Action Track no more: how Richmond became a strategy racetrack for the NASCAR Cup Series

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA - JULY 30: Austin Dillon, driver of the #3 Bass Pro Shops Club Chevrolet, and Ryan Preece, driver of the #41 United Rentals Ford, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out 400 at Richmond Raceway on July 30, 2023 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Richmond Raceway has long been known as The Action Track. 

It’s a well-deserved nickname for a track that’s produced some incredible and intense moments that are still talked about today, such as Kyle Busch spinning Dale Earnhardt Jr or Carl Edwards moving Busch right back. 

But recent races at the track haven’t produced that same variety of action. Instead, Richmond is a place where long green flag runs are the norm and wins are regularly decided by pit strategy calls. 

Denny Hamlin acknowledged that there has been a major change at the track. How the track races is especially significant to him since this is the Virginian driver’s home track where he’s won four times. 

“It just depends,” Denny said. “If you’re a purist, you like it. If you like side-by-side, close racing here, you have an issue. I understand.” 

It’s an issue with the cars all being too equal, he argued. 

“Sometimes you have these type of races where, you know, Max wins by thirty seconds and there’s no stiff competition. But these cars are running the same times and everyone’s falling off at the same pace,” he explained.

“I’ll just keep beating the old laptime variation hammer until we get it better, but as a purist, I loved it because I controlled so much of my destiny because of the things I was doing as a driver,” he said.

He was able to secure a second-place finish at the track. 

“But a fan doesn’t really care about that, they just care about close side-by-side racing,” he acknowledged.

Richmond winner Chris Buescher, for his part, prefers watching a race that’s decided on strategy. 

“In a lot of ways I like to see everything be able to play out and take into account all the different aspects of our sport and see everything play out in a way that everybody gets to see their part in it come around and see how their decisions impacted the day and how that got us to Victory Lane,” Buescher said.

However, he did acknowledge that caution-heavy races added a sense of variability. 

“When you’re having a bad day, all you want is a caution, so… I’ve been on that side of it at this very racetrack,” he acknowledged. 

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA – JULY 30: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #6 Ford, pits during the NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out 400 at Richmond Raceway on July 30, 2023 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Buescher’s crew chief Scott Graves pointed out that such a race is certainly more interesting on top of the box.

“I always enjoy the races where we have a part like that and a role,” he said.

“There’s the strategy. It also takes the execution of the pit crew and the driver and everyone else.”

It’s not just Richmond where that’s the case but every short track with the next gen car. The North Wilkesboro All-Star Race was a runaway win for Kyle Larson, for instance. 

The Next Gen car was designed to improve the quality of racing on downforce-heavy intermediate tracks, places where the previous generation of car struggled. Those races are now far more competitive, but that’s come at the expense of short tracks. 

Ironically, though, those intermediate tracks have been disappearing from the schedule in favor of short tracks, superspeedways, and road courses due to their unpopularity with the old car, placing NASCAR in a bind with a high number of road courses now on its schedule.

Two big issues with the Next Gen are its strength and its tire. The stronger body of the Next Gen car means superficial damage no longer sends cars to the garage, but it also means drivers can’t just move their competitors out of the way. 

NASCAR has started running a softer-compound tire starting at New Hampshire though to try to get different speeds in cars throughout a run, something that was very visible at Richmond. 

NASCAR will be running a test at Richmond on Monday with an aim towards further improving the raceability of its short track package. 

Christopher Bell, Harrison Burton, William Byron, Justin Haley, Ryan Preece, and Noah Gragson will be testing a new design that should increase downforce for trailing cars. 

Hamlin expects good results from the test.

“I’m optimistic for sure,” he said. “I’ll be optimistic until it proves itself otherwise. I think the key to this riddle still resides with grip.”

Owen Johnson