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.

What drivers said after Coca-Cola 600

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Kyle Busch – Winner: “It’s awesome. I mean I’ve dreamt of that – not only winning here and winning the Coke 600 as a kid and being in victory lane here for this race, but to just be a force that people got to be reckoned with, you know. I go across the country and race Super Late Models because I want to win at every single race track. I just want to show that there is no weakness. My guys have given me that chance here tonight and being able to get to victory lane with this M&M’s Toyota – it sure looks pretty in victory lane here tonight. I definitely want to give a shoutout to all of our men and women, all the service men and women across the world past and present, fallen and of today’s heroes – we had (SGT) Eric Toth with us here and his family riding along with us this weekend, so that was a pleasure. Got to meet up with them earlier and spend some time, so that was really cool.”

Martin Truex Jr. – Finished 2nd: “I mean we definitely gained some ground that last run, but I think (Busch) might have just been taking care of it. Just definitely just a battle-back night for us. The speeding penalty and then the pit road penalty right after that in just two stops. It really hurt us and it’s hard to pass – hard to come from behind with these cars right now with the flat splitters and everything they’ve done to them the past month and a half or so. It was good to be able to get back up to second. I thought we had the second-best car all night. I don’t think anybody had anything for that 18. He was stout. We gained a little on him that last run under green, but like I said, I think he was just taking care of it a little bit.”

Denny Hamlin – Finished 3rd: “We’re third or fourth best every week.  That’s frustrating.  But it could be 35 spots worse.  We’ve just got to ‑‑ we just need two or three tenths a lap.  It seems like that’s kind of what I’m off, and I just can’t get the speed out of the car.  I was just handling a certain way, and it’s just a razor’s edge for us.  We’re either really good or we’re average at best.”

Brad Keselowski – Finished 4th: “I thought the 78 (Truex) was really strong, him and the 18 (Busch) were probably pretty close. I don’t know, he had some kind of issues that kept holding him back, but they were just in another league. I ran as hard as I could tonight and the team did a great job the last few stops to put us in a position and that was just kind of what we had. We’ll go back to the drawing board and try to find some more speed. If we keep this execution that we had tonight, then we’ll get some wins, but we’ve got to have more speed.”

Jimmie Johnson – Finished 5th: “It feels good, but damn I want to win. I’m tired of running fifth, I’m tired of running whatever it is. We got off on some adjustments today and it was amazing how sensitive the car was with some minor adjustments the car just lost half a second. We had a hard time trying to grasp it and understand it and communicate about it. We put it back to the way it was and it took off and I drove right back up into the top three. Just a very small sweet spot with the car. Luckily, we finished in that sweet spot and got a good finish out of it, including a spin and we had a jack break on a stop. We had to overcome a lot tonight. Really proud of these guys. Wish that I could have got this special paint scheme into Victory Lane with the soldier we were carrying on the car today.”

Jamie McMurray – Finished 6th: “Yeah, I don’t know what was wrong with the tires we had two sets that they felt loose like it shook so bad that I pitted that one time under green and then we had a real short run and I had to pit again. I was just positive they were loose, but they said there was nothing wrong, but it was shaking so bad I mean I was scared so I went ahead and pitted. But, we had a really good car and we’ve come a long way, especially the Chevy’s from the beginning of the year 1.5-miles. I think in less than a month we will contend to win. That is a good feeling.”

Kyle Larson – Finished 7th: “I’m bummed I gave up some track position when I got into the wall, but I was glad to see our team stay with it and come back for a top-10 finish tonight. Our DC Solar Chevy was pretty good all night, but we had to adjust on it throughout the race to stay ahead of some vibrations in the rear of the car. We had a shake to start the race, and I think that’s what upset me when I got into the wall, but we were able to work around it. This hasn’t been a great race for me, so glad to see us come away with a good finish tonight.”

