Denny delivers with Richmond victory, how he did it with my top 5 takeaways from Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400

RICHMOND, VA — Denny Hamlin said that Joe Gibbs Racing was lacking in terms of everyone else pace wise on Saturday but not concerned about the playoffs. A day later, he was celebrating in victory lane at his home track. Hamlin, led five laps all day, but they were the five most important.

The Virginia native led the final five laps in Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400 at the Richmond (VA) Raceway en route to his first win of the season and 47th of his career. It breaks a tie with Buck Baker for 17th all-time and moves him one triumph shy of tying Herb Thomas for 16th. Tony Stewart is next up at 49.

“Honestly, I went on NASCAR.com for the first time and looked at the standings last week,” Hamlin said on Sunday from the Richmond Raceway winners press conference. “I knew we were buried. Whether you’re 232nd or 23rd, what’s the difference? I know we got a hole to dig out of.

“I told you guys on Saturday, like, am I concerned? No. Like, we’re going to be okay. We’re going to make the Playoffs. If we don’t, then he should fire me.

“I mean, I don’t draw parallels to it. Every season is so different. But just certainly our points position at the time wasn’t indicative of we were a 20-somethingth place team. Did I think we were a 10th-place team? Probably. That’s probably about right when you average it all out.

“I don’t get too panicked because, like we talked about with the team, they just have so many good people that eventually it works itself out. You can’t just continue to have cautions not fall your way, get run into here and there.

“Eventually, you can’t roll the dice and continue to roll seven out. The odds are, if you keep banging on the door, it’s going to open. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

This win though, well it’s different than others still. For a driver that’s made three straight Championship 4 appearances, the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season was one that was as frustrating as ever before. That’s why on the outside, we felt like maybe they were concerned.

Hamlin entered Sunday’s race without a top 10 finish in any of the first six races to open the season up with. He was riding a 12 race winless streak and had led just 35 laps all year. He crashed in the Busch Light Clash, crashed in the Daytona 500, had overheating issues in Fontana, made a costly error after his final pit stop in Vegas, was speeding on his final stop in Phoenix, crashed in Atlanta and was only 18th last week in COTA. Add it all up and you get 5 of the 6 races with finishes of 15th or worse.

Still, Hamlin took solace in the fact that they truly did have decent cars in those races still.

“I mean, obviously we’ve been searching a little bit,” Hamlin said. “The first six races haven’t gone great, but we’ve had some — over half of them we’ve had winning cars. I know that sounds crazy, but Daytona I’m sure we would be fine, Atlanta we were good, Vegas, I thought we had a great shot to win there. There’s been some struggles in the other ones.

“We go to work. I mean, Joe does a great job motivating all of our group, as if I need motivating (smiling). But we work really hard. We know that waiting seven races to win is not… We have a level of performance that we expect more than that.

“I’m glad we’re able to kind of turn the ship around at least for a week, then next week we’re going to see if we really started to build some momentum going forward.

“I don’t want to look too far ahead because I certainly want to celebrate this one. It sure is a positive sign considering how we ran as an organization at Phoenix. But you never know. It’s been a great track for Joe Gibbs Racing for many, many years, for whatever reason.

“I think a lot of it comes from me and Kyle really pushing each other to get really good on these short tracks. Martin has really turned the corner, been one of the best short track racers we have in our sport the last probably four or five years. When you have teammates you can feed off of like that, you’re going to have a great chance to win.”

Hamlin, was only 18th fastest in practice on Saturday. He qualified 13th, worst among all four Joe Gibbs Racing cars. In fact, he was likely 4th among the 4 during most of this race.

They didn’t give up. That’s the nature on why this race was so great. It allowed different strategy options.

Ryan Blaney led the first 128 laps from the pole but three of his teammates were in tow with Martin Truex Jr. 4th, Kyle Busch 5th and Christopher Bell 7th. Bell, got by Blaney early in the second stage and would lead the next 26 laps. That’s where this whole story changes.

