NASCAR heads to Richmond for a short track reckoning

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA - JULY 30: Kyle Busch, driver of the #8 X World Wallet Chevrolet, pits during the NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out 400 at Richmond Raceway on July 30, 2023 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

NASCAR has had trouble with the short tracks since the Next Gen was introduced. Instead of movers-and-shakers and judicious application of the bumper, the races have become strategy affairs with limited tire falloff and cars that are difficult to gently move, and Richmond has been no exception despite its Action Track moniker.

This year’s been something different, though. While the one-mile Phoenix was more of the same, the race at Bristol featured heavy tire falloff that meant drivers could easily move through the field and forced them to vary their techniques and show off their skills.

It remains to be seen if Easter Sunday will be any different as NASCAR heads to Richmond Raceway for Toyota Owners 400 night race at 7 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN, and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Odds via BetMGM
+400 – Christopher Bell
+400 – Denny Hamlin
+625 – Martin Truex
+900 – Ty Gibbs
+1000 – Kyle Larson
+1000 – Chris Buescher
+1100 – Brad Keselowski
+1200 – William Byron
+1600 – Tyler Reddick
+1800 – Kyle Busch

One thing to note: Richmond won’t be the same package as Bristol. The high banks at that track mean it uses the intermediate package, as will Dover later this season. Phoenix was the first application of the new short track package, designed to change where the cars make downforce by raising the spoiler and simplifying the diffuser. It wasn’t ready by the LA Coliseum race either; the package has been undergoing extensive testing by NASCAR since last year.

There’s been one constant as the package changes, though, and that’s the Toyotas running up front. The brand has a new Camry LSE body for this season, and it’s proven to be a good one. Denny Hamlin won at the LA Coliseum and at Bristol, and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Christopher Bell won at Phoenix.

JGR’s other drivers have a good chance too. Defending regular-season champion Martin Truex has three wins at Richmond and finished second at Bristol this year.

Xfinity Series champion Ty Gibbs has come into his own in his sophomore season as well as he hunts for his first win. He’s led 195 laps this season, putting him third among his competitors.

“We’ve run well and hopefully we can have another good race this week in Richmond,” Gibbs said, “It’s been great. We’ve all been working really well together,” he added, “and we are going to keep hammering down.”

Don’t count out the other Toyotas, though. 23XI Racing ran one-two early the last time the series visited Richmond, with Tyler Reddick winning the first stage and Bubba Wallace runner-up in the second.

But the winner last year wasn’t a Toyota at all. Roush Fenway Keselowski’s Chris Buescher clinched his first of what would be three victories on the season.

The Fords have struggled on the whole on the short tracks this season, though, so it might be an uphill battle for RFK which also pilots the new Mustang Dark Horses. Team Penske’s Austin Cindric has had some of the worst of it, though.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever started Richmond in the Cup Series inside the top 30, and I can give you a number of reasons why, and the one time I did I lost a cylinder about six laps into the race. It’s a very difficult racetrack. It’s a challenging race from a strategy standpoint with long green flag runs,” Cindric explained.

“It’s a tough track, but I really do enjoy Richmond, so I am looking forward to going there. I’m certainly not discouraged, but it’s a racetrack where you can’t hide if you have a weakness or an issue throughout the race.”

His team knows how to win at Richmond though. Teammate Joey Logano’s done so twice, and he’s also picked up 13 top 5s and 18 top 10s for an average finish of 10.0 at the track.

One Ford driver who impressed last time the series visited Richmond is Josh Berry. Substituting for the suspended Chase Elliott, he picked up a runner-up Cup Series finish. He’s now in his first full-time season in Cup, driving the famed No. 4 for Stewart-Haas Racing, and has struggled to break the top-twenty, much less compete for win. But Richmond could be the kick that team needs.

But even if the racing isn’t as good as it used to be, a short track under the lights is always a spectacle, says Ross Chastain.

“Yes, give me lights,” Chastain said. “Give me a racecar on a short track under the lights at night. It’s just awesome. I wish, our cars don’t spark anymore but I do miss sparks. Now, I don’t like my car to spark because that means it’s hitting the ground pretty hard, but I miss watching cars sparking going around the racetrack.”

