Sometimes, the best option to win a race isn’t outrunning the competition but outmaneuvering them.
Never is that more applicable than with a late-race caution on a short track.
Which made the final pit stop sequence of Saturday night’s Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway even more inexplicable.
When the yellow flag waved with a scheduled 10 laps remaining, all 16 cars on the lead lap pitted for four tires.
Why didn’t a crew chief gamble on keeping his car on track? Or at least taking two tires?
Generally, the tried-and-true axiom for any late caution at a short track is to do the opposite of those in the lead or near it – even in instances of the high tire wear evident Saturday at Richmond.
Sometimes, the strategy gets taken to the extreme.
In the April 18, 2004 at Martinsville Speedway, a caution flew with 85 laps remaining. Leader Jimmie Johnson stayed on track … and the 14 lead-lap cars behind him all pitted. On tires that fell off quickly, Johnson still managed to keep the lead for another 40 laps and hung on for a fourth-place finish. Crew chief Chad Knaus said two days later that he was “floored” that even the cars outside the top 10 stopped (expecting that at least a few might risk staying out and hanging on for a top 10).
Stunned would be an understandable reaction to Richmond, too, especially given the circumstances. When the race restarted, there were six green-flags left. As it turned out, because of a caution on the next lap, just four of the final 12 laps were contested under green.
Why not elect to remain on track or try a swifter two-tire stop rather than stay behind the top contenders?
For three drivers – Austin Dillon, David Ragan and Matt DiBenedetto – the strategy play wasn’t much of a choice. They took a wavearound 20 laps earlier and probably couldn’t risk the extra distance on tires.
But for every other driver who was trailing as eventual race winner Kyle Busch entered the pits on Lap 391 – a list that comprised, in running order, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott, Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, William Byron, Jimmie Johnson, Erik Jones, Aric Almirola and Daniel Suarez – rolling the dice was a legitimate option.
Ten of those 13 drivers don’t have a win, which is the easiest way to qualify for a playoff berth. While you can make the case for “every point matters,” if you were running outside the top 10 and had an opportunity to steal a victory, why pass it up?
Yes, worn tires would have factored into the call (it was roughly halfway through a typical green-flag run), and they highly increased the likelihood of spinning the tires and stacking up the restart.
That could have ruined the results for many other teams that then would have become the victim of circumstances beyond their control.
But who cares?
You are supposed to make life more difficult for competitors during a race, whether it’s by banging fenders or battling wits. There is no sense of entitlement or fair play that the front-running cars somehow “deserve” a clean restart to decide the race.
There also is strength in numbers. If the back half of the lead-lap cars had pitted, it would have been extremely difficult for the previous front-runners to regain many spots over barely three and a half laps of green on the 0.75-mile oval.
It certainly would have presented a show to watch unfold in a race that was relatively tame (though there was consistent passing for first and no runaway leader).
But fans were deprived of a potential slam-bang finish. Instead, we got another example of the garage groupthink that can be so pervasive, it comes at the detriment of competitive ingenuity.
When the 16-driver playoff field likely is set in September without some of those teams, none will point to Richmond as the race that cost them a championship bid because they won’t know for sure if it did.
Which is why at least a few of them should have tried to find out Saturday.
According to multiple media estimates, the crowd for Saturday night’s race was around 40,000. That would be up about 10,000 from the previous year on Sunday afternoon, which marked the second consecutive scheduled daytime start for Richmond’s spring race.
In moving both of its races back under the lights this season, track officials proclaimed that Saturday night racing was its “brand,” and the modest attendance uptick might affirm that.
However, does a track that once had a 112,000-seat capacity and sold out 33 consecutive races from 1992-2008 have its swagger back a little bit with the move?
Yes, there is that ongoing $30 million infield renovation that produced some positive vibes, and maybe encouraging signs have emerged from aligning with a renowned pro wrestling promoter in hopes of goosing promotions and ticket sales.
But with a (greatly reduced) capacity of more than 50,000, there probably were still at least 10,000 empty seats Saturday night. It was a good step forward but much work remains to be done in a market that always has been is a cornerstone for race fans.
Though it appeared to be triggered by Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s Ford scraping the wall, the final caution Saturday was sourced to “debris,” marking only the second debris yellow of the season and the first since the season-opening Daytona 500.
Last season, there were nine debris yellows through the first nine races.
This is the lowest total for debris yellows through nine races since at least 1990 (the first season in which caution reasons were listed for every race on Racing-Reference.info). There were four seasons (1990, ’91, ’92 and ’95) with three debris cautions through the first nine races.
As Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott noted postrace (and many others have said), last year’s implementation of stages came with a tacit understanding that the scheduled yellows would effectively serve as “planned” debris cautions.
NASCAR deserves credit for sticking to the pledge of letting races play out naturally, avoiding the quick-trigger temptation to bunch the field on restarts and draw the justified ire of its teams.
No one ever will confuse a seven-time champion with a wily starting pitcher, but Jimmie Johnson has been grinding out races this season with the efficacy of a journeyman trying to win without his best stuff every fifth day. As analyst Steve Letarte said Monday on NASCAR America, it’s tricky to keep winning as your fastball slides from 98 mph to 95, but Johnson is managing the dropoff.
Bristol (third) and Richmond (sixth) are the first time the Hendrick Motorsports driver has earned back-to-back top 10s since Dover and Charlotte last October, which isn’t exactly remarkable in a career with 344 top 10s in 588 starts (58.5 percent). But it’s been admirable to watch the way in which Johnson has adjusted to patiently gritting it out and making the most of what he is given.
During their heyday, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus could win on any Sunday because of their No. 48 Chevrolet’s speed. That they seem to be recalibrating their approaches is as impressive on some levels as their dominance.
“We’re taking steps forward,” Johnson said. “I’d love to take a jump forward, but we’re definitely taking steps forward.”
Maybe Johnson (whose quest to return to greatness was the subject of a well-done Associated Press story last week) should begin tweeting quotes from Jim Bouton instead of Babe Ruth.
So where are the Hendrick Chevrolets a quarter of the way into the Camaro era?
Elliott had said it would be reasonable to evaluate the team this season after Martinsville Speedway (when the West Coast Swing was over). Three races later, the No. 9 driver said he was “realistic” after finishing second at Richmond (where he mostly ran in the top 15 but benefited from some late breaks).
“I think we’ve been getting better, for sure, over the course of the past handful of weeks,” he said. “I thought (Bristol) was really probably our best effort as a company.
“I think we have to continue to be realistic with ourselves. We can’t look at the results tonight and think we’re right there, because in reality I think we still have some work to do. I think anybody amongst our team would say the same thing. I’m not knocking anyone, anybody on my team or whoever, but we all know we need to do better. I think we just have to be realistic with ourselves.”
Talladega Superspeedway won’t reveal much next week, but the May stretch of Dover International Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway will be a critical test of how far Hendrick needs to go over the summer to be ready for a playoff push.
After coming up agonizingly short of a breakthrough victory at Richmond, Martin Truex Jr. at least can erase some of the sting at Talladega. The defending series champion has yet to win a restrictor plate race in 52 starts, which still falls short of his 0-for-75 record on short tracks.
According to Racing Insights, Truex (16 victories) ranks second behind Greg Biffle (19) for most wins without a short-track triumph. (Sterling Marlin is third with 10).
Truex said last year he needed to race “more like a jerk” to end his plate drought. With short tracks, it might be as simple as catching some good luck if the last two visits to Richmond are an indication.