The second stage saw six drivers go a bit off strategy. They’d run the stage on one stop. The rest would do it on two. Hamlin, was among the six to stretch it out. He, Bell, Erik Jones, Aric Almirola, Austin Dillon and Todd Gilliland pit during the first stage break on Lap 73.

On Lap 123, Truex Jr. pit for the first time. Five laps later, Blaney did. That handed the lead to Bell. Truex by virtue of staying pitting sooner than Blaney, would cycle ahead.

Bell, pit on Lap 154 from the lead. Hamlin did one lap prior. Truex, took over the top spot until he pit again on Lap 175. Bell, was back in control on Lap 177 and held onto the top spot until Lap 211.

Truex, got by and scored the stage win. Bell, was second. Busch was 8th and Hamlin in 14th. The thing is, Bell, Hamlin and the other four had one set fresher tires left in the pits now as everyone on the lead lap pit under the second stage break on Lap 233.

The thing is, we’d see a quick caution for Erik Jones, Cody Ware and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on Lap 245. Hamlin, William Byron, Chris Buescher, Daniel Suarez, Dillon and Chase Briscoe elected to pit under that caution. While it was only a few short laps after the stage break pit stops, Hamlin’s crew chief Chris Gabehart made a brilliant and maybe race winning decision to come down pit road for that extra set.

“My sole purpose for doing that was to save a set of tires for an instance where a caution would come out, everyone would pit because they didn’t have a set,” Gabehart said.

“We got that break early in stage three. He was driving to the front. It was going to be five more laps, we were going to take the lead, we got a caution.”

Where this paid off?

Ty Dillon got into Cole Custer who got into Austin Cindric on Lap 256 and brought out the fifth and final caution. Everyone else pit under this yellow which cycled Byron and Hamlin back to the top.

They’d stay there the rest of the way. However, they didn’t necessarily want that caution to come out that early though.

“No, we wanted it to keep going because we were going to be in really good shape,” Gabehart continued.

“It was a tough decision because we hadn’t made up all the track position I wanted to make up. But you can’t get greedy. At that point we had at least made up enough that now we are in contention. Come down pit road, have a good pit stop, he can go out and race it from there. That’s what he did.

“Obviously some guys stayed out. It ended up working out really well for them, too. I didn’t feel like that was going to be the winning play for our car, our team. I brought it down pit road and the rest was history.”

Byron, pit from the lead on Lap 310. Truex Jr. was now in control and he pit on Lap 323. Byron, got the lead back on Lap 325. Hamlin, however, would pit again on Lap 353. He was one of a few guys to pit then including Chase Elliott, Harrison Burton, Tyler Reddick, Bell and Kevin Harvick.

That second move is what won Hamlin the event.

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA – APRIL 03: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, takes the checkered flag to win the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway on April 03, 2022 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

“Yeah, just great strategy there,” Hamlin said. “Just drove as hard as I could. Just so proud of this whole FedEx Camry team, man, just never giving up.

“There was no doubt in my mind, maybe just a little, but they got this car right there towards the end. Wow, unbelievable.”

Byron, never pit again and would go the final 90 laps without pitting. It cost him a win as he had the oldest tires on the track at the end. Truex, who last pit on Lap 323 had 13 lap fresher tires and cut his deficit from over 7 seconds to less than 4 seconds in just a few short laps. Then, he inched closer. But, by time he got to Byron, Hamlin had caught both of them. So did Harvick.

Hamlin, passed Truex, then Byron on Lap 395 and would never look back in holding off Harvick by .552-seconds for his fourth win at Richmond (2009, 2010, 2016, 2022). It was also his third straight top two result here including four top three’s in his last five starts.

Last year, Hamlin swept both stages in both races and led 207 laps in the spring race and 197 in the Fall. He was runner-up in both. This time around, he was the one stealing the win away.

“Nothing makes up. That’s not just the way that we think, right?” Hamlin said. “You still think you should have won the ones you should have won.

“But it’s certainly exciting. It’s exciting to win them in this sort of fashion. You’d love to win by a lap, but if you can win on the last lap, that’s the more exciting way to win.

