NASCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN)

Is Day Time The Right Time?

For the first time in years, Richmond won’t host a NASCAR playoff or playoff deciding race. In fact, they also will host a pair of day races this season at that.

From 2004 through 2017, Richmond was always the regular season finale. In 2018, it was moved to the postseason. Now, they’ve moved the race up. Also, the spring race is now a scheduled day race at that. So is the Fall race.

The thing is, this race used to always be a Sunday afternoon race following the Daytona 500. However, lights were installed in the early 90’s around the track. It wasn’t until 1998 that they finally scheduled this for a Saturday night race in primetime.

In 2002, 2007 and 2015, the race was rained out until Sunday. For 2016, it was moved back to Sunday afternoon before 2017, 2018 and 2019 this being back under the lights. Now, we’re back in the day this weekend for a second straight year. Does it stay there?

Day racing is typically better for Richmond in the sense that the track is slicker and allows for more passing. Night racing adds more natural grip which makes passing much more difficult.

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)

Does Richmond Deserve 2 Dates?

NASCAR is an ever evolving schedule. Not many tracks are keeping two weekend’s anymore. Richmond is lucky enough to be able to keep doing so. The thing is, just Richmond, Daytona, Vegas, Phoenix, Atlanta, Martinsville, Bristol, Talladega, Darlington, Kansas and Charlotte each host two races each season.

But, if you break them down, NASCAR owns the tracks at Daytona, Talladega, Phoenix, Richmond, Martinsville, Darlington and Kansas. SMI owns the rest (Vegas, Atlanta, Bristol and Charlotte). Among the SMI dates, Bristol and Charlotte have two separate weekends with Bristol’s spring race being on dirt and Charlotte’s Fall race being on a ROVAL. Vegas and Atlanta are their only two outliers.

Dover, Texas, Pocono, Michigan and Loudon each lost a weekend lately. Chicago and Kentucky are gone.

With NASCAR constantly adding new tracks now, the dates being taken away are those who host two. With Richmond essentially hosting two of the same race weekend’s this season with both falling on a Sunday afternoon, there’s nothing that differentiates the two. Does that hurt their cause for keeping two dates?

They’ve hosted two races a year since 1959. How many more years does this last?

MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA – OCTOBER 31: Alex Bowman, driver of the #48 Ally Chevrolet, spins Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Ground Toyota, to take the lead during the final laps of the NASCAR Cup Series Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway on October 31, 2021 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Has Racing Completely Changed Since 2017?

NASCAR racing is one of different eras. You have the one we’re currently in which is dubbed the “Modern Era.” However, in this latest era, you can really break it down to more precise groupings inside of it.

A prime example is how much NASCAR has changed since the start of the 2017 season. The stage era as well as a win and you’re in format as altered everything as we know it.

Prior to 2017, races were run from green to checkered without any manufactured cautions for stage breaks. It’s changed the way you race with those 10 stage points being so crucial. So is that playoff point for the stage winner.

Also, the endings are different. You rough people up more just to get by. If you can win, you clinch a playoff spot and gain 5 playoff points in the process. If you win in the playoffs and are still championship eligible, you automatically advance to the final round.

Has that altered the racing too?

Ross Chastain moved AJ Allmendinger out of the way to win last Sunday in COTA. Allmendinger didn’t like that maneuver and made it clear his feelings on it.

“At the end of the day, we all have to look ourselves in the mirror,” he said. “If you are okay with it, you’re okay with it. Each person is different.

“Everybody at Kaulig Racing, all the men and women, it’s just a lot of sleepless nights for them right now trying to just get these cars to the next race. So, I was doing everything I could do to try to sweep the weekend for them. We were that close.

“So like I said, at the end of the day each person has to make the move that they’re comfortable with, and that’s fine. So we’ll — at the end of the day it’s — we know we had a shot to win the race. It’s tough to win a Cup race, so when you put yourself in a position to legitimately run up front all day and have a shot to win it, it’s a pretty great day. Unfortunately, just we needed about two more corners.”

Chastain, admitted that this could strain their relationship because of it.

However, this wasn’t the first time he says that he cost Allmendinger a win but in the case of this one, it could put some distance between the two with how the final few corners transpired.

“I’ve cost AJ a win at Daytona in the Xfinity Series, and he was obviously a quarter mile away from winning here,” Chastain said.. “He has taught me a lot, and I’m sure that our friendship will hurt for this. I feel like I had started to win some of his friendship back, and just being nice to each other when you see each other. It took a while.”

