Greg Zipadelli

Richmond playoff race holds many questions for drivers

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Saturday’s Cup race at Richmond is a bit of a mystery for teams. That it comes at a pivotal time in the playoffs adds to the pressure for those that had poor results last weekend.

NASCAR has yet to race at Richmond Raceway this season because the COVID-19 pandemic moved the spring race to Darlington. This will be the first time teams will race at Richmond with the low-downforce package introduced this season for short tracks and road courses.

As the middle race in the opening playoff round, what happens Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) could have an impact on who advances after the Sept. 19 race at Bristol.

Here’s a look at how the title contenders enter the Richmond playoff race:

WORK TO DO

Matt DiBenedetto (-17 points to the cutline)

Ryan Blaney (-17)

Both need a good race at Richmond.

The problem for Blaney is that he hasn’t had one. He’s never finished in the top 15 there in eight career starts. His average finish at Richmond is 25.5.

Richmond is one where maybe we haven’t been so great, so we’ve our work cut out for us,” said Travis Geisler, competition director at Team Penske.

DiBenedetto finished a career-high 14th at Richmond last fall. He enters Saturday’s race with no finish better than 12th in the last five races.

TRANSFER SPOT BATTLE

Cole Custer (-3 points to the cutline)

Clint Bowyer (0 points)

Aric Almirola (holds last transfer spot)

Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer enter Richmond tied for the last playoff spot. The playoff tiebreaker is best result in the round. Almirola owns the tiebreaker based on his ninth-place finish last weekend at Darlington (Bowyer was 10th).

Bowyer goes to Richmond without crew chief Johnny Klausmeier. NASCAR suspended him for this race because Bowyer’s car had two lug nuts not safe and secure after the Southern 500. Former championship winning crew chief Greg Zipadelli, vice president of competition at Stewart-Haas Racing, will serve as Bowyer’s crew chief at Richmond.

Bowyer has four consecutive top 10s at Richmond. Almirola has one top 10 in his last five starts there.

“I love the challenge of (Richmond), but we’ve got to hit it,” Bowyer said. “We’ve been so-so on the short tracks. That’s certainly one of my best tracks, so we’ve got to nail the setup. If we can do that, we’ll get us a good run and go a long ways to getting into Bristol where we need to be.”

NOT SAFE

Austin Dillon (+10 above the cutline)

William Byron (+9)

Kyle Busch (+7)

Kurt Busch (+4)

Could Kyle Busch’s winless season end this weekend? He has six victories at Richmond, most among active drivers. Also, Joe Gibbs Racing’s 16 Richmond wins are its most at any track. JGR drivers have won the past four races at Richmond — Martin Truex Jr. swept last year’s races and Busch swept the 2019 races. If Busch wins, he’ll do so without crew chief Adam Stevens, who has been suspended one race because of a lug nut violation at Darlington. 

Byron is intriguing. He scored his first top-five finish of the season at Dover last month. He followed that with a win at Daytona and a fifth-place finish last weekend at Darlington. But Byron does not have a top 10 at Richmond in four starts. Hendrick Motorsports’ last win at Richmond was in September 2008.

Dillon carries momentum after his runner-up finish at Darlington. He’s placed in the top 10 in two of the last three Richmond races.

“Richmond is what I have circled as my best track in the playoffs I feel, and I wouldn’t have been able to say that a couple years back,” Dillon said.

Crew chief Matt McCall’s strategy helped Kurt Busch score six points in the first stage at Darlington by not pitting when the field did. He might need more help Saturday. Kurt Busch has not had a top 10 in his last four Richmond starts.

TOGETHER AGAIN

Martin Truex Jr. (+16)

Chase Elliott (+12)

The two antagonists in the late-race drama at Darlington aren’t safe should they have problems at Richmond.

Last year, Truex was the safe bet. He won both races, leading 295 of 800 laps in those races. He’s won four of the last six short track races, including a win at Martinsville this year.

Elliott did not finish better than 13th in the either Richmond race last year.

BREATHING ROOM

Joey Logano (+27)

Brad Keselowski (+22)

Alex Bowman (+19)

Logano’s third-place finish at Darlington put eight drivers between him and the final transfer spot. The same tire that is used this weekend at Richmond also is used at New Hampshire and Phoenix, site of the championship race. Logano won at Phoenix in the spring and finished fourth at New Hampshire.

Keselowski recovered from an early incident at Darlington to finish 11th. He has four consecutive top-10 finishes at Richmond. He’s finished no worse than 11th in his last nine Richmond starts.

Bowman placed sixth at Darlington. He scored 43 points, including 12 stage points. Only winner Kevin Harvick scored more points at Darlington. Bowman’s fortune at Richmond, though, hasn’t been good. He’s never finished better than 12th in eight starts there.