“Yeah, I told him I never even saw William,” Hamlin said of the ending. “Once he kind of pulled away from me a little bit in that second-to-last run, I didn’t see him from that point forward till eight to go.

“Once I kind of looked at the gap that I gained from eight to go to six to go, I was like, All right, we’re going to catch him. I was a little bit worried with the lap cars, trying to stay on lead lap, get a lap back. There were a couple Fords side by side when I had Harvick right behind me.

“Overall I knew that I was racing the 4 for the most part. It was just a matter of time on the 24.”

Harvick, finished second in his No. 4 Ford for his 16th career Richmond top five. It was his 7th top 8 in the last 8 Richmond starts including 9 top fives in his last 15 tries on the .75-mile short track.

“Yeah, just proud of everyone on our Ford Mobil 1 Mustang for staying there and having a great strategy and doing everything they did all day,” Harvick said. “First clean day we’ve had all year. Cars have been fast.

“Had a shot there at the end. I wanted to be close enough with the white to just take a swipe at him. Yeah, the lap cars there kind of got in the way and I lost a little bit of ground.

“Still a great day for us. Just hopefully a little momentum in a positive direction.”

In 2020, Hamlin and Harvick combined to win 16 of the first 31 races including going 1-2 three times in a 10 race span. Over the last 47 races though, they have just three wins (all by Hamlin). Is this the start of something special for them?

Richmond has been a championship precursor lately. All 4 Championship 4 drivers were in the top 6 last Fall and half were in the top five last spring. In 2020, 3 of the 4 were in the top five in the Fall race (only race of 2020 at Richmond). For 2019, they went 1-2-3-7 in the Fall race and 1-4-5-8 in the spring. In 2018, they went 1-2-3-14 in the Fall race and 1-4-5-14 in the spring.

Translation? At least 2 of the top 5 in the spring race will make the Championship 4 and at least 3 of the top 5 in the Fall race will also race for the championship.

Hamlin and Harvick hope to be the ones. Hamlin was second coming to the final pit sequence in Phoenix before he was speeding on pit lane. Harvick, was second on the second to last restart but didn’t have a good car on restarts and would fade to sixth.

These two may be ones to watch.

Byron, finished third for his first top five of his career in Richmond while Truex Jr. despite leading 122 of 400 laps had to settle for fourth in his No. 19 Toyota. It was his 7th straight top five on the “action track.”

“Thought we probably did the best job we could,” Byron said. “It didn’t quite work out. I thought there at the end they told me I was just racing the 19 (Martin Truex Jr.). I’m like OK I got him, but then the 4 (Harvick) and the 11 (Hamlin) were on a totally different planet. That’s just part of it. There wasn’t anything I could do about them, so it was probably four or five to go and (spotter) Brandon (Lines) was coaching me on keeping the tires underneath it and having good exits and entries. Especially making those guys go around me on the top was definitely better. The times that guys would get underneath me was really, really hard to get back connected and get a good lap put together. The middle of the race we were terrible and we just couldn’t get in the corner at all and if you can’t get into the corner you can’t put consistent laps together. It’s nice to have a run like we had today.”

Kyle Larson came out of no where to round out the top five in his No. 5 Chevrolet for his 6th top 10 in the last 8 at Richmond but only two were in the top five.

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA – APRIL 03: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway on April 03, 2022 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Gibbs Cars Show Might This Weekend

The biggest question coming into this weekend was if this was a get right race for Joe Gibbs Racing? They’ve won 8 of the last 12 races in Richmond and needed a result as badly as anyone else. They were 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?

On Saturday, both Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin didn’t know. They did admit that they felt that the Toyota camp was lacking in general to the rest of the field and the lack of practice time have left them guessing each week still.

The thing is, with a new car though, would their advantage be negated on arguably their strongest track?

It proved it wasn’t.

All four cars finished in the top 10 on Sunday including going 1-4-6-9. They combined to lead 149 of 400 laps too.

