Richmond playoff race holds many questions for drivers

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Saturday’s Cup race at Richmond is a bit of a mystery for teams. That it comes at a pivotal time in the playoffs adds to the pressure for those that had poor results last weekend.

NASCAR has yet to race at Richmond Raceway this season because the COVID-19 pandemic moved the spring race to Darlington. This will be the first time teams will race at Richmond with the low-downforce package introduced this season for short tracks and road courses.

As the middle race in the opening playoff round, what happens Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) could have an impact on who advances after the Sept. 19 race at Bristol.

Here’s a look at how the title contenders enter the Richmond playoff race:

WORK TO DO

Matt DiBenedetto (-17 points to the cutline)

Ryan Blaney (-17)

Both need a good race at Richmond.

The problem for Blaney is that he hasn’t had one. He’s never finished in the top 15 there in eight career starts. His average finish at Richmond is 25.5.

Richmond is one where maybe we haven’t been so great, so we’ve our work cut out for us,” said Travis Geisler, competition director at Team Penske.

DiBenedetto finished a career-high 14th at Richmond last fall. He enters Saturday’s race with no finish better than 12th in the last five races.

TRANSFER SPOT BATTLE

Cole Custer (-3 points to the cutline)

Clint Bowyer (0 points)

Aric Almirola (holds last transfer spot)

Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer enter Richmond tied for the last playoff spot. The playoff tiebreaker is best result in the round. Almirola owns the tiebreaker based on his ninth-place finish last weekend at Darlington (Bowyer was 10th).

Bowyer goes to Richmond without crew chief Johnny Klausmeier. NASCAR suspended him for this race because Bowyer’s car had two lug nuts not safe and secure after the Southern 500. Former championship winning crew chief Greg Zipadelli, vice president of competition at Stewart-Haas Racing, will serve as Bowyer’s crew chief at Richmond.

Bowyer has four consecutive top 10s at Richmond. Almirola has one top 10 in his last five starts there.

“I love the challenge of (Richmond), but we’ve got to hit it,” Bowyer said. “We’ve been so-so on the short tracks. That’s certainly one of my best tracks, so we’ve got to nail the setup. If we can do that, we’ll get us a good run and go a long ways to getting into Bristol where we need to be.”

NOT SAFE

Austin Dillon (+10 above the cutline)

William Byron (+9)

Kyle Busch (+7)

Kurt Busch (+4)

Could Kyle Busch’s winless season end this weekend? He has six victories at Richmond, most among active drivers. Also, Joe Gibbs Racing’s 16 Richmond wins are its most at any track. JGR drivers have won the past four races at Richmond — Martin Truex Jr. swept last year’s races and Busch swept the 2019 races. If Busch wins, he’ll do so without crew chief Adam Stevens, who has been suspended one race because of a lug nut violation at Darlington. 

Byron is intriguing. He scored his first top-five finish of the season at Dover last month. He followed that with a win at Daytona and a fifth-place finish last weekend at Darlington. But Byron does not have a top 10 at Richmond in four starts. Hendrick Motorsports’ last win at Richmond was in September 2008.

Dillon carries momentum after his runner-up finish at Darlington. He’s placed in the top 10 in two of the last three Richmond races.

“Richmond is what I have circled as my best track in the playoffs I feel, and I wouldn’t have been able to say that a couple years back,” Dillon said.

Crew chief Matt McCall’s strategy helped Kurt Busch score six points in the first stage at Darlington by not pitting when the field did. He might need more help Saturday. Kurt Busch has not had a top 10 in his last four Richmond starts.

TOGETHER AGAIN

Martin Truex Jr. (+16)

Chase Elliott (+12)

The two antagonists in the late-race drama at Darlington aren’t safe should they have problems at Richmond.

Last year, Truex was the safe bet. He won both races, leading 295 of 800 laps in those races. He’s won four of the last six short track races, including a win at Martinsville this year.

Elliott did not finish better than 13th in the either Richmond race last year.

BREATHING ROOM

Joey Logano (+27)

Brad Keselowski (+22)

Alex Bowman (+19)

Logano’s third-place finish at Darlington put eight drivers between him and the final transfer spot. The same tire that is used this weekend at Richmond also is used at New Hampshire and Phoenix, site of the championship race. Logano won at Phoenix in the spring and finished fourth at New Hampshire.

Keselowski recovered from an early incident at Darlington to finish 11th. He has four consecutive top-10 finishes at Richmond. He’s finished no worse than 11th in his last nine Richmond starts.