FOCUSED ON WINS

Denny Hamlin (+54)

Kevin Harvick  (advanced to second round)

These two have combined for 14 wins in 27 races this season and they are looking for more.

Harvick, who starts on the pole Saturday, already is in the second round with his Darlington win. Hamlin’s playoff points should put him into the round provided he doesn’t have any major problems.

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Interim crew chiefs for Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer at Richmond are set

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Kyle Busch and Clint Bowyer each will have an interim crew chief for Saturday’s Cup race at Richmond Raceway.

Crew chiefs Adam Stevens and Johnny Klausmeier each are suspended for Saturday night’s race. They are out because the cars of Busch and Bowyer each had two lug nuts not safe and secure after last weekend’s Southern 500. The penalty in Cup for that is a one-race and $20,000 fine to the crew chief.

Greg Zipadelli, vice president of competition at Stewart-Haas Racing, will serve as Bowyer’s crew chief at Richmond (7:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN). Zipadelli fills in for Klausmeier.

Zipadelli won three of four Xfinity races while filling in as Chase Briscoe‘s interim crew chief this season. Zipadelli also served as Bowyer’s crew chief at the first Michigan race in August. Klausmeier missed that race because Bowyer’s car had two lug nuts not safe and secure after the New Hampshire race.

Bowyer enters Saturday’s race outside a playoff transfer spot. He’s tied with Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Aric Almirola for the final transfer spot to the second round. Almirola owns the tiebreaker, which is best finish in the round. Almirola was ninth at Darlington; Bowyer 10th.

Jacob Canter will serve as Busch’s interim crew chief Saturday night. Canter, an engineer, has been Busch’s crew chief in the four Xfinity races Busch has run. Busch will make his final Xfinity start of the season Friday night (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Canter will be Busch’s crew chief in that race also.

Canter served as Busch’s interim crew chief in 2017 for one race.

Busch goes to Richmond 10th in the standings. He is seven points above the cutline.

Who is Cup playoff dark horse? Depends on who you ask

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The favorites to win the Cup championship are clear. That’s Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin.

But who could be the surprise to challenge for the title?

Playoff drivers were asked who their Cup playoff dark horse is. More chose Aric Almirola than any other driver. He is seeded 12th in the 16-driver playoff field.

“I am excited about the playoffs,” said Almirola, who recently signed a contract extension. “I do feel like we have a lot of potential. We’ve run really well. We’ve made some mistakes along the way that we certainly have to clean up going into the playoffs to be a contender. I do feel like our speed and the way that we’ve been running, the capability is certainly there.”

MORE: Martin Truex Jr.’s team makes pit crew change 

MORE: Friday 5 – Brad Keselowski tells team “Why not us?” for title 

Almirola is an intriguing pick. He had a five-race streak of top-five finishes. Those finishes were a part his nine-race streak of top-10 results.

“They’ve been consistently fast at a lot of these tracks,” William Byron said of Almirola as his Cup playoff dark horse. “The only thing with that is I feel like a lot of the tracks are going to be much different in the playoffs than the ones we ran in the summertime.

Said Kyle Busch of Almirola: “He’s one that could pop up anytime being with the SHR guys and being as fast as they’ve been each week.”

But Almirola also had poor finishes at some playoff tracks. He was 29th at Bristol after he was involved in an accident on a restart while running seventh. Battery issues led to a 33rd-place finish at Martinsville, a race he led early. He was 21st at Las Vegas.

Almirola was 12th at the first Darlington Raceway event and seventh in the second race. The playoffs begin Sunday with the Southern 500 at that track (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

They’ve had issues,” said Greg Zipadelli, vice president of competition at Stewart-Haas Racing of Almirola’s team. “Pit crews, restarts, speeding on pit road – things of that nature that have made him go to the back and have to race to the front. If we can clean all of those things up and not make any mistakes, I think he’ll have a good opportunity.”

MORE DARK HORSE PICKS

William Byron and Kyle Busch each were mentioned by multiple playoff drivers as their dark horse pick.

Byron is coming off his first career Cup points win last weekend at Daytona International Speedway. The win secured his playoff spot. Byron is the ninth seed.

“Momentum is something,” Clint Bowyer said of picking Byron as his dark horse. “Confidence is something. Winning your first race is worth something. Having a crew chief like Chad Knaus is worth something.”

Said Alex Bowman about his Hendrick Motorsports teammate: “I think William Byron, just coming off of a win, could be really strong. I feel like as a team, everybody at HMS has picked up lately.”