Hamlin, used two great pit calls to get the win. Kyle Busch had a late race penalty for the tape being on the front end wrong. He’d pit with 50 to go to serve his penalty but still remarkably come back to finish in the top 10 for his 9th straight time in Richmond and 26th time of his career there.

Truex and Bell were cost dearly on Hamlin, Byron and Larson’s strategy but still scored top fives and showed that JGR isn’t as bad as we once thought.

“I will say the catalyst for such uncertainty was this Next Gen car that is now current gen car, not only is it so different to drive, but it is massively different,” said Denny Hamlin’s race winning crew chief of Chris Gabehart. “The fundamentals of what it takes to make this car go good from a technical aspect are literally backwards. Because of that, you see a lot of parity and comers and goers with good setups and bad setups. Then you have the difficulties of learning how to drive ’em, making some mistakes along the way, the difficulty of learning the parts and pieces, dealing with a failure as an industry trying to learn a new car. All of the competition gets wrapped up in some of that.

“I’ll give you a great example. Chase Elliott comes into this race I think as the points leader, right? When I learned that, leaving COTA last week, for some reason it floored me. The reason was not that Chase and that team isn’t a fantastic team, but it was literally the opposite of us.

“I don’t think they’ve been stellar anywhere, but they’ve not had any whammies evidently. I think of Ross Chastain, that guy has been killing it, he’s fifth in points. He’s evidently had some whammies along the way with these cars, circumstances.

“Right now there’s just a lot of uncertainty. Denny I know has been beating the drum on it a lot. You’re going to see comers and goers very quickly in the standings right now. It’s just because things are so new.

“Too many good people. You got Toyota, FedEx, Joe Gibbs Racing, all the brilliant people I get to work with day in, day out. You ain’t going to hold people back. You just got to keep working, stay the course, and you’ll get your wins.”


JGR’s Pit Choreography

This was the first week that Joe Gibbs Racing was debuting their new pit stop choreography. NASCAR initially ruled against it early this year but decided to lax their rules on it since it’s a new car.

While it took a few stops to get used to, their efforts paid off in huge ways. Kyle Busch’s No. 18 Toyota crew set the fastest pit stop time in NASCAR history completing a four-tire, full fuel stop in 9.19-seconds.

Hamlin’s crew set the second fastest ever on Lap 310 with 9.3 then was at 9.4 seconds on Lap 354 too. Kevin Harvick’s final stop was clocked at 9.7-seconds. Hamlin, beat Harvick by .552-seconds.

The difference?

Might have been that final stop.

“When you’re performing this really long 140-lap math problem, them exceeding those numbers just buys you money in the bank,” Gabehart said. “They’ve been doing that all year. The latest choreography was a big part of that. I’m not going to downplay that.

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Nothing great comes without risk. I’m happy to be a part of continuing to push those boundaries.”

With this being a copycat sport, expect other teams to adapt too. In a sport that’s decided in tenths of a second, being quick on pit road can make or break advantages or not. Maybe this is a spot that JGR/Toyota can close the gap on everyone else in high speed tracks.

“I think it’s a work in progress,” said team owner, Joe Gibbs. “I think it’s something that our guys have really worked hard on. I think this is the first time that the game plan was to use it here, I think NASCAR and everybody.

“I think it will be interesting because I think we had some of our guys with regular choreography and some with that. I think that will be, like I said, a work in progress.

“We’ll analyze it, see what we think. That’s one of the fun things about sports, you get something new, a different way of doing something. I think that’s one of the fun things.”


Veterans Type Of Race

The streak is over. Beginning with Bubba Wallace’s victory in last year’s playoff race at Talladega and through last Sunday’s race at COTA, we saw 12 straight NASCAR Cup Series races won by a driver under the age of 30.

41 year old Denny Hamlin ended that on Sunday. He topped 46 year old Kevin Harvick by .552-seconds in the Toyota Owners 400 at the Richmond (VA) Raceway. 41 year old Martin Truex Jr. was third.

Maybe before we cast off these veterans, we should pump the brakes. In fact, Sunday’s race on the .75-mile short track was everything geared towards the elder statesmen of the sport.