Bowman placed sixth at Darlington. He scored 43 points, including 12 stage points. Only winner Kevin Harvick scored more points at Darlington. Bowman’s fortune at Richmond, though, hasn’t been good. He’s never finished better than 12th in eight starts there.

FOCUSED ON WINS

Denny Hamlin (+54)

Kevin Harvick  (advanced to second round)

These two have combined for 14 wins in 27 races this season and they are looking for more.

Harvick, who starts on the pole Saturday, already is in the second round with his Darlington win. Hamlin’s playoff points should put him into the round provided he doesn’t have any major problems.

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Texas Xfinity results: Noah Gragson wins playoff opener

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Noah Gragson is rolling through the NASCAR Xfinity Series like a bowling ball headed toward a strike.

Gragson won for the fourth consecutive race Saturday, taking the lead with 11 laps left and winning the 300-mile race at Texas Motor Speedway. The victory put Gragson in the second round of the playoffs.

Finishing behind him in the top five were Austin Hill, Ty Gibbs, AJ Allmendinger and Riley Herbst.

Texas Xfinity results

The race was pockmarked by wrecks, scrambling the 12-driver playoff field.

POINTS REPORT

Noah Gragson remains the points leader after his win. He has 2,107 points. AJ Allmendinger is next, 26 points behind.

Sam Mayer and Ryan Sieg hold the final two transfer spots. They are one point ahead of Riley Herbst, eight points ahead of Daniel Hemric, 13 points ahead of Brandon Jones and 29 points ahead of Jeremy Clements.

Texas Xfinity driver points

The Xfinity playoffs will continue Oct. 1 at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET, USA Network).

Noah Gragson wins Xfinity race at Texas Motor Speedway

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Noah Gragson opened the NASCAR Xfinity Series playoffs the same way he has run much of the season.

Gragson sidestepped a web of issues plaguing playoff drivers and won Saturday’s 300-mile race at Texas Motor Speedway, tying a decades-old Xfinity record by winning for the fourth consecutive race. Sam Ard, formerly a series mainstay, won four in a row in 1983.

Gragson, continuing to establish himself as the championship favorite, took the lead with 11 laps to go from Jeb Burton as most of the day’s leaders were running different tire and fuel strategies over the closing laps.

Gragson, 24 and set to jump to the Cup Series next season, led 85 laps. He won by 1.23 seconds.

“This number 9 team, man, they’re on fire,” Gragson told NBC Sports. “Luke Lambert (crew chief) and the boys executed a great race.”

MORE: Texas Xfinity results

The win was Gragson’s seventh of the year. Following in the top five were Austin Hill, Ty Gibbs, AJ Allmendinger and Riley Herbst.

The victory pushed Gragson into the second round of the playoffs.

A big crash at the front of the field on lap 117 changed the face of the race. John Hunter Nemechek lost control of his car on the outside and was clipped by Justin Allgaier, starting a wreck that scrambled most of the field. Damages forced playoff drivers Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones and Allgaier from the race.

“The 7 (Allgaier) chose the top behind me, and I haven’t seen the replay of it, but the 7 chose the top behind me and started pushing,” Nemechek said. “The 21 (Hill) made it three-wide on the 9 (Gragson), and I was three-wide at the top, and I think we ended up four-wide at one point, which doesn’t really work aero-wide in the pack.”

Pole winner Jones, a playoff driver taken out in the crash, said Nemechek “was pushing a little too hard. Nothing to fault him there for, but probably a little early to be going that far. It is what it is.”

Six laps earlier, another multi-car crash scattered the field and damaged the car of playoff contender and regular season champion Allmendinger.

The wreck started when Brandon Brown slipped in front of Allmendinger and went into a slide, forcing Allmendinger to the inside apron. Several cars scattered behind them trying to avoid the accident.

Allmendinger’s crew repaired his car and he later had the race lead.

Playoff driver Jeremy Clements had a tough day. He parked with what he called mysterious mechanical issues about halfway through the race.

Below the cutline after the first race are Herbst, Hemric, Jones and Clements.

Stage 1 winner: Daniel Hemric

Stage 2 winner: AJ Allmendinger

Who had a good race: Noah Gragson is threatening to turn the final weeks of the Xfinity season into a cakewalk. He clearly had the day’s dominant car Saturday in winning for the fourth race in a row. … AJ Allmendinger’s car was damaged in a wreck in heavy traffic, but his crew taped parts of the car and gave him an opening to finish fourth.

Who had a bad race: Jeremy Clements, in the playoff field, finished 36th after parking with mechanical trouble near the race’s halfway point. … Jeffrey Earnhardt crashed only 17 laps into the race and finished last.

