Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud at Richmond: Ford Has Figured Out How to Win the Championship

What Happened?

Chris Buescher held off Denny Hamlin in a late-race restart to score his third NASCAR Cup Series victory, this time at Richmond Raceway on Sunday, July 30. The rest of the top five finishers were Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Ryan Preece, respectively.

The victory is RFK Racing’s second since its rebrand in 2022 and the third for Ford in 2023.

See also
Chris Buescher Gets 1st Win of Season at Richmond

But What Really Happened?

If Sunday is any indication, Ford is already a step ahead of the rest of the field, and they’re more ready for the playoffs than you may think.

As previously mentioned, Buescher’s win was the third for the Blue Ovals in 2023, so it wasn’t solely cause for celebration for the manufacturer.

What is cause for celebration is just how strong all of the Fords looked on Sunday, and yes, that even includes Stewart-Haas Racing.

Six of the top 10 finishing cars were Fords. That’s the most the OEM has placed in the first 10 finishers the whole season. That even beats out the dominating races they had at Superspeedways such as Atlanta Motor Speedway and Daytona International Speedway.

Additionally, when you compare the manufacturer’s performance on Sunday to the April Richmond race, the statistics are night and day.

In April, Ford only had two cars finish in the top 10 at the Virginian short track — a far cry from Sunday’s six. Then there’s the drastic difference in laps led. In April, Ford led only one of the 400 laps at the 0.75-mile circuit. On Sunday? The Blue Ovals led a combined 201.

In other words? In the span of four months, Ford has figured something out for the short tracks.

Short tracks like Phoenix Raceway, which has a similar configuration to circuits like Richmond.

If you don’t agree, just ask Busch.

However, you may point out that aside from Kevin Harvick leading 36 laps and almost winning at Phoenix in March, the Fords weren’t so hot in the Diamond in the Desert. That’s true, and the Chevrolets were fast as well. Combined, the Bowties led 280 of the 317 laps ran on the one-mile circuit.

That’s where the argument gets interesting. Because Chevrolet dominated at Richmond — again, a similar track to Phoenix — in April as well, leading 244 of the 400 laps ran.

On Sunday? Chevrolet led none.

So, what happened? Based on Sunday, it isn’t that the Chevrolets have gotten slower, rather the Fords have simply gotten faster.

After all, it happened last year, too. At the summer Richmond race in 2022, Ford led 280 laps. Eventual champion Logano led 222 of them.

Three months later at Phoenix, both Blaney and Logano alone led a whopping combined 296 of the 312 laps in 2022’s championship finale.

It could be mixing up correlation and causation, but it could very well be a grim indicator for the Toyota and Chevrolet fleets.

See also
Ryan Preece Comes Up Shy of Playing Playoff Spoiler

Who Stood Out?

But among the Ford Mustang parade, there were two ponies that were best-in-show.

Buescher’s win didn’t come out of a late-race pit stop that got him out front or because the race attrition rate was high. It came out of a dominating performance that saw him lead 88 laps, and he wasn’t alone, either.

His team owner and boss Brad Keselowski was perhaps in the best position he’s been in to win a race since Atlanta earlier this year before green flag pit stops on lap 284.

The No. 6 Ford led a race high of 102 laps, merely seven laps short of the mark he set with RFK Racing at Bristol Motor Speedway last August. Alas, a slow stop relegated Keselowski a straightaway behind his teammate and employee Buescher.

While the No. 6 fought hard to try and regain the spots he had lost, he could only put up a sixth-place effort. Still, that was a solid top-10 finish for Keselowski, and surely not one he would lose sleep over considering his other car won and locked himself into the playoffs, which marked the fourth double top-10 finish for the organization in 2023.

Not to mention, that 151-point cushion Keselowski has over the playoff cut line is probably letting him rest easier as well.

Who Fell Flat?

In Sunday’s tale of two-car team dominance, 23XI Racing was the first act. However, they certainly weren’t there in the finale.

It was a two-man effort between 23XI drivers Bubba Wallace and Tyler Reddick, as both drivers led a combined 161 laps during the 400-lap feature. That gave 23XI Racing a historic achievement, as it’s the most the team has led in a single race in its existence. Stage one also marked the first 1-2 finish for the team in a stage.

But the glory only lasted around half the race.

