Richmond winners and losers


A look at the winners and losers following Sunday’s race at Richmond Raceway


Denny HamlinHamlin was in desperate need of a clean race Sunday. After six weeks of mediocre finishes — or worse — Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart executed the perfect strategy to win at Richmond, collecting Hamlin’s first top-10 finish of the year. Until Sunday, the No. 11 team’s best finish had been 13th at Phoenix Raceway, one of only two top 15s. It was a dismal start for Hamlin, who has gone to the Championship 4 round of the playoffs in three of the last four seasons. One week doesn’t erase those poor finishes but winning provides optimism in the short term.

Kevin HarvickHarvick hasn’t had any flashy moments through the first quarter of the regular season, but a second-place finish is a wonderful result for the No. 4 team. The result is Harvick’s first top five of the season and first since finishing third at Kansas in October 2021. The 2014 champion is in the midst of a 50-race winless streak, and Richmond marks his fourth runner-up since last winning at Bristol in September 2020. At Richmond, he and crew chief Rodney Childers capitalized on excellent execution, following a near-identical strategy as Hamlin but pitted one lap sooner. Now the team seeks to build on its positive momentum.

Kyle LarsonCrazy as it may sound for someone who won 10 races and a title last year, Larson needed a good run Sunday and got one. His fifth-place finish snapped a streak of three straight finishes of 29th or worse, including two crashes (Atlanta, Circuit of the Americas) and one engine failure (Phoenix). Larson has led just three laps since finishing runner-up at Las Vegas on March 6, but he turned in his first top-five finish at Richmond since winning there in September 2017.

Christopher BellBell, like his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Hamlin, has just needed to avoid mistakes this season. He accomplished that goal for the second week in a row, scoring a sixth-place finish on the heels of finishing third at COTA last time out. Bell led a career-high 63 laps Sunday and was a legitimate contender all day, posting the third-best average running position of the day (5.54). The No. 20 team struggled to start the season, notching four finishes of 23rd or worse in the first five races. But recent consistency may turn Bell in a driver to watch in weeks to come.

Austin DillonSpeaking of consistency, give credit to Dillon and his No. 3 team. He finished 10th for the second consecutive week and posted his fourth finish of 11th or better in seven races, including a runner-up effort at Auto Club. No, Dillon hasn’t been nearly as prominent as young teammate Tyler Reddick, who has led 97 laps this season to Dillon’s one. But the team has strung together respectable finishes and is beginning to make it a habit it will want to sustain.


Kyle Busch: Busch was running in sixth place with 55 laps to go when NASCAR penalized him for tape on the grille of his No. 18 Toyota. After serving the penalty five laps later, Busch rallied to finish ninth, which almost certainly seemed like a win given that the final 137 laps went green. But Busch should have finished higher than he did. Doubly frustrating for his crew chief Ben Beshore was that the tape was mistakenly placed on the grille multiple stops prior. Beshore later sought to speak with NASCAR officials about the timing of the penalty, but those discussions won’t change the final results.

Chase ElliottWhile each of Elliott’s three Hendrick Motorsports teammates finished inside the top 10, Elliott was nowhere to be found late. A nonfactor while William Byron led a career-best 122 laps, Elliott quietly finished 14th at Richmond. The No. 9 team notched the 10th-best average running position (10.34) and never seemed to be in the mix. The 2020 champion is tied with Ryan Blaney for the series points lead, so the sky is not falling for Elliott or his fans. However, he has just one top-five finish through the season’s first seven races.

Joey LoganoLogano spent the first half of the day running well inside the top 10, but problems on pit road plummeted the No. 22 car down the running order. Under the day’s fifth and final caution, Logano entered pit road second but encountered an issue with its jack on the left side of the vehicle. Logano exited the pits 20th and never recovered, finishing the race 17th, the first car one lap down. The result is Logano’s second consecutive finish outside the top 15, following a 31st-place finish after an incident at COTA.

Ross ChastainOne week, you’re in the winners’ section; the next, you’re in the losers’. After netting his first career win at COTA last week, Chastain struggled mightily at Richmond. Admittedly, he wasn’t alone as Trackhouse Racing teammate Daniel Suarez didn’t fare much better, but Chastain’s 19th-place finish highlighted how quickly racing fates can change. Chastain’s streak of top-three finishes ends at four, relegating Chastain outside the podium positions for the first time since finishing 29th at Auto Club on Feb. 27.

Kurt BuschRemember a few weeks ago when Busch had quietly settled into fifth in the point standings with two straight top fives? Life happens fast in the Cup Series, a lesson the 23-year veteran knows all too well. Busch finished 35th, 109 laps down at Richmond after a fuel-pump issue sent him behind the wall after just 11 laps. That followed a 32nd-place finish at COTA after getting caught up in the same accident that took out Larson and Logano. Busch sits 18th in points, dropping five spots Sunday.

Corey LaJoie learning in his week with Chase Elliott’s team


Spending this week with Hendrick Motorsports has proved eye-opening for Corey LaJoie.