Practice is set for 10:35 a.m. ET on Saturday followed immediately by Qualifying at 11:15 a.m. ET. Both sessions will be broadcast on FS1, MRN, and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Xfinity drivers look to unseat Austin Hill at Richmond

Austin Hill has an enviable record in the Xfinity Series so far this season. In the first five races of the season, the Richard Childress Racing driver has yet to finish outside the top five and has picked up two wins. He’ll be hoping to continue that record in Saturday’s ToyotaCare 250, at 1:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN, and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, as he goes for his first win at Richmond Raceway.

Other drivers may have something to say about that. Hill has never been afraid to make enemies. Sheldon Creed, who left RCR to drive for Joe Gibbs, was very unhappy with how his then-teammate raced him last season, for instance, which cost them both a Championship 4 berth at Martinsville.

This year, Hill’s managed to make the series’ even-tempered Australian rookie angry. At Circuit of The Americas, Hill overdrove the first corner on the final restart, pushing Shane van Gisbergen wide and taking the lead from him. Van Gisbergen responded by barreling into Hill later in the lap, and the ensuing battle allowed Kyle Larson to sneak through and get the win over both of them.

Van Gisbergen will probably be more concerned on Saturday about logging his first laps on the short track as he gets used to how the Xfinity Series compares on ovals to his old Australian Supercar.

However, Hill’s championship rivals should be right on his tail. That includes Chandler Smith, just nine points back, and Cole Custer who trails by 30 points. Custer, who won at the short track at Phoenix last season to secure the serios championship, has high hopes that he and Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Riley Herbst will be fast.

“I have a ton of confidence in the Stewart-Haas Racing short-track cars. You’ve seen it with Riley,” he said. “We have the speed to compete for wins at these tracks. There’s been a lot of hard work put into making these cars better and you saw it pay off last year with the strong runs from both cars.

“In addition to all of that, though, I just enjoy short-track racing like most drivers in the garage. It’s what we grew up racing, so it’s just more familiar to us. I can’t wait to get back to Richmond and see what we’ve got this weekend.”

Fourth in the standings is Hill’s rookie teammate Jesse Love, who moved up straight from ARCA after a dominant run in that series last year. Love has held his own in the Xfinity Series, running up front and contending for wins, with his season capped off with a second at Phoenix.

A few drivers will be making their series debut at Richmond. That includes Truck Series driver Taylor Gray, who will pilot the No. 19 Supra for Joe Gibbs Racing. Additionally, Bubba Pollard, one of the most successful late model drivers in the country, will be driving the No. 88 Camaro for JR Motorsports, in his first laps not only in the Xfinity Series but at Richmond Raceway.

“I really don’t know what to expect, as it’s all very new to us. But I’m very thankful for the opportunity.” Pollard said. “I hope we can make the most of it.”

The full-time field has extra motivation, too, as the top four eligible drivers will be eligible to compete in the Dash 4 Cash incentive next week at Martinsville to race for a $100,000 bonus. That will continue at Texas, Talladega, and Dover.

Practice is scheduled prior to the race at 8:35 a.m. ET Saturday followed by qualifying at 9:05 a.m. ET. This will all be aired on FS1, MRN, and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA – JULY 30: Bubba Wallace, driver of the #23 McDonald’s Toyota, Tyler Reddick, driver of the #45 Xfinity 10G Network Toyota, and Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 Mavis Tires & Brakes Toyota race during the NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out 400 at Richmond Raceway on July 30, 2023 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Toyota Owners 400
The Place: Richmond Raceway
The Date: Sunday, March 31
The Time: 7 p.m. ET
The Purse: $7,886,627
TV: FOX, 6 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 300 miles (400 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 70),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 230), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 400)

NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: ToyotaCare 250
The Place: Richmond Raceway
The Date: Saturday, March 30
The Time: 1:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $1,456,191
TV: FS1, 12:30 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 187.5 miles (250 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 75),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 150), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 250)

Owen Johnson