Ryan: Three thoughts on Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Raceway

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Recapping some takeaways after the rain-delayed Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway:

  1. 1. At Richmond, the difference is day and night: Most racetracks in the Sprint Cup Series are temperature sensitive, and that was evident in the third event delayed to Sunday over the past eight years at Richmond International Raceway. Denny Hamlin was a favorite entering the race after leading all but two laps in an Xfinity Series win Friday night at RIR, but he plummeted from his second-place starting position and never contended as crew chief Dave Rogers admitted the team “just missed it.” Meanwhile, the fortunes were reversed for two drivers who struggled in an early Friday evening qualifying session: Jimmie Johnson drove from 36th to third, and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne went from 40th to sixth. In the past three rescheduled races at RIR, Johnson has a first, first and a third, suggesting that the six-time series champion might be suited better for running the 0.75-mile oval in the daytime when the surface is slicker.
  2. 2. Another rebalancing of power: Joe Gibbs Racing had won the first two short-track races of the season, providing some hope that the team was closing the gap on Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske after trailing for much of last season. But Sunday’s race at Richmond seemed a reprise of 2014. With Hendrick-supplied chassis and horsepower, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick swept the top two spots, followed by two drivers with Hendrick engines (Johnson and Jamie McMurray), Joey Logano’s Penske Ford and then another Hendrick driver (Kahne). The top Toyota/JGR finisher was seventh-place Matt Kenseth, who showed glimpses of strength after last week’s win at Bristol Motor Speedway. It was a reality check for the building narrative that JGR might be returning to its 2013 dominance on short tracks.
  3. 3. Split fortunes at Stewart-Haas Racing: While Busch and Harvick are posting results that prove their team is building the best cars in NASCAR’s premier series, the results have been equally as deflating on the other side of the Kannapolis-based shop. Richmond was another forgettable outcome for Tony Stewart, who placed 41st after tangling with Dale Earnhardt Jr. It was the worst finish since a 42nd in the Daytona 500 for the three-time series champion, who lost the momentum of a season-best sixth the previous week at Bristol Motor Speedway. Though Stewart seemed to put the blame on Earnhardt (Stewart declined to speak with the news media), it seemed reminiscent of his crash at Phoenix International Raceway – sliding up the track while battling for position. Ranked 30th in points and struggling to adapt to lower-powered cars, it might have been another instance of pressing for Stewart, who ran in the top 10 during the first half for a while before beginning to fade. Danica Patrick also struggled at Richmond (finishing 25th after a fifth-lap collision with Casey Mears), further fueling questions about the curious dichotomy between the two halves of SHR.