Kurt Busch – Finished 8th: “We just didn’t do anything spectacular tonight. We had one really good restart, but we were positioned for restarting fourth. We struggled on pit stops the first half of the race, but the second half they cleaned them up and we kept up with the track as best we could. We just didn’t have any short-run speed that was stellar. We didn’t have any long-run speed that was stellar. We kind of just did everything as a top 10 team would do and I’m glad we put the Haas Automation Ford in eighth. We’ll have to keep fighting.”

Alex Bowman – Finished 9th: “Yeah, for sure, to qualify 27th and finish ninth it was definitely a good night. I feel like it was way more pit crew than anything. My pit crew they killed it on pit road all night. They did a great job and got us a couple of spots on that last green flag stop. Extremely proud of those guys. Greg (Ives, crew chief) made good calls from on top of the box and our car was much better than it had been all week. Happy for that. I really like this place, so hopefully when… well I guess we are coming back to the ROVAL, so it doesn’t really matter, but hopefully next year we run a little better here.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – Finished 10th: “I’m real happy. I think we were a little concerned, even though the package wasn’t the same as the All-Star Race, I feel like we made some gains for the 1.5-mile program this year. I felt like this is about where we were last year at this time, so for us to start the year off from where we did last year, I feel good that we’re headed in the right direction. It’s never as fast as you want. It was a tough battle for us out there. We were really good the first two stages and made an adjustment and was off for two runs – a full stage and had to fight back to get that track position. All in all, it was a good day to come back.”

Chase Elliott – Finished 11th: “Thought we were better than we have been lately, which is nice. I just hit the wall towards the end and it ended up costing us, I think, the finish we deserved.”

Clint Bowyer – Finished 12th: “It’s frustrating. You come here and it’s a long race, and what a weird race. It was like we had track position and cars were way back and laps down and then all the wrecks opened the door for them to get the laps back. Then we lost track position on tires there and kind of halfway got it back, but it was just a frustrating weekend altogether, really.”

Aric Almirola – Finished 13th: “We just missed it. The first half of the race was pretty good for us and then we missed an opportunity to pit there when we kind of stayed out on older tires and we were one of the last couple cars on old tires, and we went from running in the top five or six to finishing that third stage in 17th and then that’s kind of the end of the night. That last run went green, so I hate it. We had extra tires laying in the pits, but they didn’t do us any good.”

Daniel Suarez – Finished 15th: “It was a decent finish with our Interstate Batteries Camry. The guys did a good job working on the racecar, but the car didn’t have a lot of speed. We had a 14th- or 15th-place car at times. We had issues with a vibration and lost two laps, but we were able to overcome that, but it took us a long time because we didn’t have a lot of speed. We have to go back home, work hard and try to get better and see what happens at Pocono.”

Ty Dillon – Finished 21st: “I’ve been telling everyone all season that we’re constantly growing and improving as a race team, and we certainly showed everyone that this weekend. We had speed on Thursday and had our best qualifying effort of the year. We worked hard in practice on Saturday and felt really good about our chances in the race. There were definitely challenges throughout the night, but it was a good race for us in comparison to other mile and a half tracks we have run this year. I ran on the lead lap for most of the night, even battling back to get our lap back in Stage 3, and our GEICO Military Camaro ZL1 had a pretty good balance under the lights. There is obviously still more work to be done, but we’re going to keep digging and getting stronger every week.”

Ryan Blaney – Finished 36th: “We had a cylinder let go maybe around lap 150 and we were just trying to limp it home. When they go that early you don’t expect it to last all race, but it lasted a lot longer than I thought and then it finally let go into one there. That stinks. I thought we had a really good car. I would have liked to see how the race would have progressed for us, but we won’t see that anymore. Hopefully, we can go out and have a good run at Pocono and then at Michigan.

William Byron – Finished 39th: “We just were really loose and just trying to make the top work. I just got loose, the car came around and hit the wall and then we had a bunch of damage. It started rubbing on the tire and then it wasn’t rubbing on the tire, it was cleared, but it just felt like something broke going into (Turn) 3 and we just hit the wall again and then we had an electrical issue. Unfortunate, but we will go to Pocono and figure it out there.”