Maybe the underdog role will fit Busch. He missed the first 11 races of the 2015 Cup season when he was injured in the Xfinity season opener in Daytona. Busch came back to win the Cup title that season. Last year, he was viewed as the underdog going into the championship race. He won his second title.

Although Busch is winless this season and seeded 14th, maybe he’s in the right spot.

“Everyone is waiting on Kyle Busch to knock down that wall,” Harvick said. “We all know that he could win on any given week and know that he’s had a lot of bad luck this year.”

KEEP AN EYE ON THIS PICK

Among the interesting picks for dark horse was Denny Hamlin’s selection of Ryan Blaney. The Team Penske driver is the seventh seed.

“I think he shows the most speed when he’s on speed, he’s really on,” Hamlin said of Blaney. “I think of like Texas where I thought he was significantly faster than just everybody. … He’s just a guy that I look at as, he has the ability to make it through each round.

“I don’t know how many final four brackets he might be in. I would say, if I had to guess, everyone that fills one out, he’s probably in five percent of them maybe. Legitimately, I think he has a much better shot at that of making it through.”

Clint Bowyer eyes playoff run while working on 2021 plans

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Clint Bowyer, whose contract expires after this season, says that as long as he’s “a part of this sport in any way, shape or form, I’m excited about it.”

Bowyer is the only Cup driver at Stewart-Haas Racing not under contract for next season. News that Aric Almirola and sponsor  Smithfield will be back for 2021 came out this week. Kevin Harvick revealed in February that he had extended his contract through the 2023 season. Cole Custer is completing his first year with the team.

MORE: Cup starting lineup for Darlington 

I want to race and I want to be in a race car,” Bowyer said in July when asked about other opportunities, including broadcasting for 2021. “I love competing. I love being pissed off at the end of the race. I love being happy at the end of the race. I love that adrenaline of lining up next to that guy and wondering how in the hell you’re going to come off the Turn 2 ahead of him and that’s a feeling that can’t be replaced.”

Greg Zipadelli, vice president of competition at Stewart-Haas Racing, said this week that the team will “hopefully have the same lineup we do this year back.”

The 41-year-old Bowyer is in his fourth season at Stewart-Haas Racing after he was selected to take over the No. 14 car for Tony Stewart.

If Bowyer were not to return, there could be other options for SHR. Ford Xfinity drivers Chase Briscoe (Stewart-Haas Racing) and Austin Cindric (Team Penske) also have said they are unsure of where they’ll race in 2021. Their success this year could make them a candidate for a Cup ride.

Also, Erik Jones remains among drivers seeking a ride for next season. Kyle Larson remains indefinitely suspended but Stewart has publicly supported reinstatement for Larson.

Bowyer said Wednesday he’s focused on the playoffs, which begin with Sunday’s Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

He enters the playoffs seeded 13th with 2004 points in his first season with crew chief Johnny Klausmeier. The top 12 in points after first-round races at Darlington, Richmond and Bristol advance to the second round.

“It’s new life,” Bowyer said.

And a chance to learn from mistakes.

We’ve shown our capabilities,” Bowyer said. “We’ve run up front. We’ve won stages. We’ve led laps … but we’ve made mistakes. Now, we have a notebook of what not to do and we’ve got to put it to good use within these playoffs.”

Aric Almirola, sponsor returning to SHR for 2021 season

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Aric Almirola and sponsor Smithfield will return to Stewart-Haas Racing for next season, NBC Sports has confirmed. 

Adam Stern of Sports Business Journal first reported the deal for the 2021 season.

Almirola is in his third season at Stewart-Haas Racing. He’s made the playoffs each year. He finished a career-high fifth in points with the team in 2018.

MORE: Southern 500 throwback schemes 

MORE: Germain Racing ponders 2021 plans, including potential sale 

Almirola has one Cup win since joining Stewart-Haas Racing. That came in the 2018 playoffs at Talladega. He was partnered with crew chief Mike Bugarewicz before this season and responded with a career-high streak of nine consecutive top-10 finishes.

He’s done a really good job, him and Mike, of growing together as a team and figuring out what he likes,” said Greg Zipadelli, vice president of competition at SHR. “(Bugarewicz) has done a great job at that, but it’s time to go. They’ve been picking up and building their confidence and I feel like they’re ready, they just have to go out and execute. 

“When you go back through and you look at the top fives and top 10s he’s had all year, I don’t know if a single one of them was just a good, clean race. They’ve had issues. Pit crews, restarts, speeding on pit road – things of that nature that have made him go to the back and have to race to the front. If we can clean all of those things up and not make any mistakes, I think he’ll have a good opportunity.”

The 10-race Cup playoffs begin Sunday at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN).