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.

Brad Keselowski puts on driving clinic with convincing win at Martinsville

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Brad Keselowski put on a driving clinic Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, leading 446 of 500 laps to win the STP 500. It was Keselowski’s second win of the season (also won at Atlanta), and his fourth top-3 finish in the last five races.

It was also Keselowski’s 29th career Cup win and his second Cup Series triumph in 19 career starts at Martinsville, having also won in April 2017, as well as his eighth top-5 and 13th top-10 there.

Chase Elliott finished runner-up.

Kyle Busch, making the 1,000th overall start of his NASCAR career, finished third, snapping a two-race winning streak (Phoenix and Fontana). Busch and Keselowski are now the only two drivers to win more than one race thus far this season.

Ryan Blaney finished fourth, followed by Denny Hamlin. Sixth through 10th were Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., Aric Almirola and Daniel Suarez.

There were only three leaders in the race: Keselowski, Chase Elliott (49 laps) and Keselowski’s Team Penske teammate and pole sitter Joey Logano (6 laps).

STAGE 1 WINNER: Brad Keselowski (first stage win of season)

STAGE 2 WINNER: Brad Keselowski

WHAT’S NEXT: O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday, March 31 (Fox); green flag shortly after 3 p.m. ET.

We’ll be back with more information, including quotes, full results and updated standings. Please check back soon.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Kyle Busch has idea for NASCAR’s Xfinity, Truck limits

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Kyle Busch would entertain the opportunity to pursue the one NASCAR championship that has eluded him – in the Gander Outdoor Truck Series – when his Cup career is over.

But he’s got an idea that would allow him to run both series concurrently and address the limits on Cup drivers running in lower series.

“Why don’t you let us run as many races as we want to run and then once we miss one, we’re done?” Busch pondered after his victory Saturday in the TruNorth Global 250 truck race at Martinsville Speedway. “So if I go all the way to (the June 15 race at Iowa Speedway) in the trucks and run 10 races and can’t go to Iowa, I’m done.

“You can race for points or whatever and so if that ever came down to that, then maybe there’d be an opportunity years down the road that then you can run multiple series and try to go after a championship that way.”

What was NASCAR’s reaction to the plan?

“That’s probably the first time I’ve said that or thought about it,” Busch said with a laugh. “Now that it’s out there … there’s not a damn fan that’s ever going to let it happen.”

Indeed, Busch’s 201st career victory in a NASCAR national series drew the usual outrage on social media Saturday, both from his Rowdy Nation legion of fans and those who vehemently believe he should be limited beyond the NASCAR cap of five truck races and seven Xfinity races allowed for full-time Cup drivers.

Busch has won in seven of 11 starts in trucks, Xfinity and Cup this season.

“Could have been nine or 10 (victories) probably, that’s what the scary part is if it wasn’t for simple mistakes,” Busch said. “Overall, it’s been fun. It’s a damn shame I’m only allowed five and seven.”

Busch has two 2019 starts left in trucks: at Texas Motor Speedway next week and Charlotte Motor Speedway in May.

He said the chances are solid for going 5 for 5.

“I’d like to think Texas is a good place,” he said. “I think our guys have a good baseline. Charlotte is always one of my best tracks, favorite tracks and enjoy running there with the trucks, especially. There’s a good opportunity.

“It’s kind of an expectation (to win every race). We just go out, work hard and smart, and today we let the race play itself out and come to us.”

Busch won the 2009 Xfinity championship in the last season in which he ran full time in NASCAR’s top two series. He has focused solely on Cup full time since then, and NASCAR has changed rules over the past eight years limiting the ability to run for more than one title.

Despite 148 starts (and 54 victories), he is yet to run a full truck season, but the 2015 Cup champion has said he’d like to become the first driver to win a championship in each of NASCAR’s top three series.

Three Cup cars fail prerace inspection at Martinsville Speedway

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. — The cars of William Byron, DJ Kennington and Jeb Burton failed inspection Sunday morning at Martinsville Speedway.

Byron’s No. 24 Chevrolet failed mechanical measurements. His sixth-place qualifying time will be disallowed, and he will have to start from the rear.

Kennington failed the OSS. He qualified 34th.

Burton had qualified 33rd.

The three cars will officially start behind those that passed inspection. Cars that qualified behind them will move up one spot.

The No. 24 suffered a right-front tire problem in the opening minutes of first practice Saturday morning, and the team made repairs to put the car back on track.

Today’s Cup race at Martinsville Speedway: Start time, lineup, more

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MARTINSVILLE — High downforce could bring hot tempers to Martinsville Speedway, where today’s STP 500 will mark the first short track of the 2019 Cup schedule.

In the last visit to the 0.526-mile oval, Joey Logano bumped Martin Truex Jr. aside entering the last two corners in one of the most thrilling finishes of the 2018 season.

Here’s the pertinent information for today’s race:

(All times are Eastern)

START: Robert DeRidder, the senior vice president and general manager of Energizer Holdings Inc. (owners of STP), will give the command to start engines at 2:01 p.m. The green flag is scheduled for 2:07 p.m.

PRERACE: The crew chief and drivers meeting is at noon. Driver introductions will begin at 1:20 p.m. The invocation will be given by track chaplain Mike Hatfield at 1:54 p.m. The 380th Army Band will perform the national anthem at 1:55 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 500 laps (263 miles) around the 0.526-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 130. Stage 2 ends on Lap 260.

TV/RADIO: FS1 will broadcast the race with coverage beginning at 12:30 p.m. Motor Racing Network will broadcast the race. MRN’s coverage begins at 1 p.m. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry MRN’s broadcast, which is also available at MRN.com.

FORECAST: wunderground.com calls for partly cloudy skies with a high of 63 degrees and a zero percent chance of rain for the start of the race.

LAST TIME: In a race delayed to Monday by a snowstorm, Clint Bowyer scored his first victory for Stewart-Haas Racing. Kyle Busch finished second. Ryan Blaney placed third. Joey Logano won at Martinsville last fall. Denny Hamlin placed second. Martin Truex Jr. was third. 

TO THE REAR: William Byron (mechanical measurements), DJ Kennington (OSS) and Jeb Burton will start from the rear after failing inspection Sunday morning.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the starting lineup.