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.

Ryan Blaney thankful for support after Daytona 500 incident

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Ryan Blaney said he didn’t want to talk to many people the night of the Daytona 500 after contact with Ryan Newman triggered Newman’s horrific last-lap crash.

But when Blaney got home, his parents were there.

“That was nice of them to be there,” Blaney said Friday at Auto Club Speedway, the first time he’s talked to the media about the Daytona 500 since that night.  

Blaney was ashen when he spoke briefly to the media after the season-opening Daytona 500. As he spoke, an ambulance drove by on the frontstretch, taking Newman to the hospital.

Blaney was intent on pushing Newman, a fellow Ford driver, to the victory when it became clear to Blaney he could not win the race. But as he pushed Newman coming to the finish, the contact unsettled Newman’s car and it turned right into the outside wall. Newman’s car went airborne and was slammed in the driver side area while upside down by Corey LaJoie.

Newman walked out of a Daytona Beach hospital two days later. Newman said last weekend in a statement that he suffered a head injury but did not disclose any details. He has since been to Roush Fenway Racing to see team members and also did a video for one of the team’s sponsors that day. Newman will not race this weekend, missing his second consecutive race but said in his statement he looks forward to racing again.

MORE: Ryan Blaney talks to Ryan Newman, looks forward to seeing him at track

Blaney said several people helped him in the aftermath of Newman’s accident. All that was known the night of the race was that Newman was in serious condition with a non-life-threatening injury.

Blaney said close friend Bubba Wallace spent time with him the day after the Daytona 500.

“We talked about some stuff,” Blaney said Friday of what he and Wallace did. “I stayed off social media and all that stuff. You have people that aren’t even involved and have never even watched the sport that have their own opinion on bad things.

“The outreach I got from the calls from former drivers and current drivers that week was pretty remarkable. Their support was good. Even though it is unintentional and it is racing, it still takes a toll on you when it is off of your nose. You never want to see anyone get hurt in this sport. We are all competitors, but we are also a big family.

“Ryan and I have gotten along really well and that was just a bad circumstance and it is great that it worked out for the best. It was nice to have the friends and family and drivers and teams (offer their) support. That really helped me out.”

Blaney cited a couple of former drivers whose calls were impactful.

Jeff Burton and Bobby Labonte called me, people that I looked up to a lot as a kid,” Blaney said. “It was neat that they called me and gave me their peace of mind. That was good.”

Friday also marked the first time for Blaney to speak publicly since last weekend’s race at Las Vegas. Blaney led but a late caution changed the race. He and Alex Bowman, running second, were among drivers who pitted. Joey Logano, running third, did not pit, inherited the lead and went on to win. Blaney finished 11th.

Blaney said Friday it took him 10 minutes to get over how that race ended.

“Yeah, it was over,” Blaney said. “Moving on. I went and stayed in a teepee and forgot about it.”

About his experience staying in a teepee, Blaney said:

“I already had that planned no matter what happened. I like camping. I was out on a ranch in the middle of the desert for a couple days and just hanging out and all that stuff. It was fun.”

As for what he did, Blaney said: “Go hiking a little bit. Cook by the fire. Clear your head. It is just relaxing. I have always kind of been that way. It was nice to get out there. I was out there. I had to be out there for Tuesday night anyway and figured I would stay somewhere other than the (Las Vegas) Strip. I can’t do the strip for very long. I wanted to stay somewhere opposite to the Strip.”

Alex Bowman fastest in final Cup practice at Auto Club Speedway

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Alex Bowman completed a sweep of Friday’s Cup Series practice sessions at Auto Club Speedway by posting the top speed in final practice. He was also fastest in first practice.

Bowman’s top speed was 176.626 mph. He recorded 32 laps in the session.

The top five was completed by Ryan Blaney (176.186 mph), Bubba Wallace (176.177), Kurt Busch (175.816) and Christopher Bell (175.695).

Bowman also had the best 10-lap average at 175.317 mph.

Kurt Busch recorded the most laps with 47.

The only incident in the session was defending race winner Kyle Busch brushing the wall in Turn 3 after his car got away from him on the bumps in the corner. Repairs were made to the car and Busch returned to the track with 17 minutes left in the session.

Click here for the speed chart.

 

Alex Bowman tops field in opening Cup practice at Auto Club

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Alex Bowman posted the fastest lap in opening Cup practice Friday at Auto Club Speedway. Bowman ran a top lap of 179.439 mph.

Bowman was followed by Kyle Larson (177.703 mph), Tyler Reddick (177.607), Kurt Busch (177.375) and Matt DiBenedetto (176.609).

Click here for full practice report

There were no incidents in the session.

Final Cup practice is scheduled from 5:35-6:25 p.m. ET today. Qualifying will be Saturday.

Xfinity practice report at Auto Club Speedway

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Harrison Burton was fastest in the final Xfinity Series practice session Friday at Auto Club Speedway.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver recorded 22 laps and posted a top speed of 174.474 mph in the 25-minute session.

The top five was completed by Noah Gragson (173.779 mph), Austin Cindric (173.775), Chase Briscoe (173.578) and Brandon Jones (173.578).

Burton also had the best 10-lap average at 170.422 mph.

Gragson recorded the most laps in the session with 25.

There were no incidents in the session.

Click here for the practice report.

First practice

Noah Gragson led the way for the Xfinity Series in the opening practice session that saw more than half the 50-minute period under caution at Auto Club Speedway

Gragson ran a top lap of 177.139 mph. He was followed by Austin Cindric (176.022), Daniel Hemric (175.400), Brandon Jones (175.366) and Harrison Burton (175.187).

Click here for full practice report

Alex Labbe brought out the caution when an oil line came loose and he put oil down on the track. The cleanup took about 20 minutes.

Tommy Joe Martins brought out the caution late in the session with smoke coming from the car and then a small fire in the right front of the car.