With all the calamity that struck NASCAR Cup Series playoff drivers Sunday night at Darlington Raceway, Aric Almirola knew finishing 16th, while not ideal, was better than it could’ve been.
He avoided all the wrecks and the costly pit road issues. For that, he sits three points above the cutline to advance as the series heads for Richmond Raceway to resume the Round of 16 on Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).
After a wild playoff opener, Almirola expects that things won’t get any calmer.
“It’s gonna be tough, it’s gonna be intense,” he said in a Tuesday media teleconference. “There’s gonna be a lot of battling, and I have no doubt that you will see a playoff car or a couple or a few run into some trouble.
“It just happens and you just don’t want to be that guy.”
On the back foot
“That guy” happened to be a lot of guys last Sunday at Darlington. Entering Richmond, three of the four drivers below the playoff cutline wrecked out of the Southern 500.
Kyle Busch – who was later fined $50,000 for his post-crash actions at Darlington – went from 17 points above the cutline to two points below it in the playoff standings. William Byron went from nine points above the cutline to nine below it. Michael McDowell went from the cutline to 20 points below it.
Above them are Tyler Reddick and Alex Bowman, who are tied on the cutline. Reddick owns the tiebreaker of best finish in the round. He finished 18th Sunday; Bowman was 26th.
All of them need a solid result Saturday night, particularly McDowell at 20 points out. But the Daytona 500 winner has never finished better than 12th at Richmond in 20 career Cup starts.
On the flip side, Kyle Busch has six career Richmond Cup wins. He’s also finished inside the top 10 there in seven consecutive races and in 10 of the last 11 races.
The one with the most to prove may be Bowman, whose streaky regular season made him one of the biggest question marks in the playoff field.
His 26th-place finish at Darlington was his fourth finish of 16th or worse in the last five races. But if he can repeat what he did in the spring at Richmond – score points in both stages, then charge late to get the win – he can establish himself as a proper threat.
JGR runs Richmond
In that spring Richmond race, Bowman upended a dominant run by Joe Gibbs Racing tandem Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr, who combined to lead 314 of 400 laps.
Will both of those drivers see Saturday’s race as a chance to settle some unfinished business?
Hamlin’s on to the Round of 12 with his Darlington win but can deny another playoff driver the opportunity to advance with a victory.
Truex and his No. 19 team will be extra motivated after a pit road speeding penalty with less than 50 laps to go cost them a chance to win last week.
As noted in colleague Dustin Long’s Darlington takeaways, that was Truex’s fourth pit road speeding penalty of the season.
One of them came this spring at Richmond. Truex ran second in both stages and led 107 laps. But on his Lap 294 pit stop, he was caught speeding and dropped to 12th. He rallied to finish fifth.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see at least one JGR driver in contention Saturday. JGR’s 16 Cup wins at Richmond are the most all-time.
The organization has won four of the last six Richmond races and seven of the last 11. Its trio of Hamlin, Truex and the aforementioned Kyle Busch have a combined 11 Richmond wins.
Look out for JGR’s fourth driver, Christopher Bell, too. One of his four top-five finishes this season came in the spring Richmond race, where he ran fourth. Additionally, he’s won three times there for JGR in the Xfinity Series.
Dale Jr. rides again
Saturday afternoon’s Xfinity Series race at Richmond (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) will include Dale Earnhardt Jr. competing in the No. 8 JR Motorsports Chevrolet.
Since retiring from full-time competition after the 2017 season, Earnhardt has made a single Xfinity start each season.
In September 2018 at Richmond, he led a race-high 96 laps before finishing fourth. Since then, he’s recorded consecutive fifth-place finishes at Darlington in 2019 and Homestead-Miami last year.
Earnhardt could be in the mix Saturday. His JR Motorsports team has won four of the last six Xfinity short track races. Back in April on the half-mile at Martinsville, Josh Berry won in the same No. 8 entry Earnhardt will drive.
As Earnhardt makes his return, the Xfinity Series’ playoff picture could also gain more focus in this penultimate race of the regular season.
Jeremy Clements (+78 above cut line) and Brandon Jones (+65) sit 10th and 11th, respectively. Riley Herbst holds the 12th and final playoff spot with a 46-point cushion over JRM’s Michael Annett.