Certainly last week‚Äôs Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff opener at Las Vegas proved to be a compelling 400 miles of competition and energy with much of the drama involving drivers among the Playoff-eligible 16.
Martin Truex Jr.‚Äôs win and some unpredictable fate for other season-long frontrunners shook up the championship standings and has created urgency for several of the series‚Äô best heading into Saturday night‚Äôs Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond (Va.) Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBSCN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
With his series leading fifth victory at Vegas, Truex took over the championship lead for the first time this season. He holds a three-point advantage on three-race winner Kevin Harvick and a seven-point lead on reigning series champion Joey Logano.
Truex‚Äôs other three Joe Gibbs Racing teammates ‚Äď including four-race winners Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin ‚Äď fell in the standings after frustrating runs. Busch, driver of the No. 18 JGR Toyota and the regular season champion, finished 19th dropping to fourth in the standings ‚Äď 19 points behind Truex. Hamlin, driver of the JGR No. 11 Toyota finished 15th at Vegas and dropped from second in the standings heading into the Playoff opener to seventh (26 points behind Truex) heading into this weekend at Richmond.
Joe Gibbs Racing driver Erik Jones, who won at Darlington last month, suffered a mechanical problem in his No. 20 Toyota Camry and had an early night. He‚Äôs now ranked 16th of the 16 Playoff drivers, 75 points behind his teammate Truex, but still in the mix 26 points behind 12th place Aric Almirola with two races to make up the difference.¬†
The good news for both Busch and Hamlin is that they are two of the best at the 0.75-mile Richmond oval.
Busch has a series best six wins and a series best six runner-up finishes ‚Äď 12 of the 28 races he‚Äôs competed in at the track he‚Äôs finished either first or second. It‚Äôs an amazing statistic and something that Busch can use for inspiration this weekend. Hamlin, who grew up in nearby Chesterfield, Va., also has series-highlight numbers at Richmond. His 1,659 laps led is most in the field and already sixth most all-time. He has three victories and 16 top-10 finishes in 26 starts.
Of course, both JGR drivers will have top-shelf competition from Harvick, whose No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford team has steadily been raising its game. He‚Äôs won three of the season‚Äôs last eight races, including a statement-win at the regular season finale at Indianapolis two weeks ago, leading 118 of the 160 laps.¬†
Since 2005, Harvick has the Cup Series‚Äô best Average Running Position (7.214), Driving Rating (110.4), Quality Passes (905), and Laps in the Top-15 (93 percent) at Richmond. He‚Äôs won three times and has a series best 24 top-10 finishes. He‚Äôs finished top-10 in eight of the last 10 races and was runner-up to Kyle Busch in last Fall‚Äôs Playoff race.
Of course, with the victory and automatic position in the Round of 12 of the Playoffs already secured, Truex has once again presented himself a strong contender to hoist his second championship trophy in the last three years. He won at Richmond this April ‚Äď making him the most recent to celebrate in Victory lane.
With seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson not qualifying for the 2019 Playoff field, there is a huge opportunity for the sport to crown only its second multi-time champion among active drivers.
Kyle Busch (2015), Harvick (2014), Keselowski (2012), Logano (2018) and Kurt Busch (2004) are looking for that chance. All are former Richmond winners. And no driver from outside the Playoff 16 has ever won the second race of the Playoff stretch.¬†
XFINITY PLAYOFFS BEGIN
This week‚Äôs Go Bowling 250 at Richmond (Va.) Raceway (Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) marks the opening of the 2019 Xfinity Series Playoffs. Twelve drivers ‚Äď including four rookies ‚Äď will be competing for the crown.
Tyler Reddick, last week‚Äôs Las Vegas winner, is the defending champion and will be trying to win a second straight but with a different team, Richard Childress Racing. Should Reddick win again it would mark the first time the series had a back-to-back champion since Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won in 2011-12 driving for Roush Fenway Racing.¬†
In fact, a driver has earned consecutive titles only six times in series history ‚Äď Stenhouse, Martin Truex Jr. (2004-05), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (1998-99), Randy LaJoie (1996-97), Larry Pearson (1986-87) and Sam Ard (1983-84). Never has a driver won consecutive championships driving for two different teams, however.¬†
Reddick and his No. 2 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet Camaro team certainly made a bold statement at Las Vegas ‚Äď taking the checkered flag on a pit stop gamble that worked. He pitted off sequence and then stayed on track longer than his closest competitors and was able to hold off Bell ‚Äď who led a dominating 154 of the 200 laps – by .738-seconds. It was Reddick‚Äôs fifth win of the season and he has a series best 20 top-five and a series best 22 top-10 finishes.
