What matters in today’s NASCAR Cup Series race and might the track itself, a scourge for handling balance, be a driver’s biggest adversary? Let’s dive into the analytics and trends that will shape the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway (3 p.m. ET on Fox):
Finding balance in handling through Richmond’s two distinct corners
Richmond is a mercurial host.
Dominance on the 0.75-mile track is fleeting, with 11 different winners across the last 16 races. Additionally, it’s a stylistic oddball of a short track, with just five natural cautions across its last three events (there were 13 natural cautions in last week’s race in Martinsville).
Why Richmond bucks the hard-scrabble reputation of most short tracks isn’t for a lack of aggression — last fall’s tilt was a playoff race, after all. The track itself, similar to Martinsville, may act as the biggest adversary for teams faced with a familiar puzzle.
Within the industry, it’s widely known that drivers and teams covet a car loose enough on entry to turn around Richmond’s unique corners without being too loose on exit. It’s a handling balance that’s difficult to achieve, maddening for a few reasons:
- A loose condition on corner entry can quickly become loose on exit. Being “loose” is when the rear tires have less traction than the front tires, resulting in the nose of the car pointing at the inside of the turn; ultimately, the car turns easier with steering wheel input. The problem with this at Richmond is that while this helps achieve a desired route going into and around the corners, it too frequently leads to a loose condition when exiting the corners, while a driver leans back into the throttle, onto the straightaway.
- A straight-line exit is beneficial for exiting Richmond’s corners. A car that’s too loose on exit might prove problematic and force too much wheel input as a response. That wheel input affects tire wear, which would further compound a problem about which teams were already worried.
- The tires are impactful. Richmond’s tire combination saw degradation near 1.5 seconds on natural runs in last year’s race, considerable falloff that’d be made worse if corner handling is suboptimal. Thus, the focus on handling is of high priority, underscored by the fact that the corners aren’t identical. The load on the right front tire is heavy, especially on Richmond’s D-shaped front stretch.
Handling balance, or a lack thereof, is why dominance in recent Richmond races has been organizational. Joe Gibbs Racing guessed correctly on setup and swept the top four positions in the 2019 fall race (Erik Jones would later be disqualified) while Team Penske finished first and third last year. The list of former Richmond winners contains few underdogs, symbolic of the driver talent necessary for both hard entry and refined cornering and exits.
Green-flag pit cycles on a short track?
To further confuse what Richmond is, the combination of caution-free runs and heavy tire falloff produces green-flag pit cycles. In last fall’s race, there were two, and the second cycle during the final stage saw teams grapple with a 2v1 stop scenario.
Well known to those who watch IndyCar road course races, a 2v1 scenario is heavily predicated by tire wear, making the math associated with the decision seem backwards. In theory, the less time a car spends on pit road, the better; however, with the severe lap-time falloff as tires become worn, two stops provides fresher rubber and quicker lap times.
Brad Keselowski, last year’s winner, worked this scenario to his advantage. Kurt Busch, who was successfully jumped from ninth to first during the final green-flag pit cycle after pitting only once, faded to a 13th-place finish.
The bet made by crew chief Matt McCall on behalf of Busch was in the hopes a caution flag would fall, lock him in as a leader and force the entire field — with tires, old and new, heavily degrading, to pit. It was good logic, albeit a mathematically unsound gamble, that yielded nothing.
Tops among Cup Series crew chiefs in strategic scenarios under green this season are Greg Ives (a 100% position retention rate on behalf of Alex Bowman), Rodney Childers (91.67% for Kevin Harvick) and James Small (91.67% for Martin Truex Jr.).
A low ceiling on restarts
It’s flawed to suggest Richmond restarts aren’t important; after all, a bad restart can certainly lose a driver a race. But the ceiling for gains on restarts is low, relative to other tracks:
Among the top 14 restart spots, half see an average swing of 0.11 positions within two laps of the green flag, while two spots in particular — the outside slots in the fifth and sixth rows — averaged no change over the last three races. Both scenarios are rare relative to all other tracks, while the low caution volume signifies fewer opportunities for such resets and potential gains.
The low ceiling of restarts isn’t the only reason that good restarters like Kyle Larson (21.5-place average finish), Ryan Blaney (20.3) and Matt DiBenedetto (18.3) struggled in the three recent Richmond races, but it’s clear why their strengths didn’t contain the same impact. This isn’t a track that caters to restart specialists, rewarding those with track position or an inherent ability to pass for position on long runs.
This further puts the onus on handling at Richmond. The drivers with comfortable, balanced cars should be able to pass more freely than those who don’t, placing an emphasis on setup, something of a rarity compared to some of the randomness in the era of limited horsepower and double-file restarts.