NASCAR heads to Richmond for short track racing with already-short tempers

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA - AUGUST 14: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Mobil 1 Ford, takes the checkered flag to win the NASCAR Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway on August 14, 2022 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Even as NASCAR leaves a Circuit Of The Americas race filled with contact and carnage, the sport’s best drivers head to a short track, where hard racing is always promised.

And not just any short track, but Richmond, a track as old as NASCAR itself. Virginia’s 0.75-mile speedway, hosting Saturday’s Toyota Owners 400 (3:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Richmond Raceway is known as the “Action Track.”

And that’s just going to drive up the tension after COTA, for Daniel Suarez especially. Suarez was fined $50,000 after he hit Alex Bowman and teammate Ross Chastain on pit road around officials, angry at how Bowman raced him in the final restart.

“Every single driver here is very, very competitive,” Suarez said as a reminder. “It’s something we just love. Just because of that we are very fortunate to be in this position.”

He acknowledged that he struggled to stay positive after the COTA race: “I try to remind myself why I’m here,” he said. “I’m here because I love racing. I’m here because I love to compete and I like to win. Everything else comes as a consequence. I feel grateful to be here.”

Other drivers are on the upswing, though: notably all of Hendrick Motorsports. The National Motorsports Appeals Board ruled that their penalties for illegally modifying hood louvres should be amended, and each driver and team has been restored 100 points and 10 Playoff points.

That puts Alex Bowman on top of the points standings, 15 points ahead of Ross Chastain.

“Being able to start the year so strong is a testament to the hard work by everyone on the No. 48 team,” Bowman said. “Becoming more consistent is something I have wanted to get to for a while now. To have this season start this way has given me a lot of confidence for the rest of the season.”

William Byron, the season’s only multi-time winner, is third, 29 points back. Kyle Larson is ninth.

In this race last year, Denny Hamlin led only the final five laps to claim his first win of the season by just .552-seconds over Kevin Harvick, neither of whom have won yet this year.

He certainly led fewer laps than Ryan Blaney, who led plenty of laps in the middle of the race just to finish seventh.

“Richmond will be a good gauge of where you stack up,” Blaney said: “slow, a bunch of mechanical grip, tire conservation, so I’m optimistic for sure.”

“I thought we had good cars there last year in both races from the whole team and I’m excited to get there. I think it’s okay, but you can always improve, and I think we can get a little bit better.”

Richmond begins a short-track stretch, as the Cup Series will head on to Bristol Dirt and Martinsville.

Practice for the Toyota Owners 400 is Saturday at 10:05 a.m. ET and followed immediately by Busch Light Pole Qualifying at 10:50 a.m. Both sessions will be broadcast live on FS1.

Xfinity Dash 4 Cash kicks off at Richmond

An eventful road course race last week and a short track challenge this week certainly has the NASCAR Xfinity Series drivers up on the wheel.

Austin Hill continues to lead the Xfinity Series championship standings, but a DNF for the points leader last week in Austin, means that second place Riley Herbst now trails the season’s three-race winner by only 15 points heading into Saturday’s ToyotaCare 250 at Richmond Raceway (1 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Herbst, the driver of the No. 98 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford has proven to be quite adept at the .75-mile Richmond oval with top-10 finishes in four of his five starts and fifth place finishes in both races last year. He is still racing for his first career win; however, there is some positive history for that at Richmond. Kyle Busch and Robby Gordon are the last drivers to score their first Xfinity Series victory at Richmond, splitting the 2004 races.

“I’m ready for Richmond,” said Herbst. “It’s a track that I’ve won at before, so I’m hoping we can find a little magic there this weekend.”

“It’s going to be hard, though. Unlike the race I won, this is a day race. The track’s going to be hot and slick. Honestly, it can be a really frustrating racetrack. I feel like you go there and fight the same thing every single time.”

Ty Gibbs – the 2022 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion – won last year’s race by a slight .116-second. Gibbs and runner-up John Hunter Nemechek combined to lead all but one lap of the race.

JR Motorsports’ Justin Allgaier and Herbst’s SHR teammate Cole Custer are the only former winners entered this weekend. Allgaier, who has finished inside the top-10 in half of his 22 Richmond starts, swept both races in 2020 and Custer scored his victory there in 2019. They along with Herbst and Nemechek should be easy favorites this weekend.

Nemechek, driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, is ranked third in points, 29 points behind Hill and is one of only three fulltime drivers to have earned a trophy already.