He will pilot Chase Elliott’s No. 9 car today at World Wide Technology Raceway after NASCAR suspended Elliott one race for wrecking Denny Hamlin during last week’s Coca-Cola 600. This gives LaJoie the chance to drive in the best equipment of his career.

MORE: Corey LaJoie not giving up on his dream 

MORE: Details for Sunday’s Cup race

Working with Elliott’s team also has given LaJoie an inside look as to what makes Hendrick Motorsports so successful.

“I thought that I knew what we didn’t have at Spire Motorsports, but I had no idea,” said LaJoie, who starts 30th after tagging the wall during his qualifying lap. “There’s tools that those guys have, intellectual properties specific to Hendrick Motorsports, that even some of the other teams don’t have.

“But the biggest thing that I noticed was just the people and the attitude of the pursuit of perfection. All the key partner teams across all the (manufacturers) all have the same data, but (Hendrick Motorsports has) an unbelievable way of delegating, taking, compacting and making it just digestible – whether it’s for a driver, an engineer, a crew chief.

“I think the fact that they have four incredibly strong teams individually raises the tide for those guys because when you’re sitting in the simulator and William Byron ran a 33.20 (seconds for a lap) … if you’re running a 33.35 with the same setup, you know you have a tenth-and-a-half under your butt and you have to go find it. And then when I go run a 33.20, William next time is going to want to run a 33.19.

“There’s always a consistently raised watermark on the driver’s end. There’s always a consistently raised watermark on the crew chiefs in trying to build the best setups, and the engineers trying to find the best strategies.

“The inner-team competition is one of the biggest things, and I think there are several teams that have that … the healthy ones are certainly evident. But it’s just the overall structure. We have a Hawkeye (camera-based inspection stations used by NASCAR at the track) … all the things that do the same stuff that Hendrick Motorsports has, but the depth of people, collective focus of the goal and the mission is noticeable and evident. It’s a different world.”

It would be easy for LaJoie to be overwhelmed in this situation. His career has been marked with underfunded rides and trying to make the most of his equipment. He’s having his best season in Cup this year. LaJoie ranks 19th in points heading into today’s race.

LaJoie acknowledges the opportunity he has, but he also can’t let it alter his focus.

“It’s been a wild week,” he said. “I can get all sentimental … (about) my dad subbing in for Ricky Craven in 1998 (for Hendrick Motorsports) and all that sort of stuff. But at the end of the day, when I sit in that thing, I don’t know that NAPA is on it, or the No. 9 is on it.

“I’m going to drive it like I have been driving the No. 7 Chevy and putting that thing 19th in points. It’s been a super fun, successful year so far, and we have a lot of work left to do and things to accomplish over there.”

When he returns to his Spire Motorsports ride after today’s race, LaJoie admits this weekend’s experience with Elliott’s team will help him with his own team.

“How I prepare, how I’m going to engage with my team at Spire Motorsports going forward is going to change,” LaJoie said. “I think I’m going to be able to come in there and just apply and share some of the things I’ve learned over the course of the week with (crew chief Ryan) Sparks and the No. 77 team, as well, and I think we’re all going to be stronger for it.”

Dr. Diandra: Is 2023 the season for a Ricky Stenhouse Jr. redemption?


Coming into 2022, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had two career Cup Series wins in 364 starts. But both wins — and his career-high 13th-place season finish — happened back in 2017.

Stenhouse was unceremoniously dropped by Roush Fenway Racing in 2020 and landed with JTG Daugherty Racing. He made the news every now and then at a superspeedway but could be counted upon to head up season-ending lists of drivers involved in the most accidents. In the years Stenhouse hasn’t been at the top of the list, he’s been near the top.

DNFs and accidents have plagued Stenhouse throughout his NASCAR career. Jack Roush went so far as to park the Mississippi native in his early days in the Xfinity Series because he tore up so much equipment.

Stenhouse redeemed himself, going on to win two Xfinity championships.

From the way his 2023 season has started, it looks as though Stenhouse might be on a similar mission of redemption this year in the Cup Series.

Finishing races

Stenhouse started the 2023 season in the best possible way – winning the Daytona 500. But drivers from less-funded teams who win early superspeedway races usually settle to the bottom of the rankings by now.

Stenhouse hasn’t. He ranks 13th heading into Sunday’s race at World Wide Technology Raceway.

Standings aren’t as good a ruler this year as they usually are because of drivers missing races and teams incurring penalties. But Stenhouse’s statistics back up his ranking.

Stenhouse has finished every race this year on track, as opposed to in the garage or on the hook. Only Ryan Blaney and Corey LaJoie have achieved the same distinction.

In 11 of those 14 races, Stenhouse finished on the lead lap. That’s the same number of lead-lap finishes as William Byron. Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. are tied for most races finished on the lead lap with 13 each.

This time last year, Stenhouse had already racked up seven of the series-leading 18 caution-causing incidents he would be involved in for the season. Runner-up Chase Elliott had 15 incidents.

Going into Gateway this year, Stenhouse has been involved in only two accidents (Talladega and Charlotte) and had a tire go out at Darlington.

Approaching his career best

I compare three years in Stenhouse’s career in the table below: the 2017 season — his best to date — along with last year and the 14 races run so far this year.

