‘Unpredictability’ will be the theme for NASCAR’s Next Gen cars this weekend at Richmond

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA - APRIL 18: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, leads the field during the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway on April 18, 2021 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Every points-paying race in NASCAR’s new Next Gen era has had a different winner, and half of the first six races have been earned by first-time winners. There’s no reason that trend won’t continue in this Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400 (April 3 at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

However, Richmond’s 0.75-mile short track is a new style for the Next Gen cars.

Richmond’s a track that rewards experience. There hasn’t been a first-time winner at the track since Kasey Khane back in 2005, and the most successful active drivers are regular championship contenders. Kyle Busch leads that group by far with six wins, eclipsing two of teammates in Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin who have half that number. Busch also has the best average finish of 6.9, ahead of his other teammate Christopher Bell.

But don’t count out last week’s winners, Ross Chastain and Trackhouse Racing. Their Chevys have been strong, with top-five finishes in the last five races. Chastain doesn’t have the best record at Richmond, though. Teammate Daniel Suarez has scored record numbers of stage wins so far this season and sits squarely in the playoff picture.

Busch, Truex, and Hamlin are all over 30. No winner this year has been older than 30, so experience might not be all that matters.

And records may not matter at all. Track president Dennis Brickmeier said the buzzword coming into this weekend is “unpredictability.” The series hasn’t raced with its new car at a short track since the Clash exhibition race at the LA Coliseum. Brickmeier said that race isn’t entirely indicative.

“It’s tough to call in regards to that, given the heat races and everything, and how that was broken up,” he said. “But that was fun to watch!”

“So now we’re on a short track for the first points-paying race,” he added, “It’s a good spot for us to be in. We’ll see how things pan out over 400 laps, with a couple of stage breaks in there, and thirty-six cars versus three” on track.

Those three cars were the first time Richmond saw Next-Gen cars on track. It was the site of the first test of the car. There’ve been several tests since then, including one involving rain tires for short tracks. Brickmeier said these tires were “part of the development and really good for the sport and the series going forward.”

The drivers will also get practice and qualifying on Saturday for more on-track experience.

Said Brickmeier: “I’m glad that the practice session is back, so we’ll get a little bit of a glimpse,” Brickmeier said. “But, you know, thirty-five minutes, we’ll see how much we can garner from that.” Again, everything’s unpredictable until the cars are on track. “

There is another factor that added to the unpredictability of track: the aging of the surface which was last re-done in 2004.

“As the years have gone on, the racetrack has definitely aged, it’s definitely gone through some transition, it has lost a lot of grip,” Kyle Busch said. “There have been some changes in that respect, as well, just trying to figure out, ‘OK, what’s next. What’s the next thing that’s going to keep you on top of your game at Richmond.’

“The new car is another challenge that we will take on there, now. It’s always been a good track for me, I enjoy going there. It’s a fun short track. It’s a very challenging short track that doesn’t lend itself to typical short tracks around the country.”

Xfinity has $100,000 on the line

The Xfinity Series once again returns to Richmond for the ToyotaCare 250 (April 2 at 1:30 p.m. ET. on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR radio). Only two former winners are in the field, both in JR Motorsports equipment: Justin Allgaier and Noah Gragson. Defending winner AJ Allmendinger hasn’t finished outside the top ten this season.

And Allmendinger has an extra $100,000 to fight for, as he’ll be a part of the Dash 4 Cash. This program will give that bonus to any of the top four from last week’s race at the Circuit of the Americas if they can pull off the win, meaning Allmendinger will have to race a hungry Austin Hill, Noah Gragson, and Sam Mayer.

“Last year was really good,” Gragson said. “We were able to pick up four Dash for Cash bonuses as an organization. Our team picked up three of them and Josh Berry got the fourth the Dover; we kind of had a clean sweep last year

“We have a great opportunity to do it again with Sam and I this weekend…We’re all extremely grateful for the opportunity to race for a hundred-thousand-dollar bonus.  That’s a big bonus so we’re excited for it.”

Of that group, only Gragson has recorded a win at the track. Allmendinger has made only two starts at Richmond in the series, and Mayer also ran his first race at the track last season. Austin Hill has never raced at Richmond up to this point.

The Cup and Xfinity Series will be joined on track by the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour on Friday.

“To have the Mods back now on the April weekend gives us a tripleheader,” Brickmeier said. “I think it’s an opportunity to get some new fans, you know especially with a lot of those teams and series coming out of the north and coming down here to Richmond.”

He emphasized that “it’s important to provide some more programming on the racetrack.” He also said his team “piled a lot into this weekend, not just with the ontrack stuff but everything we’re doing off the track” for the best fan experience possible.

NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Toyota Owners 400
The Place: Richmond Raceway
The Date: Sunday, April 3
The Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $7,110,735
TV: FOX, 3 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 300 miles (4000 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 70),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 230), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 400)
2021 Race Winner: Alex Bowman

NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: ToyotaCare 250
The Place: Richmond Raceway
The Date: Saturday, April 2
The Time: 1:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $1,453,684
TV: FS1, 12:30 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 300 miles (150 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 75),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 150), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 250)

Owen Johnson