Kevin Harvick – Finished 40th: “We stood in the garage and looked at it and I can’t tell if we ran something over. There’s enough things that could have happened right there, but I’m just really proud of everybody on our Mobil 1/Busch Ford. The car was really, really fast. We came all the way through the pack and made it up into the top three there and sometimes those things happen. I can’t complain about anything that’s happened this year. We have to take the good with the bad. The guys did a great job in basically guessing at where the car needed to be today with all the penalties, no practice and starting in the back. To come out and have the fastest car again was quite an honor to drive and they’re doing a great job. It was just bad luck.”

Martin Truex Jr. charges to second place in Coke 600 despite pit issues

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CONCORD, N.C. — The only reason Martin Truex Jr. didn’t get a shot at celebrating his second Coca-Cola 600 win was because the guy who finished in front of him – Kyle Busch – was “flawless.”

That’s how Truex’s crew chief, Cole Pearn, described Busch’s night.

Truex’s 600 miles were anything but.

The No. 78 Toyota finished second in Sunday night’s race despite qualifying 15th and suffering consecutive pit road penalties, for speeding on Lap 203 and an uncontrolled tire on Lap 227.

The speeding penalty came after Truex entered and exited the pits in second.

Then there was the pit guns.

Pearn told NBC Sports the team went through three pit guns during the 400-lap race. One mishap resulted in the second penalty.

“The gun screwed up on the right rear and the front (tire) changer left and left the tire sitting there, cause usually the rear carrier comes to get it,” Pearn said. “But we went through three guns tonight … The whole reason we got the uncontrolled tire was cause the gun screwed up.”

Truex said the pit gun problem was “one of those freak things” where it reversed on the changer as he was hitting the fifth lug nut and he had to manually switch it back.

The No. 78 also had one unsecured lug nut following the race.

Even with the issues, Truex said it was a “solid day overall” for his team, which earned its third consecutive top five.

As for the speeding penalty?

“I can’t wait to see the time,” Truex said. “It couldn’t have been much. But I just hit some of those bumps a little bit wrong and got going a little too fast and tapped the brake just a split second too late. I typically don’t get a lot of speeding penalties, so Cole won’t ride my butt too hard this week about it.”

Truex said his team “cleaned it up well” after that.

The final restart came with 93 laps to go and Truex restarting eighth. With 55 to go he was in second, but lost multiple spots during green flag stops.

But he was back in second with 34 to go.

That’s when Pearn and his team started “praying” for a restart.

“I thought we were really equal to them the last few runs of the race,” Pearn said. “It was just a matter of track position and chasing from behind.”

Two years after Truex led 392 laps to capture his Coke 600 win, Busch led 377 while sweeping all four stages.

It was also the first time Truex hadn’t led a lap in the race since 2014.

“At the end of the day, we ran second,” Truex said. “He kicked everybody’s tail. That’s just the way it goes.”

Points after Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway

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Kyle Busch padded his NASCAR Cup points lead by winning all three stages of the Coca-Cola 600 and the race.

Busch added eight playoff points to his total as a result of this performance and now has 25 playoff points to Kevin Harvick‘s 24.

Joey Logano is second in the standings – 67 points behind Busch.

The battle for the final transfer position into the playoffs got even tighter as Chase Elliott and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. have 296 points apiece. Elliott finished 11th in the Coke 600; Stenhouse finished 10th.

Click here for the full points report.

Results, stats for Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway

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Kyle Busch dominated the Coca-Cola 600 and became the first driver in NASCAR history to win on every track where he has competed.

Busch won all three stages and paced the field for 377 of the 400 laps.

Martin Truex, Jr. finished second and was able to close the distance slightly during the final stage as Busch seemingly managed the gap between the two.

Denny Hamlin finished third to score his third consecutive top five at this track and his 14th top 10 in the last 16 Charlotte races.

Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson rounded out the top five.

This was the second top five earned by Johnson this season.

Click here for full results.