it was about average. And I’ll take an average race at Richmond over the best events at Atlanta or COTA these days.

Yes Hendrick was strong but I would say on balance the Gibbs cars were right there with them. Truex, Hamlin and Bell all conceivably could have won the race, and even Ty Gibbs was running in the top ten for a while.

I’m no fan of Hamlin, but until Rick Ware Racing starts putting competitive cars on the track, their drivers should stay out of the way of guys running for a championship.

I’m not and never have been a fan of double file restarts. Especially at the end of races, drivers having a great run all day usually get screwed.

But glad to see an actual race yesterday as opposed to another demolition derby.

JD in NC

I disagree. If you are in the race, you are not obliged to get out of anybody’s way. J.J. Yeley’s car was fast enough to pass Hamlin. Yeley owes it to his owner and team members to get as good a finish as possible. Ayrton Senna once said ” if you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver.” Yeley saw a gap and passed Hamlin, and Denny didn’t like it so he knocked him out of the way instead of trying to pass him back.

Mike

Why would anyone be picking a championship favorite yet. If you have been watching closely for the last couple years you would know that logano likes to win early and then test until the playoffs. Im not saying he will win the championship but he will be competitive. But go ahead and pick the hendrick boys and we will see come November. But its hard to beat hendrick and nascar too

DoninAjax

They’ve been picking a favourite for this year’s title since the final event last year.

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