Ryan: The curious lack of strategic gambling was the pits at Richmond

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Sometimes, the best option to win a race isn’t outrunning the competition but outmaneuvering them.

Never is that more applicable than with a late-race caution on a short track.

Which made the final pit stop sequence of Saturday night’s Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway even more inexplicable.

When the yellow flag waved with a scheduled 10 laps remaining, all 16 cars on the lead lap pitted for four tires.

Why didn’t a crew chief gamble on keeping his car on track? Or at least taking two tires?

Generally, the tried-and-true axiom for any late caution at a short track is to do the opposite of those in the lead or near it – even in instances of the high tire wear evident Saturday at Richmond.

Sometimes, the strategy gets taken to the extreme.

In the April 18, 2004 at Martinsville Speedway, a caution flew with 85 laps remaining. Leader Jimmie Johnson stayed on track … and the 14 lead-lap cars behind him all pitted. On tires that fell off quickly, Johnson still managed to keep the lead for another 40 laps and hung on for a fourth-place finish. Crew chief Chad Knaus said two days later that he was “floored” that even the cars outside the top 10 stopped (expecting that at least a few might risk staying out and hanging on for a top 10).

Stunned would be an understandable reaction to Richmond, too, especially given the circumstances. When the race restarted, there were six green-flags left. As it turned out, because of a caution on the next lap, just four of the final 12 laps were contested under green.

Why not elect to remain on track or try a swifter two-tire stop rather than stay behind the top contenders?

For three drivers – Austin Dillon, David Ragan and Matt DiBenedetto – the strategy play wasn’t much of a choice. They took a wavearound 20 laps earlier and probably couldn’t risk the extra distance on tires.

But for every other driver who was trailing as eventual race winner Kyle Busch entered the pits on Lap 391 – a list that comprised, in running order, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott, Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, William Byron, Jimmie Johnson, Erik Jones, Aric Almirola and Daniel Suarez – rolling the dice was a legitimate option.

Ten of those 13 drivers don’t have a win, which is the easiest way to qualify for a playoff berth. While you can make the case for “every point matters,” if you were running outside the top 10 and had an opportunity to steal a victory, why pass it up?

Yes, worn tires would have factored into the call (it was roughly halfway through a typical green-flag run), and they highly increased the likelihood of spinning the tires and stacking up the restart.

That could have ruined the results for many other teams that then would have become the victim of circumstances beyond their control.

But who cares?

You are supposed to make life more difficult for competitors during a race, whether it’s by banging fenders or battling wits. There is no sense of entitlement or fair play that the front-running cars somehow “deserve” a clean restart to decide the race.

There also is strength in numbers. If the back half of the lead-lap cars had pitted, it would have been extremely difficult for the previous front-runners to regain many spots over barely three and a half laps of green on the 0.75-mile oval.

It certainly would have presented a show to watch unfold in a race that was relatively tame (though there was consistent passing for first and no runaway leader).

But fans were deprived of a potential slam-bang finish. Instead, we got another example of the garage groupthink that can be so pervasive, it comes at the detriment of competitive ingenuity.

When the 16-driver playoff field likely is set in September without some of those teams, none will point to Richmond as the race that cost them a championship bid because they won’t know for sure if it did.

Which is why at least a few of them should have tried to find out Saturday.


According to multiple media estimates, the crowd for Saturday night’s race was around 40,000. That would be up about 10,000 from the previous year on Sunday afternoon, which marked the second consecutive scheduled daytime start for Richmond’s spring race.

In moving both of its races back under the lights this season, track officials proclaimed that Saturday night racing was its “brand,” and the modest attendance uptick might affirm that.

However, does a track that once had a 112,000-seat capacity and sold out 33 consecutive races from 1992-2008 have its swagger back a little bit with the move?

Yes, there is that ongoing $30 million infield renovation that produced some positive vibes, and maybe encouraging signs have emerged from aligning with a renowned pro wrestling promoter in hopes of goosing promotions and ticket sales.

But with a (greatly reduced) capacity of more than 50,000, there probably were still at least 10,000 empty seats Saturday night. It was a good step forward but much work remains to be done in a market that always has been is a cornerstone for race fans.