“I think I talked to radio about that before the race. They said, This is going to be a veteran day,” Hamlin said. “Yeah, it’s tough to really draw a parallel to that. But when you have so many laps at a track like this that is so technical, even though it doesn’t look technical, it is, usually with track knowledge, it matters at this track.

“(Kevin) Harvick has run more laps than I have around here. But Truex, myself, Harvick, we have a ton around here. When our car is not performing how we need it to perform, we can do things to manipulate it, to maximize lap time to at least put us in the game.

“I think being a veteran of the sport probably helps in those instances.”

He’s not wrong. Ryan Blaney led the first 128 laps but once he lost his track position, he lost his pace.

“There were a handful of cars that could kind of run up and run in traffic pretty good and we just weren’t really good enough to run in traffic,” he said. “Once we lost track position I struggled a little bit.”

William Byron led 122 laps, the second most. He didn’t win either. They pit for the final time on Lap 310 and he was left wondering what went wrong in the end.

“Thought we probably did the best job we could,” Byron said. “It didn’t quite work out. I thought there at the end they told me I was just racing the 19 (Martin Truex Jr.). I’m like OK I got him, but then the 4 (Harvick) and the 11 (Hamlin) were on a totally different planet. That’s just part of it. There wasn’t anything I could do about them, so it was probably four or five to go and (spotter) Brandon (Lines) was coaching me on keeping the tires underneath it and having good exits and entries. Especially making those guys go around me on the top was definitely better. The times that guys would get underneath me was really, really hard to get back connected and get a good lap put together. The middle of the race we were terrible and we just couldn’t get in the corner at all and if you can’t get into the corner you can’t put consistent laps together. It’s nice to have a run like we had today.”

The thing is, with Hamlin stopping on Lap 353 and Harvick on Lap 352, plus Truex on Lap 322, they used their expertise to bumrush Byron for the win.

“Yeah, I told him I never even saw William,” Hamlin said of the ending. “Once he kind of pulled away from me a little bit in that second-to-last run, I didn’t see him from that point forward till eight to go.

“Once I kind of looked at the gap that I gained from eight to go to six to go, I was like, All right, we’re going to catch him. I was a little bit worried with the lap cars, trying to stay on lead lap, get a lap back. There were a couple Fords side by side when I had Harvick right behind me.

“Overall I knew that I was racing the 4 for the most part. It was just a matter of time on the 24.”

This race was an old fashioned NASCAR race that didn’t lack excitement. While I get these types of races aren’t for everybody, this is what makes racing fun.

Cautions were limited and teams tried out different strategies. They were all open. In the second stage, six cars were going to try to make it on one stop. Everyone else did it on two. While Joe Gibbs Racing had the top two cars, they were on different strategies.

It paid off when everyone pit on Lap 233 during the caution for the second stage break. Then, the first two early cautions in the final stage to go along with the different philosophies in the final 100 laps left us with what I thought was a thrilling show.

There were stops basically every 30 or so laps with two different cycles. The tire fall off made this fun.

We had 4 green flag pit cycles on Sunday which was almost equal to the amount that we had in the first 6 races combined (5).

This wasn’t the typical new school race where drivers are all bunched up in the end and can just plow over cars to get by. It was spread out and technical. You had to tip toe around the track because the harder you push, the slower you go.

At tracks like Daytona, Fontana, Vegas and Atlanta, you didn’t get that separation. Phoenix had too many cautions in the end to do the same. COTA was a road course. This was the first race to run like the older style of NASCAR which is why the older guard shined.


RICHMOND, VIRGINIA – APRIL 03: Ryan Blaney, driver of the #12 Menards/Richmond Water Heaters Ford, leads the field to start the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway on April 03, 2022 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Blaney Leads Over 100 Laps Again…Fails To Win Again…

Ryan Blaney noted that you can’t buy into his Saturday speed too much and equate it out to Sunday. See, he’s always struggled at Richmond and in qualifying, you drive the car hard. It’s for just 2 laps. The race is 400 and in that race, you have to tip toe around the .75-mile track due to how abrasive it is on tires.