As far as making the last move, it’s not like Allmendinger didn’t get into Chastain first.

Did the fact that Allmendinger did that initial move on him and the onus that Allmendinger’s team isn’t going for points make Chastain get a “payback” and take the win now and apologize later?

“No, it’s just a race car,” he said. “I know who I’m racing around. I’m aware of my surroundings. And honestly, through the carousel I thought with Alex to my right and AJ ahead of me, I didn’t think there was a way to win. When we got to 19, everything happened, and it was not the plan.

“The plan was stay out front when we took the white, and I just babied it. I eased it into 12 too much, and he got to me. It only took a small little bump in 15. I was so loose through there all day. You saw it in qualifying. It’s where I slipped up and missed the fast five and was managing that all day, and it only took a small little bit.

“No, I don’t race anybody any different.

“I hate that because I’ve lived through that in my career for 12th place in Xfinity. I’ve fought, and I’ve roughed people up and gotten into people. I’ve wrecked Justin Marks. He was going to win Road America in 2016, 2017. I wrecked him and James Davidson for no reason. It’s not lost on me that I make some of the same mistakes. It’s just staring down a Cup Series win. I just couldn’t let that go.

“I mean, I know he is going to be upset with me, but we raced hard, both of us, and he owes me one.

“But when it comes to a Cup win, man, I can’t let that go down without a fight.”

Hamlin had this happen to him in Martinsville last Halloween. We saw how the Daytona 500 ended with teammates getting into one another in each of the last two years. Fontana saw teammates again with a run-in. You’re seeing more crashes at the end of races due to the intensity and wins meaning more now because of it.

Joey Logano says NASCAR has put these drivers in more and more precarious positions lately and it’s all intentional. That’s also not necessarily a bad thing either he notes.

“You’re in this position more and more every year,” said the Team Penske driver. “There are moments on the race track that test your character. It tests who you are and how you want to race and what are you going to do to win a championship now.

“NASCAR has all put us in a position to make challenging decisions on what is right. I’ll be 100% honest with you, I don’t even know what’s right. You try to play out all the scenarios in your mind before the weekend starts so you know what to do in the moment, but half the time, it’s something that comes up of maybe something that you didn’t think about or maybe you didn’t have the answer to yet but you’re forced to make a decision in a split second. That’s what we have to think about.

“That’s also very entertaining for you guys. That sucks for us sometimes. You just got to do what you’ve got to do. It’s something all of us drivers think about a lot.”

He’s not wrong. Just look at how the schedule has shifted too. We went to a football stadium for the Clash. We doubled the road courses from 2018 (3) until now (6). We’re adding more short tracks and losing 1.5-mile’s.

That sets up end of race drama.

“You have to be consistent,” Logano says on how to battle for a win in the end. “What’s consistent? I’m going to win. I’m out there to win the race. That’s the goal and you do what it takes to do that. But, you have to have your moral code and know what is okay to do that. Is it dumping somebody is okay to win a race? I don’t think so. That’s not really in my cards. Now, bump-and-run? I’ve proven that I think that’s okay. The facts are that you have to be okay with that happening to you. Am I okay with being wrecked? No. Am I okay with being moved out of the way? I don’t have to be happy about it but I have to be okay with it if I’m going to do it. I feel like that should be the code. Whatever your happy with being done by you have to have be okay with it if it was someone else.”

Is Truex Jr. The Favorite?

Martin Truex Jr. used to be a 1.5-mile king. 11 of his first 19 wins were on intermediate tracks. It wasn’t until his 20th win that came via a short track. But, over his last 11 wins, 8 have come on tracks 1-mile in length or shorter including each of his last six. In fact, 3 of those last 8 came at the Richmond Raceway, the site of this weekend’s Toyota Owner’s 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN). Can he get another triumph on Sunday?

He certainly has to be among the favorites, if not THE favorite. Truex, swept both races in 2019 and was runner-up in 2020 and fifth and first last year. He led a ton of laps and should have finished second in April of last season. He was also third in the playoff race of 2018 to give him six consecutive top five finishes on the .75-mile Virginia race track. On top of that, he has 3 top 8 finishes in the last 4 weeks on the season too.

So, does this make Truex the one to beat?