Though it appeared to be triggered by Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s Ford scraping the wall, the final caution Saturday was sourced to “debris,” marking only the second debris yellow of the season and the first since the season-opening Daytona 500.

Last season, there were nine debris yellows through the first nine races.

This is the lowest total for debris yellows through nine races since at least 1990 (the first season in which caution reasons were listed for every race on Racing-Reference.info). There were four seasons (1990, ’91, ’92 and ’95) with three debris cautions through the first nine races.

As Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott noted postrace (and many others have said), last year’s implementation of stages came with a tacit understanding that the scheduled yellows would effectively serve as “planned” debris cautions.

NASCAR deserves credit for sticking to the pledge of letting races play out naturally, avoiding the quick-trigger temptation to bunch the field on restarts and draw the justified ire of its teams.


No one ever will confuse a seven-time champion with a wily starting pitcher, but Jimmie Johnson has been grinding out races this season with the efficacy of a journeyman trying to win without his best stuff every fifth day. As analyst Steve Letarte said Monday on NASCAR America, it’s tricky to keep winning as your fastball slides from 98 mph to 95, but Johnson is managing the dropoff.

Bristol (third) and Richmond (sixth) are the first time the Hendrick Motorsports driver has earned back-to-back top 10s since Dover and Charlotte last October, which isn’t exactly remarkable in a career with 344 top 10s in 588 starts (58.5 percent). But it’s been admirable to watch the way in which Johnson has adjusted to patiently gritting it out and making the most of what he is given.

During their heyday, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus could win on any Sunday because of their No. 48 Chevrolet’s speed. That they seem to be recalibrating their approaches is as impressive on some levels as their dominance.

“We’re taking steps forward,” Johnson said. “I’d love to take a jump forward, but we’re definitely taking steps forward.”

Maybe Johnson (whose quest to return to greatness was the subject of a well-done Associated Press story last week) should begin tweeting quotes from Jim Bouton instead of Babe Ruth.


So where are the Hendrick Chevrolets a quarter of the way into the Camaro era?

Elliott had said it would be reasonable to evaluate the team this season after Martinsville Speedway (when the West Coast Swing was over). Three races later, the No. 9 driver said he was “realistic” after finishing second at Richmond (where he mostly ran in the top 15 but benefited from some late breaks).

“I think we’ve been getting better, for sure, over the course of the past handful of weeks,” he said. “I thought (Bristol) was really probably our best effort as a company.

“I think we have to continue to be realistic with ourselves.  We can’t look at the results tonight and think we’re right there, because in reality I think we still have some work to do.  I think anybody amongst our team would say the same thing. I’m not knocking anyone, anybody on my team or whoever, but we all know we need to do better.  I think we just have to be realistic with ourselves.”

Talladega Superspeedway won’t reveal much next week, but the May stretch of Dover International Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway will be a critical test of how far Hendrick needs to go over the summer to be ready for a playoff push.


After coming up agonizingly short of a breakthrough victory at Richmond, Martin Truex Jr. at least can erase some of the sting at Talladega. The defending series champion has yet to win a restrictor plate race in 52 starts, which still falls short of his 0-for-75 record on short tracks.

According to Racing Insights, Truex (16 victories) ranks second behind Greg Biffle (19) for most wins without a short-track triumph. (Sterling Marlin is third with 10).

Truex said last year he needed to race “more like a jerk” to end his plate drought. With short tracks, it might be as simple as catching some good luck if the last two visits to Richmond are an indication.

Kyle Busch charges from back to win at Richmond in overtime

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Kyle Busch charged from the 32nd starting spot to win in overtime Saturday night at Richmond Raceway and score his third consecutive Cup victory, matching what Kevin Harvick did earlier this season.

The last time two different drivers won three consecutive races in the same season was 2015 when Busch and Joey Logano did so.

Busch took the lead off pit road with 32 laps to go and led all but one lap the rest of the way. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver held the top spot through two more cautions.

MORE: Race results 

MORE: Points report

“The pit crew tonight, they won this race for us,’’ Busch told Fox in Victory Lane after his fifth career Richmond triumph. “Got us where we needed to be.’’

Chase Elliott finished second and was followed by Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick in a race extended two laps by overtime. Elliott, winless in Cup, scored his eighth career series runner-up result. His father, Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, recorded eight second-place finishes before he scored his first series win.

Martin Truex Jr., seeking to score his first career Cup victory on a short track, saw his chances end on a slow pit stop with 10 laps left that dropped him from second to 11th. Truex, who led a race-high 121 laps, finished 14th.

Stage 1 winner: Joey Logano

Stage 2 winner: Joey Logano

How Kyle Busch won: He took the lead on pit road late and stayed out front through the late restarts.

Who had a good race: Chase Elliott rallied late to finish second for his best result of the season. … Denny Hamlin’s third-place finish matched his best result of the season set in the Daytona 500. … Joey Logano (fourth) has placed in the top four in the last three races at Richmond. … Kevin Harvick (fifth) earned his seventh top-10 finish in the last eight races. … Jimmie Johnson finished sixth after hitting the wall early. He fell a lap down before recovering. … Matt DiBenedetto tied his season-best result by placing 16th. He’s finished 16th, 21st and 16th in his last three races.

Who had a bad race: Martin Truex Jr. appeared headed to his first Cup win at a short track until late cautions proved to be his undoing. A bad pit stop ruined his night. He finished 14th. … Ryan Newman suffered damage in a late incident and finished 37th in the 38-car field. … David Ragan, who ran in the top 20 during the event, finished 33rd after a late crash.

Notable: Kyle Busch’s 46th career victory ties Buck Baker for 15th on the all-time list. … 46 Wins – Kyle Busch-Buck Baker comparison. … Busch’s 14th win at a short track ties him with Jimmie Johnson for most among active drivers. 

Quote: “I don’t know what we’ve got to do to win one of these short tracks. Tonight, we beat ourselves,’’ Martin Truex Jr. said to Fox after the race.

Next: The series races at Talladega Superspeedway on April 29.

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Starting lineup for Cup race at Richmond

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Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott will start on the front row for Saturday night’s Cup race at Richmond Raceway.

Truex won his third pole of the season.

The top five is completed by Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson.

Kyle Busch, who is trying to win a third consecutive race, qualified 32nd.

Click here for the starting lineup.

Podcast: Front Row Motorsports explains how it improves with smaller budget, unique sponsor deals

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Running a Cup Series team is not a cheap endeavor.

One person who knows this is Jerry Freeze, the general manager of Front Row Motorsports.

Owned by Bob Jenkins, the two-car Ford team runs the No. 34 of Michael McDowell and No. 38 of David Ragan and has a technical partnership with Roush Fenway Racing.

Freeze sat down with Nate Ryan on the NASCAR on NBC podcast to discuss how FRM works with smaller budgets and its unique business-to-business sponsorship deals through Jenkins’ trucking company, MDS Transport, and restaurant business, Charter Foods.

Freeze calls Love’s Travel Shops, which sponsors half the races on McDowell’s car, a “textbook example” of such a deal. Their partnership began in 2013.

“Bob owns a trucking company with about 300 over the road truck on the road,” Freeze said. “They’ve got to get fuel somewhere. That’s kind of how the Love’s Travel Shop deal started for us.”

Freeze describes it as a “slightly smaller scale” version of the relationship between Team Penske and Shell.

Unlike larger teams, Front Row doesn’t yet have an optical scanning station at its shop to mimic this season’s new system for inspecting cars at the track. There is one available to teams at the NASCAR R&D Center in Concord, North Carolina,

“We went into it thinking, ‘We’ll never need to have one of those, NASCAR’s got one, we can go over there whenever we want,’ ” Freeze said.

The team also relies on the scanner located at Roush Fenway Racing. But it’s a challenge to take cars to Roush, with its shop also in Concord, nearly an hour away from Front Row’s base in Statesville.

Buying its own scanner is beginning to look like a “necessary evil” for Freeze, who said he’s heard it might cost at least $300,000 but would be worth the investment because teams need to check the cars many times through the building process.

“I think if you’re really going to try to optimize the car through each step of what you do, that might be the way to go,” Freeze said.

When it comes to becoming more competitive, Freeze and Jenkins have been encouraged to invest more resources and money into the team by moves NASCAR has made to lower costs, including requiring teams to use engines in multiple races, spec radiators and the controversial common pit guns.