Smith, driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, was the highest finishing Xfinity Series regular last week at COTA with a fourth-place finish – just ahead of Allgaier, Daniel Hemric and Sam Mayer.

Qualifying has proven to be especially important at Richmond with 16 winners from pole position – the most of any single starting spot. And indeed, that’s where Gibbs started last April en route to his victory.

In addition to the tight battle atop the points position, Saturday’s race marks the first of the popular Dash 4 Cash incentive program for the Xfinity Series. The top four fulltime series drivers from last week’s race in Austin – Allgaier, his JR Motorsports teammate Mayer, Kaulig Racing’s Hemric and JGR rookie Sammy Smith making his Richmond debut – will  be eligible for the Dash 4 Cash $100,000 bonus.

The highest finishing driver among those four will get the big $100,000 check from Xfinity and the four highest fulltime finishers at Richmond will be eligible for another $100,000 in the next race, April 11 at Martinsville Speedway.

Mayer earned the $100,000 bonus last year at Richmond with a third-place finish. Allgaier has four Dash 4 Cash bonus wins in his career too.

“After last week’s race, I feel more than confident in my team that we are going to have a great finish this week at Richmond and contend for that $100,000 prize in the Dash 4 Cash,” Mayer said. “We won it last year so I am hopeful we can swoop in and take the win and race for it again in Martinsville.”

The Xfinity Series will have practice Saturday morning at 8:05 a.m. ET, followed by qualifying at 8:35 a.m. ET and the race at 1 p.m. that afternoon.

The trucks are staying in Texas

Texas continues to be the competitive center for the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series. Reigning series champion Zane Smith earned a thrilling victory last Saturday to make it two-in-a-row for him at the Circuit of The Americas road course in Austin with the series moving a couple hours north to Texas Motor Speedway for Saturday’s 250 (5:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

The COTA victory puts Smith atop the championship standings by a slim 2-points over one of his 2022 championship challengers Ty Majeski. The top six drivers are separated by a mere 35 points as the series heads to the always-dramatic 1.5-mile Texas high-banks.

It’s veteran Matt Crafton, ranked sixth in the standings, that will have the eye of many. After a rough 2022 season filled with disappointment and unfulfilled expectations, Crafton has had a solid start to 2023 and must be considered a favorite heading to Texas.

Crafton, driver of the No. 88 ThorSport Racing Ford, holds some of the series’ most important records at Texas from pole positions, top-five finishes, top-10 finishes, lead lap finishes, and laps completed. The all-time winningest driver is Todd Bodine with six victories – but Crafton is the only multi-time winner in this weekend’s field.

Defending winner Stewart Friesen, driver of the No. 52 Halmar-Friesen Racing Toyota, is the only other Texas winner entered this week. He’s had top-10 finishes in half his 10 starts at the 1.5-mile track.

There are certainly other drivers expected to give these two a run for the trophy, however. Another veteran, Grant Enfinger, driver of the No. 23 GMS Racing Chevrolet, has proven to be particularly good on the Texas Motor Speedway with seven top-10 finishes in 10 starts – including a pair of top-five efforts. He was 11th in last year’s race.

Beyond the veterans such as Crafton, Friesen and Enfinger, rookie Nick Sanchez, driver of the No. 2 Rev Racing Chevrolet is a very respectable 12th-place in standings heading to Texas with two top-10 finishes in the four races to date.

The points leader Smith is certainly no slouch at 1.5-mile tracks either, with five top-five finishes in seven of the 1.5-mile track races in 2022. He was third at Texas.

The CRAFTSMAN Truck Series has practice Saturday at 10:35 a.m. ET followed by qualifying at 11:05 am. ET.

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA – APRIL 02: Sam Mayer, driver of the #1 Accelerate Pros Talent Chevrolet, Ryan Sieg, driver of the #39 A-Game Ford, and AJ Allmendinger, driver of the #16 Action Industries Chevrolet, race during the NASCAR Xfinity Series ToyotaCare 250 at Richmond Raceway on April 02, 2022 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Toyota Owners 400
The Place: Richmond Raceway
The Date: Sunday, April 2
The Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $7,529,485
TV: FS1, 2 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, April 1
The Time: 1 p.m. ET
The Purse: $1,721,030
TV: FS1, 12 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)

Next Race: 250
The Place: Texas Motor Speedway
The Date: Saturday, April 1
The Time: 4:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $710,218
TV: FS1, 3:30 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 250.2 miles (167 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 77),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 122), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 167)

Owen Johnson