NASCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s Federated Auto Parts 400 (3 p.m. ET, USA, MRN)

Is Day Time The Right Time?

For the first time in years, Richmond won’t host a NASCAR playoff or playoff deciding race this season. In fact, they also will host a pair of day races this season at that including the one this weekend. They’ve already had one day race. Will Sunday’s race look a lot like that one?

In theory it could because in an era with less practice, teams can use 400 laps of racing from the spring race as a good start on how to adjust cars in the return trip under similar conditions.

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.

More: Listen or Watch to Prime Sports NASCAR Michigan Recap/Richmond Preview Show Here

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.

The spring race was a strategy battle. What will this one look like?

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.

Just look at the tracks that are down to 1 race weekend. Each are seeing some of the biggest crowds at those respective tracks in decades.

The last 2 year Pocono was down to 1 race weekend but a doubleheader on it. This year it was just 1 race in general. As a result, they just produced the best attended race since 2010. Michigan is trending in the right direction for the biggest attended race there in over a decade. They too are down to 1 race weekend now after being a doubleheader also in 2020.

Since Loudon went to 1 race weekend each year, the grandstands are fuller. For the first time in years, Dover’s attendance gained as prior to the pandemic, the crowds shrunk each year. In 2020 they had COVID restrictions and a doubleheader. Now, they’re gaining again.

Which is good for them but bad for tracks with 2 dates already. It’s like the circus, they come once a year. Don’t show up, you have to wait 365 more days until they’re back.

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)

Veterans Type Of Racetrack?

41 year old Denny Hamlin won the spring Richmond race. 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 behind them in 4th.

Maybe before we cast off these veterans, we should pump the brakes on tracks like here. In fact, the spring 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 then. “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) at that point of the year.

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: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, races William Byron, driver of the #24 Liberty University Chevrolet, in the closing laps of the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway on April 03, 2022 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

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 8 including 12 of the last 13 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.

Hendrick Motorsports though may struggle. When Jimmie Johnson won for them in 2008, it was their third in the last four tries. They’re 1-for-26 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. He has 1 top 5 in 8 Richmond starts.

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 8 of his other 10 Richmond starts. Byron used strategy and strategy only to lead 122 laps in his only top 5 in 8 Richmond starts this spring. Kyle Larson just 1 top five finish in his last 7 Richmond starts and that was only 5th in the spring race. Last year, he was 18th in April and sixth in the playoff race. 4 of Chase Elliott’s last 6 Richmond starts have seen him finish 12th or worse.

What about Team Penske?

This isn’t one of Ryan Blaney’s better tracks. He’s never had a top 5 in 12 Richmond starts. Austin Cindric was 20th as a rookie and Logano was 17th this past spring. They were also only 4-8-24 at Phoenix back in March.

What about JGR?

They’ve won 9 of the last 13 races in Richmond including dominating the spring race again. 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.

Martin Truex Jr. has to be a favorite, right? Truex has 8 straight top 5 finishes at Richmond including 4 top 2’s in his last 6. He was 4th this spring after leading 80 laps and scoring a stage win.

Kyle Busch has 8 straight top nine results including a top two in nearly half of his last 13 Richmond starts. He also has finished 7th, 9th, 7th, 7th and 2nd in 5 short track races this season.

Christopher Bell was fourth and third respectively last year and 6th in the spring race after leading 63 laps and scoring a 2nd place finish in the 2nd stage. He has 3 top 10’s in his last 4 short track starts.

Then you have Denny Hamlin. He was runner-up in both races last year including leading 207 laps in the spring and 197 in the Fall. He won the spring race. Hamlin, has 10 top six finishes in his last 12 Richmond starts. However, his spring win is also his only top 20 in 5 short track start starts this season too.

Can they beat the field?

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)

Why Qualifying May Not Matter Anyone In Richmond?

At one point, qualifying was everything on this race track at Richmond. It was a track position race. However, that’s maybe since changed and the spring race here was a prime example. Qualifying these cars on tracks like this takes over driving them. You’re getting the most out of your car and driving it in deep. You’re on top of the wheel. However, you race the track vastly different a day later. Quite the opposite really.

If you drive hard in the race, you’ll burn up your tires and fall quickly. It’s why this is a veteran race. There’s a right combination of pushing and saving your tires and the younger drivers who can push hard in qualifying, step too far over the edge in the race. They haven’t mastered the art of finesse yet.

That’s why qualifying is all out pace and no worry on tires. It’s why the race is all worry about tires and slowing enough in your pace to go faster. 2 of the last 3 race winners started outside the top 10 here.


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