“It put it in a place where, yeah, it’s still pretty tough for Front Row to get to, but it’s not as high as it use to be,” Freeze said of the engine rule. “With spec radiators, we were spending $9,000 for radiator in the past. Now a spec radiator is, I don’t know, a third of that.”

Freeze also addressed the future of one of the team’s three charters, which is leased to TriStar Motorsports this season.

“You can’t do that forever with the way the rules are set up,” Freeze said. “We’ll have to make a decision, either we’ve got to operate (it) ourselves or maybe we sell it to TriStar some day, I don’t know. … Even though we weren’t in a position to run three cars and we’re still not today, it’s kind of nice to have in your pocket just in case something came along that was just phenomenal, and we needed one.”

Click on the embed above to hear the podcast. It also is available on Apple Podcasts, Google Play and Stitcher.

List of songs from Bristol driver introductions

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It was a rainy morning at Bristol Motor Speedway and more could come this afternoon, but that didn’t keep the traditional driver introductions from taking place at the half-mile track before the Food City 500.

Here’s the complete list of songs drivers were introduced with. All songs were voted on by fans, who were given three options to choose from.

More than 100,000 votes were cast.

Here are the results and the percentage of the vote each song received.

Winning Fan Vote Songs

Kyle Busch – “All I Do is WIN” by DJ Khaled, 47 percent

Kurt Busch – “Outlaw State of Mind” by Chris Stapleton, 47 percent

Brad Keselowski  -“Little Deuce Coupe” by The Beach Boys, 40 percent

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – “People Back Home” by Florida Georgia Line, 44 percent

Ryan Blaney – “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash, 54 percent

Kyle Larson – “Dirt Road Anthem” by Jason Aldean, 56 percent

Paul Menard – “R.O.C.K. in the USA” by John Mellencamp, 50 percent

Alex Bowman – “Rise” by I Prevail, 60 percent

Michael McDowell – “Taken it to the Streets” by The Doobie Brothers, 66 percent

Joey Logano  -“Brass Monkey” by The Beastie Boys, 47 percent

William Byron – “Fan the Flames” by Liberty University, 41 percent

Daniel Suarez  – “Speedy Gonzalez” by Pat Boone, 50 percent

Erik Jones – “You Ain’t Seen Nothin Yet” by Bachman Turner Overdrive, 37 percent

Clint Bowyer – “Country Boy Can Survive” by Hank Williams Jr., 51 percent

Kasey Kahne – “5-1-5-0” by Dierks Bentley, 41 percent

Chase Elliott “A Crazy Racin’ Man” by Bill Elliott, 58 percent

Jimmie Johnson – “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes, 50 percent

AJ Allmendinger – “I’m Alright” by Kenny Logins, 46 percent

Aric Almirola  – “Miami Vice” 50 percent

Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. – “Into The Fire” by Asking Alexandria, 65 percent

Austin Dillon – “Cowboy” by Kid Rock, 58 percent

Chris Buescher -“Pork and Beans” by Weezer, 42 percent

David Ragan – “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by the Charlie Daniels Band, 49 percent

Matt DiBenedetto – “John Cena Theme Song,” 41 percent

Denny Hamlin – “Forever” by Drake, Kanye West, Lil Wayne & Eminem, 45 percent

Martin Truex Jr. “Nothing But The Taillights” by Clint Black, 57 percent

Ross Chastain – “Watermelon Crawl” by Tracy Byrd

Gray Gaulding – “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins

Landon Cassill – “Going to Mars” by Judah and the Lion

Ryan Newman – “Huntin, Fishin & Lovin Every Day” by Luke Bryan, 53 percent

Jamie McMurray – “One” by Metallica, 42 percent

Ty Dillon – “Walk it Like I Talk It” by Migos, 51 percent

Trevor Bayne – “Rocky Top” by the Pride of the Southland Marching Band, 60 percent

Corey LaJoie – “Walmart Yodeling Song”

DJ Kennington – “The Hockey Song”

Reed Sorenson – “Motorsport” by Migos

Harrison Rhodes – “Enter Sandman” by Metallica

Chad Finchum – “Where I Come From” by Alan Jackson, 49 percent

Kevin Harvick – “Happy” by Pharrell, 37 percent