Analysis: Strategic risk at Richmond key for track position, playoff survival


Richmond Raceway is a more challenging track than meets the eye, where its perceived parity — 12 winners in its last 17 events — somehow doesn’t signify competitive balance.

It’s a difficult track on which to pass, made problematic by the fine line for handling balance — loose is good on corner entry, but too loose on corner exit is a run-breaker. And when 37 teams are fighting battles within themselves, passing for position falls down the list of priorities. What looks uneventful to fans is often too eventful for the competitors.

This is why track position comes at a premium in tonight’s Federated Auto Parts 400 (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Crew chiefs, especially for playoff teams, will have plenty of strategic options at their disposal and for anyone lacking elite, race-winning speed, the more unconventional choices might provide the clearest path to a productive night.

One option for what we could see was a call that misfired earlier in the year on this very racetrack, which crew chief Jeremy Bullins attempted on behalf of Brad Keselowski.

Bullins’ gambit began on lap 181, the beginning of a second pit cycle — necessitated by the high lap-time degradation (1.5 seconds in extreme cases) on worn tires. Fuel not an issue, he chose to capture track position as cars peeled off of the track and onto pit road for fresh tires. Keselowski inherited the lead on lap 186. There’d be no caution flag, the stroke of good fortune that’d allow the No. 2 team to keep its track position. Instead, the remainder of the stage went green and Keselowski was caught and passed by Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. on lap 207.

From the start of the cycle through the stage’s conclusion, Keselowski’s track position pin-balled from fourth to first to 16th.

In hindsight, it was a call gone wrong, but the logic behind it makes it a little more acceptable. Keselowski had the 14th-fastest median lap time that afternoon and hit a high point with his fastest lap ranking as the 11th-quickest time among all drivers’ best laps. Thus, there was no evidence Keselowski had a possible winning race car.

Bullins’ bid was for clean air, track position and a caution flag, and the caution flag didn’t come. Keselowski finished 14th with the 14th-fastest car. On paper, it’s no harm, no foul, but in reality — certainly in real time — it was anguishing to watch.

The same stomach-churning calls could surface tonight in Richmond, especially from teams hovering near the playoff cut line.

A 155-lap second stage and a 165-lap final stage could play host to dueling green-flag pit strategies — two stops for tires vs. one — in which those attempting one stop will be forced into moments of discomfort and vulnerability, similar to Keselowski attempting to wheel a car 1.3 seconds slower per lap than his pursuers on fresher tires.

But for Michael McDowell (20 points below the cut line), Kyle Busch (two points below), Tyler Reddick (on the cut line) and even Keselowski (12 points above but a poor speed ranking this season on 750-horsepower tracks), there may be no conventional path to contending in tonight’s race.

McDowell’s Front Row Motorsports team is self-aware, privy to its own shortcomings. Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer admitted to the team’s turn of focus at the end of the regular season toward the current playoff round and at Richmond in particular. What they lack is apparent, ranking 28th in average median lap time on 750-horsepower tracks, but their knack for (and success with) calculated risks is surely something that bodes well this evening.

Busch bluntly voiced his displeasure with his car last week at Darlington, but in respect to his team’s performance on shorter tracks, it’s nothing new. His car ranks as the eighth-fastest based on average median lap time and Richmond offers little salvation — it turned the seventh-fastest median lap in the spring race while its fastest lap ranked 11th among all drivers’ best.

Crew chief Ben Beshore’s strategy-planning at Pocono suggested he’s quick to pit off-sequence if outright winning speed isn’t present. Pitting askew from the leaders, he can tap into a driver whose position defending in traffic — Busch ranks fourth in surplus passing value this season — is among the best.

Points accumulation is the very method Reddick utilized to get into the playoffs. Barring a form of speed we haven’t seen from him this season — he had the 23rd-fastest car in Richmond’s spring race and ranks 14th in average median lap time on 750-horsepower tracks this season — this is also the method that will grant him first-round survival.

Richard Childress Racing, on behalf of Austin Dillon, called for a one-stop second stage and two-stop final stage in last year’s playoff race, a design that led to 51 points and a fourth-place finish, seven spots beyond his running position at the beginning of the second stage’s pit window.

