Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: NASCAR Underdogs Lay an Egg at Richmond Easter Race

Top Dog: Erik Jones

Happy Easter, race fans! For the 13th time in NASCAR Cup Series history, the circuit raced on Easter Sunday.

It was the third consecutive event on the holiday, though in a different location after NASCAR moved it from the now-defunct Bristol Motor Speedway Dirt Race to Richmond Raceway.

There aren’t many guarantees in racing, but Richmond is about the closest you can get to predicting a race’s character. Races will likely feature long green flag runs, different tire strategies, and the usual list of heavy hitters at the front. Once again, that was the case.

See also
Denny Hamlin Wins in Overtime Finish at Richmond

Unfortunately for the underdogs, those ingredients are a recipe for disaster for them on one of NASCAR’s toughest short tracks, as the lack of green flag runs prevents teams from working on ill-handling cars.

The only Easter eggs found by most of the underdogs produced empty rewards. Erik Jones used Toyota’s successful history at the track to top his peers with a 14th-place finish.

Weather throughout the afternoon threatened to cause an extended delay, but clearing skies and damp conditions allowed NASCAR to go to the wet tires to begin the race. Several drivers, including Jones, experienced tight-handling cars at the beginning, plummeting many into a hole. By the end of stage one, Jones was mired back in 31st.

A quick stop under the stage break propelled the No. 43 to 20th, and despite falling a lap down in the second stage, Jones caught a break on lap 171 when a caution flew to give him the free pass. By the end of the stage, he cracked the top 15 in 14th.

The final stage nearly went caution-free, testing the long run patience and handling of the cars. In the past, that would have been a blow for Legacy Motor Club. However, this team has provided plenty of improvement from recent years, and that was on display again with Jones holding strong in the top 20 and knocking on the door of the top 10 briefly.

A late caution set up overtime, leading to the Byron, Mich., native securing a top-15 result.

The showing was Jones’ best at the .75-mile track in five years (a 14th in 2019 with Joe Gibbs Racing), and gives the team a much needed boost on the season after three straight finishes of 20th or worse.

How Does It Compare?

Jones was above average with his 14th-place finish compared to recent performances by the top dog at Richmond. It did not top last year’s top performer in the spring race, as Michael McDowell earned a strong showing in sixth. But compared to the past six events in the Commonwealth, Jones’s finish exceeded all but McDowell’s run.

Perhaps the most memorable underdog run at Richmond in the past decade came at the hands of a former driver of the No. 43. In 2015, Aric Almirola nearly spoiled the playoff party by finishing fourth in the fall race, driving for what was then known as Richard Petty Motorsports. Almirola, who currently competes part-time for Joe Gibbs Racing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, also finished ninth in the spring Richmond race in 2017 for RPM.

Notable Underdog Runs

Jones carried the underdog banner alone as he was the only dark horse inside the top 20. Todd Gilliland impressed in Saturday’s qualifying session and the early stages of the race, but faded back to 21st. The Front Row Motorsports driver backed up his career-best qualifying effort of fourth at Atlanta Motor Speedway a few weeks ago with a sixth-place starting spot at Richmond.

Early on, the No. 38 fought inside the top five and even grabbed five stage points with a sixth-place stage one finish. Unlike Jones, however, the lap 171 caution did not help Gilliland, nor his FRM teammate McDowell. Both had pitted under a green flag cycle when the yellow flew, trapping them a lap down.

Gilliland had to fight the remainder of the race to overcome the setback, mustering enough of a run to get back to 21st. McDowell would finish in 26th.

Outside of that, it was a nonchalant day for the rest of the underdogs. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Carson Hocevar door-slammed each other at one point early on while battling for 25th, but neither one suffered noticeable issues from the incident.

Hocevar’s finish of 26th paced a night Spire Motorsports would like to forget. Zane Smith‘s dismal start to 2024 continued after a speeding penalty in the final stage derailed his day, with a result of 35th.

Behind him in the 36th and last position was Corey LaJoie, who never gained his footing and struggled with the handling of his car throughout the event.

See also
Xfinity Breakdown: Chandler Smith Stays Hot at Richmond, Joey Gase Loses His Cool

The NASCAR Xfinity Series race featured a couple of underdog highlights. Parker Retzlaff pulled the surprise of the garage by grabbing his first career pole. The Jordan Anderson Racing driver led 27 laps before fading to a 16th-place finish.

Matt DiBenedetto made his first NASCAR national level start since the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway last fall. DiBenedetto piloted the No. 38 for upstart team Viking Motorsports, scoring a solid 18th-place result.

What They’re Saying

Ty Dillon (29th): “Disappointing night overall for our No. 16 Chevy Accessories Chevrolet. We had some great speed, but unfortunately didn’t qualify as well as we could have, and got stuck on pit road due to circumstances out of our control. All and all, despite not having things go our way, this team did a lot of things well and I’m excited to get back in the car again soon.”

Daniel Hemric (30th): “Not the night we hoped for in Richmond. We made some positive changes to the No. 31 LA Golf Chevy and felt good about it after the second stage, but we just lacked front grip. Thankfully we were able to take the wave around during the last caution to get a lap back. We had a clean night but not the best car. We will keep working on it and keep chugging along to Martinsville.”

(Both quotes via Kaulig Racing’s race recap.)

Underdog Bracket Challenge

The Final Four of the Underdog Bracket Challenge featured underwhelming performances by all four contenders, but the championship showdown in Martinsville Speedway is set!

Dillon’s first Cup start of 2024 did not go as well as he had hoped, but his 29th-place run bested LaJoie’s showing of 36th to put Kaulig Racing’s No. 16 entry into the underdog bracket finals. On the opposing side, John Hunter Nemechek landed a result of 25th to best Justin Haley‘s position in 32nd to position himself for the bracket title.

Small Team Scheme of the Week

This scheme is no stranger to this selection, but it’s too good to pass up on. Long John Silver’s returned to McDowell’s No. 34, and it certainly earned best in show on Easter Sunday. The fast food chain (also owned by FRM team owner Bob Jenkins) featured its iconic blue and yellow colors, accompanied by a chrome blue number to make the 39-year-old’s car stand out among the rest.

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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gbvette62

I seem to remember Jones running pretty good at Richmond early on in his career with top 5’s and 10’s in both Xfinity and Cup, but that was driving for Gibbs in top tier equipment. I think it was Richmond where he had a top 5 taken away from him when the car failed post race inspection, and knocking him out of the Chase (2019?).

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