RICHMOND, Va. – Typically, talk going into a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race centers on who has been winning. You know. The ‘haves.’ This week, going into Saturday night’s Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway (7 p.m. ET on FOX), the key storyline focuses on the ‘have-nots.’
Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth. An unlikely two-man cast of characters in a coast-to-coast show that is teetering on the edge of dark comedy.
After eight races this season there have been seven different winners with Kevin Harvick the sole repeat visitor to Victory Lane. Remarkably, this parity has not included Johnson or Kenseth, who finished 1-2 in last year’s series championship standings. The last season where the first eight races transpired without one of these guys winning at last once? Back in 2001, when Johnson was still in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and Kenseth early was a slumping Sprint Cup sophomore.
This set-up isn’t meant to impart panic, despite the new Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format which gives race winners virtually guaranteed spots. It’s simply designed to acknowledge, well, the weirdness of it all. Last year after eight races both drivers already had two victories. Johnson, a six-time series champion, and Kenseth, the titlist in 2003, know how to win.
Richmond, known by many as the ‘perfect track’ – not too short, not too long, but just right at three-quarters-mile with 14-degree banking in the turns – could be the tonic for the decidedly imperfect seasons Johnson and Kenseth have experienced thus far.
Statistical indicators are all over the board. Johnson has three victories at Richmond but the last came six years ago and he has finished outside the top 10 in the last three Richmond races. Kenseth has one Richmond win but that happened 12 years ago; on the other hand, he has top-10 results in each of the last three Richmond races.
It might be best to look beyond this weekend, to assess when one of these past series champions will break into the win column. But don’t look too far. Next week the series goes to Talladega Superspeedway, the 2.66-mile monster of an Alabama tri-oval where horsepower-limit restrictor plates are used to keep speeds within reason. Johnson has two Talladega wins, Kenseth one. At the other restrictor-plate events, held at Daytona International Speedway, Johnson has three more victories, while Kenseth has two more.
RETURN TO THE SCENE OF THE CRIME
When the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series last was here, controversy ensued – one of the biggest controversies in the sport’s 65-year history. Several days after the annual early September event that precedes the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Michael Waltrip Racing was penalized for trying to manipulate the finishing order by purposely causing a caution period to secure Martin Truex Jr. a spot in the sport’s “playoffs” that are contested over the final 10 races of each season.
Faced with NASCAR’s credibility being called into question, Chairman and CEO Brian France reacted quickly – and concisely – in a manner that had people comparing him to his father, Bill France Jr. and his grandfather, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. MWR’s three teams in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series were penalized 50 points each, which removed Truex from the Chase and allowed Ryan Newman to get into the field. MWR also was fined $300,000. In addition, Penske Racing and Front Row Motorsports were placed on probation for some accompanying late-race hijinks deemed to be designed to manipulate the finishing order. France made the bold move of righting the wrongs by adding a 13th driver to the Chase field normally limited to 12 – Jeff Gordon.
France called it an “unprecedented and extraordinary set of circumstances” that resulted in “the right outcome to protect our integrity, which is our number one goal of NASCAR.”
ANOTHER KIND OF CHASE
Chase Elliott, the 18-year-old son of NASCAR great Bill Elliott, will go for a third consecutive NASCAR Nationwide Series win Friday night, in the ToyotaCare 250 at Richmond (7 p.m. ET on ESPNews). But don’t think Awesome Bill is an awesome coach. Mainly, he’s a super supportive father.
“He’s always kind of given me space to figure things out on my own, and any information he gives me, it’s just kind of there for reference,” the younger Elliott said. “It’s not ever forced upon. I think he kind of lets me figure [things] out as we go.”
It’s an approach that appears to working, to say the least.