Keselowski’s team has experienced a precipitous fall, from having the fastest car in last season’s finale at Phoenix to a car ranked as the 15th fastest on 750-horsepower tracks. Their seventh-place finish at Darlington without stage points was satisfactory due to the shortfalls of others, but Richmond likely presents the same challenge it did in the spring.

Without a different brand of speed and a low-volume caution trend that suppresses the driver’s restarting prowess, a strategy going against the grain of what’s popular has a place in Bullins’ playbook.

As we saw earlier this year, he’s willing and ready to use it.

North Wilkesboro’s worn surface will prove challenging to drivers


NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — Three Cup drivers got their first chance to experience North Wilkesboro Speedway’s worn racing surface Tuesday and said tires will play a key role in the NASCAR All-Star Race there on May 21.

Chris Buescher, Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick took part in a Goodyear tire test Tuesday. That test was to continue Wednesday.

The verdict was unanimous about how important tire wear will be.

“This place has got a lot of character to it,” Reddick said. “Not a lot of grip and it’s pretty unforgiving. It’s a really fun place.”

Dillon said: “If you use up your tire too early, you’re going to really be in trouble. You really got to try to make those four tires live.”

Buescher said: “The surface here was so worn out already that we expect to be all over the place. The speeds are fairly slow just because of the amount of grip here. It’s hard to get wide open until you’re straight.”

Reddick noted the drop in speed over a short run during Tuesday’s test. That will mean a lot of off-throttle time.

“I think we were seeing a second-and-a-half falloff or so over even 50 laps and that was kind of surprising for me we didn’t have more falloff,” he said. “But, one little miscue, misstep into Turn 1 or Turn 3, you lose a second sliding up out of the groove and losing control of your car.”

“That’s with no traffic. Maybe with more traffic and everything, the falloff will be more, but certainly we’re out of control from I’d say Lap 10 on. You have to really take care of your car. … It’s really hard 30-40 laps into a run to even get wide open.”

Chris Buescher runs laps during a Goodyear tire test at North Wilkesboro Speedway, while Austin Dillon is on pit road. (Photo: Dustin Long)

One thing that stood out to Dillon was how the facility looks.

While the .625-mile racing surface remains the same since Cup last raced there in 1996, most everything else has changed.

In some cases, it is fresh red paint applied to structures but other work has been more extensive, including repaving the infield and pit road, adding lights for night racing, adding SAFER barriers, the construction of new suites in Turn 4 and new stands along the backstretch.

“It’s cool to see how much they’ve done to the track, the suites, the stands that they’re putting in,” Dillon said. “To me, the work that is going in here, we’re not just coming for one race. We’re coming here for a while. I’m excited about that.”

Drivers to watch in NASCAR Cup race at COTA


Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, has attracted an entry list that includes talent beyond that of the tour regulars.

Jordan Taylor, who is substituting in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 Chevrolet for injured Chase Elliott, brings a resume that includes 31 IMSA class wins, two 24 Hours of Daytona overall wins and two IMSA wins at COTA.

MORE: NBC Driver Rankings: Christopher Bell is No. 1

Jenson Button won the Formula One championship in 2009 and has five F1 starts at COTA. He is scheduled to be a driver for the NASCAR entry in this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Kimi Raikkonen, entered by Trackhouse Racing as part of its Project 91 program, won the 2007 F1 championship and has eight F1 starts at the Austin track.

They will draw attention at COTA this weekend, along with these other drivers to watch:


Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 5th
  • Best seasonal finish: 2nd (Atlanta I)
  • Past at COTA: 19th and 14th in two career starts

Keselowski hasn’t been a star in road course racing, but his 2023 season has started well, and he figures to be in the mix at the front Sunday. He led the white-flag lap at Atlanta last Sunday before Joey Logano passed him for the win.

AJ Allmendinger

  • Points position: 17th
  • Best seasonal finish: 6th (Daytona 500)
  • Past at COTA: 5th and 33rd in two starts

The Dinger is a road course expert. Last year at COTA, he was involved in tight racing on the final lap with Ross Chastain and Alex Bowman before Chastain emerged with the victory.

Ross Chastain

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Best seasonal finish: 3rd (Auto Club)
  • Past at COTA: Two straight top fours, including a win

Chastain lifted Trackhouse Racing’s profile by scoring his — and the team’s — first Cup victory at COTA last season. He’s not shy about participating in the last-lap bumping and thumping that often mark road course races.