Next: The second race in the first round of the Xfinity playoffs is scheduled Oct. 1 at 4 p.m. ET (USA Network) at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.

Cup drivers are for changing Texas but leery about making it another Atlanta

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Some Cup drivers are concerned that a reconfigured Texas Motor Speedway could create racing similar to Atlanta, adding another type of superspeedway race to the NASCAR calendar.

While Texas officials have not stated publicly any plans to make changes, some competitors feel Sunday’s playoff race (3:30 p.m. ET on USA Network) could be the final event on this track’s current layout. 

With the All-Star Race moving from Texas to North Wilkesboro next year, Texas Motor Speedway’s lone Cup race will take place Sept. 24, 2023. That could provide time for any alterations. Work on changing Atlanta began in July 2021 and was completed by December 2021. 

Reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson said work needs to be done to Texas Motor Speedway.

“I would like them to demolish this place first and then start over from scratch,” Larson said Saturday. “For one, they did a very poor job with the reconfiguration, initial reconfiguration. 

“I would like to see them change it from a mile-and-a-half to something shorter. I don’t know if that means bringing the backstretch in or whatever. 

“If I could build a track, it’d be probably a three-quarter mile Bristol basically, pavement and progressive banking. But I don’t know if that’s even possible here. I’m not sure what they have in mind, but anything would be better than what they did.”

Former Cup champion Joey Logano worries about another superspeedway race with such events at Daytona, Talladega and now Atlanta. 

“Do we need more superspeedways?” Logano asked Saturday. “Is that the type of racing fans want to see? Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano said he wants to have more control in how he finishes, particularly in a playoff race. 

“I want to be at tracks where I can make a difference, where my team can make a difference, and we’re not at the mercy of a wreck that happened in front of us that we couldn’t do anything about,” he said.

Discussions of changing the track follow complaints about how tough it is to pass at this 1.5-mile speedway.

“Once you get to the top, it’s almost like the bottom (lane) is very, very weak,” Daniel Suarez said.

Suarez has mixed feelings about the idea of turning Texas into another Atlanta-style race.

“Atlanta was a very good racetrack, and then they turned it into a superspeedway and it’s a lot of fun,” Suarez said. “I see it as a hybrid. I don’t think we need another racetrack like that, but it’s not my decision to make. Whatever they throw out at us, I’m going to try to be the best I can be.”

Suarez hopes that Texas can be like what it once was.

“Maybe with some work, we can get this race track to what it used to be, a very wide race track, running the bottom, running the middle, running the top,” he said.  

“As a race car driver, that’s what you want. You want that ability to run around and to show your skills. In superspeedways … everyone is bumping, everyone is pushing, and you can not show your skills as much.”

Chase Briscoe would be OK with a change to Texas, but he wants it to be more like a track other than Atlanta.

“If we’re really going to change and completely start from scratch, I would love another Homestead-type racetrack,” Briscoe said. “The problem is any time you build a new race track, it’s not going to be slick and worn out for a while. It’s trying to figure out what’s best to maximize those first couple of years to get it good by the end. 

“I think Homestead is a great model, if we’re going to build another mile and a half. I think we’re going to have to look at what they have, the progressive banking, the shape of the race track is different. I just think it’s a really good race track, and I think it always puts on really good racing. Anything we could do to try to match that, that would be my vote.”

Denny Hamlin just hopes some sort of change is made to Texas.

“I’d rather have another Atlanta than this, honestly,” Hamlin said. “Anything will be better than kind of what we have here.”

NASCAR shares prayers for Stewart-Haas Racing engineer

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FORT WORTH, Texas — The NASCAR garage is sharing its prayers for Stewart-Haas Racing engineer DJ VanderLey, who was injured Thursday night in a crash during a micro sprint Outlaw race at the Texas Motor Speedway dirt track.

He suffered several fractured vertebrae and has a spinal cord injury, according to a post from his wife Jordan on her Facebook page. 

Two GoFundMe accounts have been set up to help the family with medical costs. 

VanderLey was Chase Briscoe’s engineer for four years, and they are good friends.

“I hate that it happened to anybody,” Briscoe said Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway, “but for it to hit close to home has definitely been tough for me.”

Briscoe said he planned to visit VanderLey in the hospital on Saturday and that “I just hope that everybody continues to pray. That’s really all we can do at this point, trying to hope he gets better.”

Christopher Bell calls VanderLey among his best friends. VanderLey was Bell’s engineer at Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2016. 

Bell spent the night at the hospital and also picked up Jordan VanderLey at the airport when she arrived. 

Stewart-Haas Racing had a decal for VanderLey on Riley Herbst‘s No. 98 Xfinity car for Saturday’s race.