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.

NASCAR America: Martin Truex Jr. looks for rebound at reliable Kansas

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Martin Truex Jr. started the playoffs on good footing, finishing third in the first two races at Las Vegas and Richmond after leading the most laps in both races. He then was one turn away from winning on the Charlotte Roval before being spun by Jimmie Johnson.

Then he more or less disappeared, with his last two races culminating in a “miserable” run at Talladega and a 23rd-place finish.

Entering this weekend’s elimination race at Kansas, where he’s won two of the last three races, Truex is 18 points above the cutoff spot in the last transfer position.

On NASCAR America, Parker Kligerman and Dale Jarrett discussed the defending series champion’s prospects entering Kansas.

“Someone is always having a problem and falling out of that eighth (playoff seed in the elimination race),” Jarrett said. “Can that happen this Sunday afternoon? It certainly can happen. Can Martin Truex be that one? You wouldn’t think (so) because he’s done so well over the years at this race track regardless of what car he was driving. … He just knows how to get the job done there.”

Kligerman said “there’s no doubt in my mind that they will advance” if the No. 78 team does everything they do well.

Watch the above video for more.

 

 

Long: Is Talladega supposed to look like this?

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So what is NASCAR? Is it a sport? Or is it a show?

Admittedly, those in the NASCAR offices likely will view its racing as both. But that creates a conflict over how to look at Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway.

If one views it as a sporting event, Stewart-Haas Racing’s domination — qualifying all of its cars in the top four, running there much of the race and Aric Almirola winning with Clint Bowyer second — should be celebrated because SHR did what every team hopes to do every weekend.

But that performance doesn’t play well to the overall view of the race (or show). With SHR controlling the front and drivers battling ill-handling cars, the two- and three-wide racing so common at Talladega often was replaced by single-file racing.

The 15 lead changes were the fewest at Talladega since 1973.

Green flag passes — a stat NASCAR tracks based on position changes over each scoring loop on every lap — were down 54.4 percent from last fall’s playoff race at Talladega.

Think about that … lead changes at its lowest level since before any driver in Sunday’s race was born and green-flag passes down more than 50 percent from the previous year.

Is that something fans want to see more of?

Doesn’t seem to be the case based on Jeff Gluck’s weekly Twitter poll. He stated that only 42 percent of those who voted this week thought Talladega was a good race.

Fewer than 50 percent of the voters said either Talladega race this year was a good one in Gluck’s poll. The April race had 24 lead changes — the fewest for that event since 19 lead changes in the 1998 race — and saw a 57.8 percent decline in green-flag passes.

There’s an expectation when NASCAR races at Daytona and Talladega of pack racing, passing and wild action.

Such was in limited supply at both Talladega races this year. But it wasn’t just there. The four plate races (Daytona and Talladega) saw 89 lead changes this season — down 29.4 percent from last year’s plate races.

While three of the four plate races this year ended with a last-lap pass (Austin Dillon in the Daytona 500, Erik Jones at Daytona in July and Aric Almirola at Talladega last weekend), not everyone may be willing to wait through the racing to those final laps.

With the 2019 rules package, NASCAR anticipates pack racing to remain key at Daytona and Talladega but Sunday’s race might force series officials to make some additional changes to ensure the pack is back next year.


Questions have been raised about how NASCAR officiated the end of the Truck and Cup races this weekend at Talladega.

Kurt Busch was critical of NASCAR’s decision. Had NASCAR called a caution for the crash in Turn 1 on the last lap, Busch likely would have won. Instead, he ran out of fuel and Aric Almirola won.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, explained Monday on SirusXM NASCAR Radio how series officials made the call on if to throw the caution in either race.

“Our first job is to always make sure everybody is safe, and we felt we did that in this case,” O’Donnell said about letting the Cup race finish under green.

While each last-lap scenario presents different challenges, NASCAR must remain steadfast in following what O’Donnell said in terms of driver safety. That must be No. 1 regardless of it is the last lap at Talladega, the last lap of the Daytona 500 or the last lap of the championship race in Miami.

NASCAR must be consistent with that. And that may mean calling for a caution instead of a dramatic race to the finish line.


It won’t be next year but maybe someday GMS Racing likely will field a Cup team.