Chris Buescher

  • Points position: 13th
  • Best seasonal finish: 4th (Daytona 500)
  • Past at COTA: 13th and 21st in two starts

Buescher has never led a lap at COTA and is coming off a 35th-place finish at Atlanta after being swept up in a Lap 190 crash. Although he has shown the power to run near the front this year, he has four consecutive finishes of 13th or worse.

Alex Bowman

  • Points position: 20th
  • Best seasonal finish: 3rd (Las Vegas I)
  • Past at COTA: Two straight top 10s

Bowman’s four-race run of consistent excellence (finishes of fifth, eighth, third and ninth) ended at Atlanta as he came home 14th and failed to lead a lap. At COTA, he is one of only four drivers with top-10 finishes in both races.

William Byron

  • Points position: 28th
  • Best seasonal finish: 1st (Las Vegas I, Phoenix I)
  • Past at COTA: 11th and 12th in two starts

Involvement in an accident at Atlanta ended Byron’s two-race winning streak. He’ll be looking to lead a lap at COTA for the first time.



Three Reaume Brothers Racing team members suspended by NASCAR


Three members of the Reaume Brothers Racing No. 33 Craftsman Truck Series team have been suspended for three races by NASCAR after a piece of tungsten ballast came off their truck during last Saturday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

The suspensions were announced Tuesday.

Crew chief Gregory Rayl and crew members Matthew Crossman and Travis Armstrong were suspended because of the safety violation. Mason Massey is the team’s driver.

MORE: Xfinity driver Josh Williams suspended for one race

In a tweet following the announcement of the penalty, the team said it will not file an appeal. “The ballast became dislodged only after the left side ballast container had significant contact with the racing surface,” according to the statement. “We would like to be clear that there was no negligence on the part of RBR personnel.”

NASCAR also announced Tuesday that Truck Series owner/driver Cory Roper, who had been suspended indefinitely for violating the substance abuse policy, has been reinstated.

The Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series are scheduled to race this weekend at Circuit of the Americas.


Josh Williams suspended for one race after Atlanta infraction


NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Josh Williams has been suspended for one race because of his actions during last Saturday’s Xfinity race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Williams will be ineligible to participate in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. He would be able to return for the April 1 race at Richmond, Virginia.

Williams was penalized for a “behavioral” infraction, specifically disobeying a NASCAR request.

In a tweet after the suspension was announced, Williams said: “I stand behind what I did and I don’t regret any decisions I made. I stand behind NASCAR for these decisions and will continue and always support them.” He said Alex Labbe will drive the team’s No. 92 car at Circuit of the Americas this weekend.

MORE: Three Reaume Brothers Racing team members suspended

NASCAR officials ordered Williams off the track during Saturday’s race after his car was involved in an accident. Debris falling from his car prompted a caution flag, leading NASCAR to order him to park.

Instead of going to the garage area, Williams parked his car at the start-finish line and walked to pit road.

Williams was escorted to the NASCAR hauler office at the track. He waited there until the conclusion of the race and then met with officials for about 20 minutes.

MORE: NBC Power Rankings: Christopher Bell rises to the top

Section 8.8.9.I of the Xfinity Series Rule Book states that with the Damaged Vehicle Policy, NASCAR can order a car off the track: “At the discretion of the Series Managing Director, if a damaged vehicle elects not to enter pit road on the first opportunity or if a damaged vehicle exits pit road before sufficient repairs had been made and thereafter causes or extends a caution (e.g. leaking fluid, debris, etc.), then said vehicle may incur a lap(s) or time penalty or may not be permitted to return to the Race.”

Williams later admitted he had violated a rule but said he was frustrated by the NASCAR decision.

“We all work really hard and to only run ‘X’ amount of laps and then to have something like a piece of Bear Bond and put us out of the race, it’s really frustrating,” Williams said after his meeting with series officials. “Small team. We work really hard. We’ve got to make our sponsors happy, right? It doesn’t do any good sitting in the garage. It is what it is. We’ll learn from it and move on.

“I told them I was a little bit frustrated,” Williams said of NASCAR’s call, “but it was in the rule book.”