For me, it’s confidence in each other, believing in each other,” Truex Jr. said on why the improvement on these tracks. “There was a time in my career when I go back to the Busch Series days, all the races I won there were short tracks. We never won any mile-and-a-half’s. Damn, I need to get better at mile-and-a-half’s. You work on that. In the Cup Series, every track is tough. Everybody is working constantly at being better every type of track.

“For whatever reason for me, the short tracks never really panned out. Even though we had a lot of great runs over the years, for instance, I think we led the most laps at Richmond three or four races in a row before we finally won there. Sometimes you need things to go your way.

“Honestly, from a consistency standpoint, being consistent at these short tracks, it comes down to people and equipment, that belief in each other. As I mentioned, especially at Martinsville, being able to just work on similar things year after year with the same group of guys for the most part, continuing to improve on small things. Really just believing what they’re telling you. If they tell me I need to drive a certain way, I start driving a certain way. If I tell them that it needs to do something different, they know it needs to do something different.

“It’s just that team chemistry that we’ve had over the years has been really good and we’ve been able to fine-tune on these places.”

Will The Big Teams Win Again?

Richmond typically doesn’t allow for smaller teams to prevail at. Just look at the recent winners. Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske and Hendrick Motorsports have won each of the last seven including 11 of the last 12 overall. Chip Ganassi Racing’s win with Kyle Larson in the 2017 playoff race was the only exception.

That means the big teams should be on top when the checkered flag drops on Sunday. But, we’ve seen some parity this season though as well. Penske, SHR and HMS have won 5 of the 6 races but Trackhouse is looking formidable while RCR and 23XI Racing have seen cars in the top five at that too. Will we see a sleeper winner on Sunday?

Plus, Hendrick Motorsports left the west coast having won 2 of the 3 races. They started back east winning Atlanta for their 3rd win in 5 races this season. If you go back to last year, that was 8 wins in a 10 race span. COTA saw their road course advantage go away but on the flip side, can their past Richmond struggles turn around this weekend?

When Jimmie Johnson won for them in 2008, it was their third in the last four tries. They’re 1-for-25 since though.

Alex Bowman won last spring but it was more of a fluke rather than on merit. The race that day was a JGR/Penske battle that saw a late caution swing the race in Bowman’s favor. Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano had the cars to beat that day.

Chase Elliott did finish fifth last year and was second and fourth respectively in 2018, but he’s also been outside of the top 10 in seven of his other nine Richmond starts.

William Byron has never scored a top five at Richmond before as the spring race was his first top 10 at that.

Kyle Larson has no top fives in his last six starts there too.

On the season, Larson has 4 finishes of 29th or worse. Elliott largely struggled in his first top five of the year last Sunday. Byron, has 4 finishes of 12th or worse including 3 of the 4 being 18th or worse at that. Bowman has 2 top fives but 2 finishes of 24th or worse too.

What about JGR?

This is what you’d call a get right race for Joe Gibbs Racing right? They’ve won 8 of the last 12 races in Richmond and need a result as badly as anyone else in the field right now. They’re 0-for-6 to start 2022 off with and haven’t won at all in the last 12 races including just 3 wins in the last 24 in general.

But, can you just flip a switch that quickly?

Christopher Bell had a top five in each race last season and coming off of a third place finish last week. Martin Truex Jr.has to be the overall favorite, right? Truex, swept both Richmond races in 2019 and was runner-up in 2020. He also won the Fall race last year and was fifth in the spring. He’s coming into the weekend with 3 top 8’s in the last 4 weeks.

Denny Hamlin has no top 10’s all season and needs a great finish on his hometrack. He was runner-up in both races last year including leading 207 laps in the spring and 197 in the Fall. Hamlin, has nine top six finishes in his last 11 Richmond starts.

Kyle Busch has seven straight top nine results including a top two in nearly half of his last 12 Richmond starts.

Can they beat the field?

Team Penske has also struggled some too. Ryan Blaney has led the most laps of anyone this year but has been plagued by pit road problems. They cost him in Phoenix and now potentially in COTA too by losing him spots consistently on pit road. He has 3 top 10’s but no finish better than 4th and 3 of his last 5 being 17th or worse.

Joey Logano has 1 top five (5th in Fontana) and 3 finishes of 14th or worse.

Austin Cindric has 2 top 10’s but 4 of his last 5 finishes being 12th or worse.

While they had 2 top 10’s in COTA, can they turn this into a win on Sunday?

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