Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: Classic Richmond Does Little to Help NASCAR Underdogs

Top Dog: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Since the Gen 6 Cup car came around in 2013, Richmond Raceway has migrated into a track that features long green flag runs, dominant drivers and close calls that you won’t see on TV.

As more and more races at the track have featured this character, the underdogs typically have been anything but benefactors.

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Such was the case again this go around, as Ricky Stenhouse Jr. paced the underdogs with a 17th-place finish in the Cook Out 400 (July 30). That tells the tale right there, doesn’t it?

For Stenhouse, it was still a solid run. The JTG-Daugherty Racing driver fired off ninth in his first top-10 start since the Coca-Cola 600. Over the course of the race, the No. 47 found a solid rhythm, as Stenhouse remained in the top 15 and finished both stages in 15th.

The reigning Daytona 500 champion fell victim to the long green flag runs in the final stage, falling a lap down while running 16th. Because of those extended runs and a race that nearly went the entire distance without a caution for cause, there was little opportunity to gain ground or make adjustments, leaving Stenhouse just outside the top 15 to conclude the race.

Overall, it may not have been outstanding, but it was a clean day for Stenhouse, who bested three Hendrick Motorsports drivers and four winners this season.

Off the heels of his best finish at Pocono Raceway a week ago, Stenhouse talked with Frontstretch at Richmond Raceway about the improvements he has made over the years, as well as the confidence he has in preparation for a playoff run.

Who’s in the Dog House

You may be asking where the “Who Impressed” section of this column is. Well, Stenhouse was about it at Richmond. His fellow underdogs struggled with the endurance of green flag runs, falling victim to the leader’s pace.

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Michael McDowell was unable to bolster his advantage over the playoff cut line. McDowell showed speed early on, just missing out on stage points with an 11th-place result in the first stage. Then, he was running inside the top 10 early in stage two.

However, while Martin Truex Jr. was able to play the one-stop strategy in both the second and final stage, McDowell could not hold up. He went a lap down toward the end of stage two, suffered a penalty during the stage break for equipment out of the box, and ultimately finished 22nd.

After leaving Pocono with a 17-point cushion, the misfortunes of McDowell’s competitors have him sitting 18 points above Ty Gibbs for the final playoff spot.

AJ Allmendinger came into Richmond as the first driver outside the playoff cut line with an opportunity to close the gap. However, his weekend was immediately an uphill climb due to a previously scheduled race. Allmendinger competed in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Road America for Kaulig Racing on Saturday (July 29), forcing him to miss Cup qualifying and start at the rear of the field.

The Dinger quickly grabbed 10 spots to open the race, but his progress stalled there. The No. 16 barely got a sniff of the top 20 under normal green flag conditions, and the race character didn’t help, causing him to lose two laps during the race. When the first caution for cause occurred with 10 to go, it ultimately led to a tougher ending for Allmendinger. As the field took the checkered flag, Allmendinger tangled with Austin Cindric and Ty Dillon, spinning across the line to finish 27th. He now sits 22 points off the cut line.

The underdog teams with a duo of drivers were not able to find much success during the race. Front Row Motorsport’s other driver, Todd Gilliland, showed speed at times during the weekend, but ultimately was not able to keep up the pace, finishing 25th. Allmendinger’s Kaulig teammate Justin Haley was unable to find much speed during the race either, finishing in 30th.

The Legacy Motor Club cars struggled to crack the top 25. Erik Jones was mired outside the top 20 for most of the event and finished 23rd. And despite a 12th-place qualifying effort, Noah Gragson struggled with grip and even got into Daniel Suarez to bring out the final caution. He would finish in 28th.

Both Spire Motorsports drivers had a big miss on setup, as neither Corey LaJoie or Ty Dillon spent much time inside the top 30. LaJoie finished 32nd while Dillon was mired in 34th.

Underdog Silly Season Update

As we are closing the book on July, that ‘most wonderful time of the year’ for the 2024 season outlook is here: silly season. Haley was the first domino to fall in an unexpected announcement of his move to Rick Ware Racing in 2024.

With that move, that obviously points to the next domino: Who gets the No. 31? Austin Hill has been rumored to be the favorite for the ride, as he is tied with John Hunter Nemechek for the most Xfinity wins this season with four. Perhaps Shane van Gisbergen is a candidate, as he has confirmed his interest in running full-time Cup next year.

Former Xfinity champion Daniel Hemric is also a candidate, as he comes in-house from Kaulig. His Kaulig teammate Chandler Smith could also be an option, though Kaulig may not be quick to rush him. Or how about Carson Hocevar? The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series driver earned his third win of the season at Richmond, and his impressive stint in his Cup debut at Gateway could open the door for him.

The other ride of interest is the No. 38 at FRM. Rumors circulated from the beginning of 2023, as the team announced that Zane Smith would drive the No. 38 in six races, forcing Gilliland to fill out his schedule. Does that lead to a departure this season? Gilliland spoke with Frontstretch at Richmond about his future.

“We’re starting [talks] now,” Gilliland said. “I definitely feel better than I did last year about it all. Front Row is definitely my main focus. I love being there. I’ve been there for two years in Trucks and two years now in Cup. So it definitely feels like home to me and I definitely like everyone there a lot. That’s what we’re working on now and time will tell how it works out.”

What They’re Saying

Jones (23rd): “It was an OK day for us on the Allegiant [No.] 43 Chevrolet. We got better all day and picked up some spots. We still have some work to do here; Richmond has been one of our tougher places, really, in the last year or so. We have some work to do still, but this was a step in the right direction.”

Gragson (28th): “It was a solid weekend of building, especially in practice and qualifying, for our Sunseeker Chevrolet. Qualifying went really well, and I’m proud of that. We just missed a little in the race, but we will keep building and learning. I’m still so super thankful for this team and look forward to the test tomorrow.”

Small Team Scheme of the Week

Live Fast Motorsports debuted a new sponsor this week, with South Dakota Governor Krist Noem’s “Freedom Works Here” campaign featured on the car. The No. 78 sported a beautiful patriotic theme, completed with Mt. Rushmore pictured on both the hood and embedded on the door panels. Driver BJ McLeod would finish last in 36th.

About the author

Luken Glover joined the Frontstretch team in 2020 as a contributor, furthering a love for racing that traces back to his earliest memories. Glover inherited his passion for racing from his grandfather, who used to help former NASCAR team owner Junie Donlavey in his Richmond, Va. garage. A 2023 graduate from the University of the Cumberlands, Glover is the author of "The Underdog House," contributes to commentary pieces, and does occasional at-track reporting. Additionally, Glover enjoys working in ministry, coaching basketball, playing sports, and karting.

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