GMS Racing, owned by Maury Gallagher, was in talks with Furniture Row Racing earlier this year to purchase the team’s charter, align with Joe Gibbs Racing and move to Cup next season. It’s one of the reasons why the team, through Mike Beam, didn’t try to top Front Row Motorsports’ bid for BK Racing’s charter and equipment in a court-appointed auction in August.

After examining all the costs, Gallagher decided not to pursue the Furniture Row Racing charter and equipment.

“We’re still talking and thinking about it, but first things first, we’re trying to get through this year and do some good things, particularly winning the (Truck) championship,” Gallagher said after Timothy Peters won the Truck race at Talladega.

Spencer Gallagher called the deal not working out a “tempered disappointment” but added “we got into that deal and we realized that we were going to have to undertake some additional complications with it. More than anything, if and when we make the decision to go Cup racing, I’d like to think that if we have one true luxury it is that we get to choose when and where we get to do it, which means that we’re committed to only doing it if it can be done right.

“As Maury likes to say, there’s always another deal that comes along. Patience is our watchword for getting ourselves into Cup.”

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NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Kansas preview, Scan All Talladega

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and continues to look at the fallout of the Talladega Cup race.

Carolyn Manno hosts with Parker Kligerman from the Stamford Studio. Dale Jarrett joins them from the Charlotte Studio.

On today’s show:

  • As the playoffs head for Kansas, only Aric Almirola and Chase Elliott are safe. And as we’ve seen in years past, big names have entered the Round of 12 cut race with good points cushions – only to meet with disaster and elimination. Which driver above the cut line should be the most worried?
  • Marty Snider is at Stewart-Haas Racing with a report on how they’re looking to have all four of their drivers advance again in the playoffs. Plus – he talks 1-on-1 with Aric Almirola’s crew chief, John Klausmeier, about how the No. 10 team is preparing for the Round of 8.
  • Almirola and Co. are riding high, but Brad Keselowski and the No. 2 crew are in big trouble. A three-week series of unfortunate events have put them 18 points behind the cut line. Can they find a way to save their season? Steve Letarte talks with their champion crew chief, Paul Wolfe.
  • And we’ll take one last look – and listen – to last weekend’s wild finish that shook up the playoff picture in Scan All Talladega.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Aric Almirola ended third longest drought between first, second Cup wins

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Despite being just over four years ago, July 6, 2014 feels like it was in another lifetime.

Now imagine how Aric Almirola felt prior to his win Sunday in the Cup race at Talladega.

It had been 149 races since Almirola first visited Victory Lane in the Cup Series. He won the rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 at Daytona in 2014 driving Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 43 Ford.

When Almirola passed Kurt Busch coming to the checkered flag Sunday, it snapped the third-longest streak of starts between wins No. 1 and No. 2 in the Cup Series.

Here are the top five longest streaks.

1. Martin Truex Jr.  – 218 starts between wins

Truex’s first win came on June 4, 2007 at Dover International Speedway while driving Dale Earnhardt Inc.’s No. 1 Chevrolet.

He would have to wait until June 23, 2013 at Sonoma Raceway to get win No. 2, this time coming in Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 56 Toyota

2. Jamie McMurray – 165 starts between wins

McMurray famously earned his first Cup win in his second career start. Subbing for an injured Sterling Marlin in Chip Ganassi’s No. 40 Dodge, McMurray won on Oct. 13, 2002 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Win No. 2 did not present itself until July 7, 2007 at Daytona. Driving the No. 26 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing, McMurray beat Kyle Busch by five-thousandths of a second to return to Victory Lane.

3. Aric Almirola  – 149 starts between wins

4. Ward Burton – 131 starts between wins

Burton won his first Cup race in his sophomore season, driving the No. 22 Pontiac for Bill Davis Racing. He won on Oct. 22, 1995 at Rockingham Motor Speedway.

Five years later and still driving the No. 22 for Davis, Burton returned to Victory Lane on March 19, 2000 at Darlington Raceway.

5. Morgan Shepherd – 115 starts between wins

After making eight Cup starts from 1970 – 1978, Shepherd finally ran a majority of the schedule in 1981, running all but the first two races. His first win came relatively quickly in race No. 9 on April 26 at Martinsville Speedway.

The second victory came on March 16, 1986 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Of Shepherd’s four career wins, three came at Atlanta.

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