Well, Blaney found his groove early still. He led the first 128 laps. Coming into the day, his lap total at Richmond equaled the amount of yours and mine…0. He dominated off the jump and won the first stage even.

However, strategy put him behind and once he was, he couldn’t get it back. His car struggled as he had to fight lapped cars and in that moment, his race winning aspirations were done.

Blaney, never led another lap and would finish 7th. While it was his best Richmond result in 12 starts, it was also the 10th time he’s led 100 or more laps and didn’t win.

“It’s tough,” Blaney said of his 4th top 10 of the season. “There were a handful of cars that could kind of run up and run in traffic pretty good and we just weren’t really good enough to run in traffic. Once we lost track position I struggled a little bit, but it’s nice to win a stage. It’s cool to get the pole and good stage points. We finished seventh, my best finish here.

“Overall, a fun day. It was kind of frustrating because we were running so good early. I wanted to run better, but I can’t complain about it too much. Overall, not a bad day. We just have to find a little bit more speed, but it was nice that we kind of put together some decent notes and have an OK run at Richmond.”

He led 143 laps last month at Phoenix and finished fourth. Pit road problems plagued him that day.

Still, with Richmond and spring Phoenix being previews for the Fall Phoenix trip, maybe Blaney will have some say in this after all. They just have to hope to not lead over 100 laps.


Byron/Bowman Quiet Championship Threats?

Joey Logano, Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin each have 1 top five all season. Kyle Larson now has 3 but he’s been off. They can get hot at any given time but 7 weeks into the season, they’re still not yet.

William Byron and Alex Bowman are though. Byron has 3 top 5’s in his last 5 races to go along with leading 111 laps in his Atlanta win a few weeks ago and 122 more in his third place run on Sunday in Richmond. Bowman has 4 top 10’s the last 5 weeks including a win and a runner-up in that span.

Now, they head to Martinsville to where Bowman won at last time out and has 3 top 6’s in his last 4 starts there. Byron, had a pair of top fives last year on the .526-mile Virginia short track as well as 4 top 8’s in his last 5 tries.

Bristol Dirt is a wildcard only to go to Talladega after to where the duo has combined to finish second in 2 of the last 3 years in the spring race there. After that we go to Dover where Bowman also won at last spring and Byron was fourth. Bowman, has 4 top 5’s in his last 5 Dover starts with Byron having two straight fourth place results there too. Then it’s Darlington where Byron has 2 top 5’s in the last 3 tries and Bowman being sixth in this race in 2020. Kansas is up next with Byron having 5 straight top 10’s and Bowman having 6 top 11’s in his last 7. Then you get to Charlotte for the ‘600 where Byron was fourth last year and Bowman in fifth.

These two may not slow down any time soon…


Top Quote

 “I think for me, I was kind of really honed in on the previous generation car on each track,” Hamlin says on what’s changed for him between the last car and this one. “Had enough notes and enough memory, track memory, at each one of them to know what I was searching for, a feel that was correct, and won races.

“The challenge to this one is figuring out what this car likes, how it makes speed. I got to start all over again when I come to these racetracks. That’s the biggest challenge of it beyond any shifting, braking or steering, anything like that. Those are all challenges, but it’s more just figuring out what makes this car tick and what makes it go around the racetrack in the shortest amount of time, and what is my role in that.

“I take a lot of pride in the way I approach short tracks and stuff. My way is sometimes antiquated at some tracks. I have to adapt.

“Yeah, these types of tracks, he knows I get really frustrated when we don’t run well at this type of racetrack because I feel like I can make a difference, I feel like I know the feel that I want to feel in the car, and it just becomes frustrating from my standpoint when I can’t get the car to do what I want it to do.

“As long as you trust the process, you go to work when you have those bad races, typically when we come back we’re usually always better because of our process to figure out the margins and where we need to get better.

“I do my part, he does his.”

Results

11 comments

Leave a Reply to Indy 500 viewership a surprise down from last year, a look at maybe why – Race Review Online Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s