A table comparing loop data stats for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. showing his path to redemption

Stenhouse’s current average finishing position of 13.5 ties with Christopher Bell for sixth best in the Cup Series. That’s 9.3 positions better than Stenhouse’s 2022 average. He’s even beating his 2017 average by 3.6 positions.

Qualifying results are down a bit from 2017 — but remember that those numbers are from the days when NASCAR allowed multiple practice sessions. Stenhouse is only two positions worse relative to 2017, but 7.6 positions better than last year when it comes to establishing his spot on the starting grid.

Stenhouse’s average running position is comparable to 2017 and 2.8 positions better than 2022. He ranks 20th among full-time Cup Series drivers in average running position. Although it’s an improvement, it’s still more than double William Byron’s series-leading 9.1 average running position this year.

More interesting is the difference between Stenhouse’s average running position his average finishing position. Some drivers run better than they finish. Stenhouse is doing the opposite.

In 2017, Stenhouse finished about 1.4 positions better than he ran. This year, he’s gaining an average of about five positions from where he runs.

One might argue this gain results from the plethora of late-race incidents this year that have removed drivers in the front of the field from contention. But Stenhouse deserves credit for putting himself in a position to benefit from those events.

Stenhouse’s green-flag speed rank is 11th among full-time Cup Series drivers. His 15.3 average, however, is 1.7 positions worse than 10th-place Kyle Busch. Still, it’s impressive that JTG Daugherty is right there in the mix with much better-funded teams. William Byron again has the best average green-flag speed rank at 7.9.

Consistently strong finishes

It’s not uncommon for a mid-pack driver to win a superspeedway race. But Stenhouse’s Daytona 500 win appears to be something more. The table below summarizes his wins and finishes for the same three years.

A table comparing finishes for 2017, 2022 and 2023 showing Ricky Stenhouse Jr's redemption attemptsThe difference between last year and this year is striking.

In 2022, Stenhouse finished in the top 20 in 12 of 36 races. He’s already matched that mark this year. He earns top-20 finishes 85.7% of the time in 2023 compared to 33.3% last year. Top-20 finishes aren’t the same as contending for a championship. But they’re a first step.

Stenhouse finished 2017 with nine top-10 races. With about 60% of the season remaining, he’s already earned five top-10 finishes this year.

What’s changed? The Next Gen car is one factor, but it didn’t make much difference for Stenhouse last year. I would point instead to Stenhouse’s reunion with Mike Kelley as his crew chief.

Kelley co-piloted both of Stenhouse’s Xfinity championships in 2011 and ’12. Although Kelley worked with Stenhouse and previous crew chief Brian Pattie since 2020, this is the first year Kelley is back up on the pit box.

Together, they’re basically halfway to matching Stenhouse’s best year.

And another step closer to redemption.

Portland Xfinity race results, driver points

Portland Xfinity results
Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

Cole Custer went from fourth to first on the overtime restart when the top three cars made contact and went on to win Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Portland International Raceway. Custer is the 10th different winner in 13 races this season.

MORE: Portland Xfinity race results

MORE: Driver points after Portland Xfinity race

JR Motorsports took the next three spots: Justin Allgaier placed second, Sam Mayer was third and Josh Berry was fourth. Austin Hill completed the top five.

John Hunter Nemechek remains the points leader after 13 races. He has a 14-point lead on Hill. Nemechek leads Allgaier by 44 points.

Cole Custer wins Xfinity race at Portland in overtime


Cole Custer held off Justin Allgaier at the finish to win Saturday’s Xfinity Series race in overtime at Portland International Raceway. It is Custer’s first victory of the season.

JR Motorsports placed second, third and fourth with Allgaier, Sam Mayer and Josh Berry. Austin Hill finished fifth.

MORE: Race results, driver points

Custer went from fourth to first on the overtime restart when Parker Kligerman, who restarted third, attempted to pass Allgaier, who was leading. Sheldon Creed was on the outside of Allgaier. All three cars made contact entering Turn 1, allowing Custer to slip by. Creed finished seventh. Kligerman placed 14th.

Custer won the second stage when John Hunter Nemechek made contact with Creed’s car while racing for the lead on the final lap of the stage. The contact spun Creed and Custer inched by Nemechek at the line.

Early in the final stage, Creed gained revenge with contact that spun Nemechek, who went on to finish 10th. A few laps later, Nemechek and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Sammy Smith had issues. Smith spun Nemechek. After getting back around, Nemechek quickly caught Smith and turned into Smith’s car, damaging it.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Sheldon Creed

STAGE 2 WINNER: Cole Custer

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Despite the contact on the overtime restart, runner-up Justin Allgaier managed to score his fourth consecutive top-three finish. … Sam Mayer’s third-place finish is his best on a road course. … Austin Hill’s fifth-place finish gives him four consecutive top-five results.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Daniel Hemric finished 33rd after a fire in his car. … Riley Herbst placed 32nd after an engine issue. After opening the season with six top 10s in a row, Herbst has gone seven races in a row without a top 10.

NEXT: The series competes June 10 at Sonoma Raceway (8 p.m. ET on FS1).