Slowly, Wallace faded after pit stop cycles continued to shuffle the field. While he never received any penalties or was involved in any incidents, he fell outside of the top 10, where he placed 12th when it was all said and done.

For Reddick, it was a more tragic story.

While Buescher took the lead and pulled away to almost six seconds ahead of second place, Reddick seemingly was his closest pursuer. However, a green flag pit stop on lap 338 ended his efforts.

Reddick received a commitment line violation — and an obvious one at that — with only 63 laps to go. He finished 16th.

Despite what was a historic day for the three-year-old organization that saw them dominate early in the race, the afternoon ended with neither of them in the top 10.

Better Than Last Time?

Before you hem and haw over how boring Sunday was, at least there were some forms of strategy at play.

That said, it still wasn’t as competitive statistically as it was in April despite the upset winner.

In April, Richmond saw 22 lead changes among 11 drivers, a little bit more than Sunday’s 18 lead changes over eight drivers.

That said, the modern-day Richmond isn’t the same as the old Richmond. There’s little to no doubt about that.

That doesn’t mean it’s a bad event, but it does beg the question if the once fan-favorite short track deserves two races on the schedule, especially with other beloved short tracks such as North Wilkesboro Speedway or Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway eyeing a Cup Series race date for the future.

But despite all of that said, none of those tracks being added to the schedule will mean a thing without a revamp to the Next Gen’s short track package.

Thankfully, NASCAR is hosting a test for a new short track package this coming Monday and Tuesday. With any luck, NASCAR short track racing, and its future, will be saved.

See also
Ryan Preece Comes Up Shy of Playing Playoff Spoiler

Paint Scheme of the Race

Another year, another fire Body Armor scheme for Ryan Blaney.

Speaking of fire, anyone that has stepped outside in the south in the last few weeks likely knows the importance of hydration. That said, Body Armor and Team Penske could not have started running their livery at a better time. Surely, that was on purpose.

What also may have been on purpose is how great that livery looks. In fairness, it isn’t much different from the 2022 version of the red and white design, but it still is a pleaser to the eyes.

One difference is the additional yellow lines striped across the sides, making the design a little busier. However, the white base remains, and it still is reminiscent of a time when NASCAR car designs were simple.

Simple, but damn good-looking.

What’s Next?

The sport heads for the Irish Hills.

The Cup Series returns to Michigan International Speedway for its annual trip to the two-mile oval. Qualifying for the FireKeepers Casino 400 will be live on Saturday, Aug. 5, at 1:20 p.m. ET with the race being televised live on Sunday, Aug. 6, at 2:30 p.m. ET on USA Network.

About the author

Dalton Hopkins began writing for Frontstretch in April 2021. Currently, he is the lead writer for the weekly Thinkin' Out Loud column 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

No cautions do kind of make a race boring but it’s a sporting event and that’s the way it goes. Forcing cautions would be worse.

The race was OK and I have been enjoying the NBC coverage more than FOX’s, but there are still some things that annoy me.

DoninAjax

Doesn’t there seem to an abnormal amount of coverage of the Toyota ads, cars and drivers? They even show the pace car in every event. Toyota must pay a small fortune for the coverage.

janice

i thought the same thing. guess they were disappointed that their investment didn’t pay off this weekend. maybe michigan.

Bill B

I’ve always assumed it’s because they are paying a chit-load of advertising money.

DoninAjax

I guess the other teams didn’t give in the the extortion. They don’t get enough coverage even when they are running better than the Toys.

Kurt Smith

I’m grateful just to see the stage results instead of a cartoon picture of the stage winner.

Ronald Thornton

Didn’t look like a normal short track race. Most cars still had all their fenders and very few donuts on the doors. Everybody played too nice. They seem to beat and bang more under the lights.

WJW Motorsports

You can always tell when it is about time for Michigan when the NASCAR/Ford charitable program kicks off in earnest.

Bill B

What amuses me is how quick some writers are to declare some sort of seismic shift in the competition with such a small sample size. There is a lot of randomness in NASCAR now, with these new cars and the current rules and format. A four week trend doesn’t mean anything.

kb

Ford still has a long way to go to stay competitive week in and week out. Drivers have stated as much, and I agree. Ford is ALWAYS behind. HMMM…

DoninAjax

NA$CAR wants Ford behind and when they catch up NA$CAR changes the “rules”. Again!