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

0 Comments

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.