What matters at Richmond: Handling balance is top priority

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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.

Talladega Xfinity starting lineup: Austin Hill wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Austin Hill will lead the field to the green flag Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway after scoring his first career Xfinity Series pole.

Hill won the pole Friday with a lap of 182.036 mph. He will be joined on the front row by fellow playoff contender Ty Gibbs (181.981 mph).

MORE: Talladega Xfinity starting lineup

Playoff drivers will start in seven of the top eight spots. The exception is Sheldon Creed, who will start third after a lap of 181.870 mph. Hill and Creed give Richard Childress Racing the first and third starting spots.

Justin Allgaier (181.529) qualified fourth and Brandon Jones (181.305) completed the top five. Noah Gragson, who has won four races in a row, starts sixth after a lap of 181.134 mph and is followed by playoff drivers Josh Berry (181.052) and AJ Allmendinger (180.932).

The Xfinity Series race is scheduled for 4 p.m. ET Saturday on USA Network.

Talladega Truck starting lineup: John Hunter Nemechek wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — John Hunter Nemechek will start on the pole for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race.

Nemechek earned the pole with a lap of 178.767 mph.

Nemechek is one of four playoff drivers starting in the top six: Chandler Smith (second, 177.732 mph), Zane Smith (fourth, 177.061) and Ty Majeski (sixth, 176.744). Majeski clinched a spot in next month’s championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

MORE: Talladega Truck starting lineup

Also qualifying in the top five were Carson Hocevar (177.068) in third and Matt Crafton (176.960) in fifth.

Failing to qualify are Tim Viens, Spencer Boyd, Jason White and Natalie Decker.

Saturday Talladega Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather

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The second race of the opening round of the Xfinity playoffs takes drivers to Talladega Superspeedway.

Noah Gragson secured his spot in the next round by winning last weekend at Texas. Ryan Sieg holds the final transfer spot. Riley Herbst is the first driver below the cutline, one point behind Sieg. Also below the cutline are reigning series champion Daniel Hemric (-8 points), Brandon Jones (-12) and Jeremy Clements (-28).

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

(All times Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 4:09 p.m. … Green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:21 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 1 p.m. … Driver introductions are at 3:30 p.m. … The invocation will be given at 4 p.m. … The Brookwood High School choir will perform the anthem at 4:02 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 113 laps (300.58 miles) on the 2.66-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 25. Stage 2 ends at Lap 50.

TV/RADIO: USA Network will broadcast the race at 4 p.m. Countdown to Green begins at 3:30 p.m. on USA Network. … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. and also will stream at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

STREAMING: NBCsports.com

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Sunny with a high of 78 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Noah Gragson won and was followed by Jeffrey Earnhardt and AJ Allmendinger.

 

Could Talladega open door for a record 20th winner?

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Talladega Superspeedway is known for fast speeds, huge drafting packs, sensational wrecks and tight finishes.

On Sunday (2 p.m. ET on NBC), it could be the site of an unexpected record.

Nineteen different drivers have won Cup races this season, tying a record. If a new winner shows up in Talladega victory lane Sunday, it will mark the first time in the sport’s history that 20 drivers have won races in a single season.

One of the remarkable things about that possibility is that the driver who has far and away the best record at Talladega among active drivers is among the group still looking for a win in 2022. That’s Brad Keselowski, who has won six times at NASCAR’s biggest track. No other active driver has more than three. (Keselowski is tied for second on the all-time Talladega win list with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. Dale Earnhardt tops that list with 10).

Talladega and Daytona tend to reject repeat winners. The past nine races at the two tracks have been won by nine different drivers.

Other seasonal non-winners who could break through at Talladega:

Ryan BlaneyBlaney’s only win this year is in the All-Star Race, so he’s still looking for his first points win while continuing to chase the championship. He won at Talladega in 2019 and 2020.

Martin Truex Jr. — Superspeedways have been a pox on Truex’s career. In 70 races at Talladega and Daytona, he has failed to win.

Aric Almirola — In what has been a disappointing season, Almirola’s best finish is a fifth — twice. He won at Talladega in 2018 but hasn’t had a top 10 in his last four runs there.

Michael McDowell — McDowell’s best finish at Talladega is a third, but he is usually very competitive in the Talladega and Daytona drafts, winning the 2021 Daytona 500.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Stenhouse won at Talladega in 2017 and usually is a factor in the draft.

Harrison Burton — Burton has had a tough rookie season, but the peculiarities of the Talladega draft should play in his favor. The No. 21 team’s next win will be its 100th.

Justin Haley — Haley has no top-10 runs in five Talladega starts, but he showed potential last week with a third-place finish at Texas.

Corey LaJoie — LaJoie has started nine Cup races at Talladega and has led exactly one lap. His best finish is a seventh.

Noah Gragson — Gragson, the star of this Xfinity season, is in the No. 48 for Hendrick Motorsports with Alex Bowman out because of concussion-like symptoms. In the Talladega draft he could be a threat.