Making good on a bold pit call like that may come in handy with this group of championship contenders in particular. Bell and Custer have won six races each and when you add in Reddick‚Äôs numbers that means this ‚ÄúBig 3‚ÄĚ ‚Äď as they are known ‚Äď have won 17 of the season‚Äôs 26 races.¬†
Certainly Custer‚Äôs and Bell‚Äôs work at Richmond, in particular, looks as if they arrive the drivers to beat. Reddick has finished top-10 the last two races.¬†
The veteran Allgaier ‚Äď a five-race winner in 2018 ‚Äď is on a streak of 10 top-10 finishes, and has runner-up showings at Indianapolis, Charlotte and the season-opener at Daytona. And still looking for that first victory of the season, Allgaier is super motivated. He‚Äôs had four top five runs at Richmond, including a third place this April. He was runner-up to Kyle Larson in 2017.¬†
Rookie Noah Gragson impressed immediately at Richmond, finishing runner-up to Bell last Spring by less than half a second in his first Xfinity Series race at the track. He was 22nd earlier this season. Austin Cindric has two top five finishes in three starts, including a runner-up to Custer this season.¬†
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Federated Auto Parts 400
The Place: Richmond Raceway
The Date: Saturday, September 21
The Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN, 7 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 300 miles (400 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 100),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 200), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 400)
2018 Race Winner: Kyle Busch
What to Watch For: This is the second year that Richmond Raceway hosted a Cup Series Playoff race. ‚Ä¶ Kyle Busch is the defending winner and has won Playoff Race #2 for the past two years ‚Äď at Richmond in 2018 and New Hampshire in 2017. ‚Ä¶ Last week‚Äôs Las Vegas winner Martin Truex Jr. holds a three-point advantage over Kevin Harvick in the Cup Playoff standings and a seven-point lead over reigning series champion Joey Logano heading into the second of three races in the opening round of the Playoffs. ‚Ä¶ Harvick (110.4) has the highest driver rating at Richmond ‚Äď slightly better than Busch (110.2). ‚Ä¶ Regular season champion Kyle Busch has six wins at Richmond ‚Äď most among active drivers. ‚Ä¶ Lee Petty won the first Richmond race in April, 1953. ‚Ä¶ Richard Petty has the most starts at the track (63). Harvick and Kurt Busch have the most starts (37) among active drivers. ‚Ä¶ The most recent driver to make his Cup debut at Richmond was Daniel Hemric (April, 2018). ‚Ä¶ Among drivers with at least 10 career starts, Kyle Larson has the top average starting position (8.536). ..Bobby Allison and Richard Petty hold the record for most pole positions (eight). Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick have three each ‚Äď most among active drivers. ‚Ä¶ Only two active drivers have won back-to-back pole positions ‚Äď Joey Logano (2015 sweep) and Kevin Harvick (Fall, 2018, Spring 2019). ‚Ä¶ Chevrolet holds the mark for most pole positions (46). Ford is next with 33. ‚Ä¶ There are 11 former Richmond winners entered this week. Kyle Busch leads them all with six wins. ‚Ä¶ Nine drivers have won consecutive races ‚Äď Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch are the only active drivers to do so. Richard Petty holds the record with seven straight wins from Fall, 1970-Fall, 1973. ‚Ä¶ The pole positions has produced the most winners (24) of any starting spot on the grid. ‚Ä¶ Four active drivers have won from the pole (Jimmie Johnson, 2007, Kyle Busch, 2010, Brad Keselowski, 2014 and Denny Hamlin, 2016). ‚Ä¶ No active driver earned his career first win at Richmond. ‚Ä¶ David Ragan and Paul Menard have the most starts (25) in this week‚Äôs field without a win. ‚Ä¶ Chevrolet is the winningest manufacturer with 38 trophies. Ford has 32 and Toyota has 13. ‚Ä¶ Kyle Busch is not only the winningest driver in the field, but has the most runner-up finishes (six). Bobby Allison and Richard Petty hold the record for most runner-up finishes (nine). ‚Ä¶ Kyle Busch has the most top-5 finishes (17) among active drivers. Kevin Harvick has the most top 10s among active drivers (24). ‚Ä¶ Among those with at least 10 starts, Kyle Busch has the best average finishing position (6.964). ‚Ä¶ The closest Margin of Victory in a Richmond race was .051-seconds when Jeff Burton edged Jeff Gordon in September, 1998. ‚Ä¶ Denny Hamlin leads all drivers in laps led (1,659) at Richmond and the mark is sixth best all-time. ‚Ä¶ Richard Petty set the record for leading the most laps (488 of 500) en route to a win at the track (1970). Denny Hamlin has led the most laps (381 of 407) not to win (2008).
NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: Go Bowling 250
The Place: Richmond Raceway
The Date: Friday, September 20
The Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN, 7 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 187.5 miles (250 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 75),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 150), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 250)
2018 Race Winner: Christopher Bell
What to Watch For: Two members of the 2019 season‚Äôs ‚ÄúBig 3‚ÄĚ have won the last three Xfinity races at Richmond. Cole Custer won this Spring and Christopher Bell swept last year‚Äôs races. ‚Ä¶ This race marks the opening of the 2019 Playoffs. There are 12 eligible drivers ‚Äď according to the reset in points – led by Bell, Custer, regular season champion Tyler Reddick ‚Äď who won last week at Las Vegas – Austin Cindric, Chase Briscoe, Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett, Noah Gragson, Brandon Jones, Justin Haley, Ryan Sieg, John Hunter Nemechek. ‚Ä¶ Bell and Custer are the only fulltime Xfinity drivers with victories at Richmond. Both Allgaier (Spring, 2017) and Gragson (Spring, 2018) have runner-up finishes. ‚Ä¶ Chase Briscoe leads the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings heading into the Playoffs. He has a seven-point edge over Noah Gragson, a nine-point edge over Justin Haley and a 12-point edge on John Hunter Nemechek. ‚Ä¶This winningest starting positions in this race have been pole position and third place on the grid ‚Äď both producing 14 winners. ‚Ä¶ The last polesitter to hoist a trophy was Bell, in this race last year. ‚Ä¶ The farthest back a winner has started is 39th ‚Äď Carl Edwards won from there in Fall, 2009. ‚Ä¶Only 15 times in the 71-race Xfinity history at Richmond, has a driver won from a starting position outside the top 10. ‚Ä¶There have been seven season sweeps at Richmond and nine times a driver has won back-to-back races. ‚Ä¶ Bell is the last to sweep ‚Äď winning both 2018 races. Brad Keselowski (2013) and Kevin Harvick (2006) are the only other active drivers to sweep a season. . ‚Ä¶Kevin Harvick (2005-06) and Harry Gant (1991-92) hold the record for most consecutive wins ‚Äď each winning three times in a row. ‚Ä¶Tommy Houston the inaugural Xfinity Series race at Richmond in February, 1982. ‚Ä¶Kevin Harvick is the all-time winningest driver with seven trophies. Kyle Busch has six. ‚Ä¶ Chevrolet has been the winningest manufacturer with 25 victories. Ford has 19 and Toyota has 10. Toyota has won five of the last 10 races. ‚Ä¶The most lead changes in a race was 20 ‚Äď 1995 when Dale Jarrett won. ‚Ä¶ Kyle Busch led all 250 laps en route to his Fall, 2014 win. The very next race Denny Hamlin led 248 of 250 to win. ‚Ä¶ In the last 10 races, the closest Margin of Victory was in Spring, 2016 when Dale Earnhardt Jr. beat Ty Dillon by .266-seconds. ‚Ä¶ The largest Margin of Victory in the last 10 races was 6.453-seconds when Kyle Busch defeated Erik Jones in Fall, 2016. ‚Ä¶ Seven times in the last 10 races, the driver that led the most laps won the race. In Fall, 2017, however, Kyle Busch led 182 laps but finished second to Brad Keselowski.