5 takeways from Richmond and heading towards Bristol Dirt

Hendrick Motorsports Is The Team To Beat For Championship

I know it’s early and this season will certainly ebb and flow, however, the clear favorite to win this year’s NASCAR Cup Series championship belongs to the Hendrick Motorsports camp. They already have two drivers stamped into the 2023 postseason but one more has been as good as anyone despite not having a victory yet.

Alex Bowman is winless but has a top 10 finish in six of the seven weeks. William Byron has two trips to victory lane and if not for a late race caution on Sunday, very well could have three. He had a top two car also in COTA. Kyle Larson should have Las Vegas and Phoenix but was hurt by late race cautions. He did win Richmond.

Combined, that’s 3 victories in 7 races already. Also, HMS had led 798 laps already. Even more impressive is that Larson and Byron swept both stages in Phoenix. They had the two best cars that day. For Richmond, a track comparable to Phoenix, they were 1-2 in Stage 1 and very well could have finished that way in the race. Instead, Josh Berry snuck in there to give HMS a 1-2 that way.

Phoenix once again is the championship deciding race and for them to be this strong, this early, on similar tracks, watch out.

On the surface, the 2023 season could rival the 2021 season for Hendrick Motorsports accomplishments. That 2021 season was extra special with what the Hendrick Motorsports organization had been able accomplish. They earned 17 NASCAR Cup Series wins in 2021; Hendrick Motorsports’ second-most in a single season and third-most by any team in NASCAR’s Modern Era (1972-Present). 2021 was the organization’s 36th straight season with a victory; longest-ever streak by a team in the series and its 37th season overall with a win; the most-ever by a team in the series. Plus, Hendrick Motorsports swept first and second in seven races that season; tied for the second-most all-time and most by a team in NASCAR’s Modern Era. They also became one of two teams in Cup Series history to finish 1-2 in four straight races (between Dover and Sonoma). And to top all of that, the organization became the all-time wins leader in the NASCAR Cup Series with 279 total Cup wins – lead all other teams by 11 victories. Kyle Larson’s win at Charlotte Motor Speedway broke the all-time record previously held by Petty Enterprises (268 wins).

The Hendrick Motorsport’s foursome of Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, William Byron and Alex Bowman also became the only team in NASCAR’s Modern Era to win six straight races (between Dover and Pocono) and the only team in Cup history to have all four Cup cars entered in a race sweep the top-four finishes positions (Dover). They also became the first team in history with four winners under age 30 in a single season.

They led the fifth-most by any team in NASCAR’s Modern Era (1972)-Present); but set a new Hendrick Motorsports team record that stood for 12 years (4,017 in 2009). Junior Johnson and Associates holds the NASCAR Cup Series Modern Era organization record for the most laps led in a single season with 4,296.

Hendrick Motorsports 2021 dominance doesn’t end there, they also posted 33 finishes inside the top two; most in the Modern Era (since 1972), scored 83 top-10 finishes; the team’s second-most (84 in 2007, 82 in 2012), posted 55 top-five finishes; the team’s second-most (57 in 2007) and won 28 stages; had only won 33 prior to 2021.

Dare I say 2023 can be better?

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA – APRIL 02: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, and William Byron, driver of the #24 RaptorTough.com Chevrolet, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway on April 02, 2023 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Chevrolet The Top Manufacturer

Chevrolet is leaps and bounds ahead of the competition this season. Even on a day that saw Toyota lead more laps (154) than they did all season prior (136), it was still Chevy going 1-2-3 at the checkered flag finish. The Richmond win was their 5th in 7 weeks to go along with 8 stage wins in 14 tries.

They’ve also led 998 of 1,735 laps (58%) so far this year.

Ford meanwhile is struggling on tracks other than superspeedway’s. The blue oval drivers have led 343 out of their 447 laps in 2023 at either Daytona or Atlanta. That’s 76.7% of their laps led on that package. To have led just 103 combined laps in Fontana (12 laps led), Vegas (16 laps led), Phoenix (37 laps led), COTA (4 laps led) and Richmond (1 lap led) is concerning.

Ford’s also have 22 total top 10 finishes this season, 7 of which on superspeedways (31.8%). By comparison, Chevrolet has 33 top 10 finishes.

Toyota has 15 top 10’s but have far less cars compared to the Ford camp. They average 6.17 cars per race compared to 14.17 Ford’s in each event.

Right now, it shows Chevy is alone up front while Toyota and Ford’s battle from behind. How long will it stay that way and is the gap too wide for the other two manufacturers to close it back up?

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 04: Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota, enters his car to qualify for the NASCAR Clash at the Coliseum at Los Angeles Coliseum on February 04, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Can Truex Ever Find Points Victory?

Sunday was Martin Truex Jr’s place to end his 50-race winless drought. Yes, he won the Clash but that’s an exhibition race on a track unlike any other on the schedule. Richmond however, well it was the place for him to shine. The .75-mile oval has always been a strong track for him and on a day that he was battling for the lead in the closing laps, for which he also led two times for 56 laps, he still came away with a sub 10th place finish.

Truex brought his No. 19 Toyota home in 11th place. He’s had just one top 10 result all season and continues his drought onwards to Bristol Dirt. It’s a place where most don’t consider him a threat on.

What’s baffling is, his teammates are finding success. Christopher Bell has five top six finishes in seven weeks. Rookie teammate Ty Gibbs has three consecutive ninth place finishes now. Denny Hamlin has just two top 10’s, but he led 71 laps on Sunday and if not for a speeding penalty, likely would have been a player for the win in the end.

It also seems like the team is imploding. They had a fiery radio chat towards the end of Sunday’s race.

This makes me wonder how much longer they can continue this driver-crew chief relationship when it’s clearly not working. Before James Small was on top of Truex’ pit box, Cole Pearn guided the New Jersey native to the best stretch of his career.

Between 2015 and 2019, Truex amassed 24 wins, 70 Top-5 finishes, 110 Top 10’s, 12 poles and 7,016 laps led. He had four Championship 4 appearances including three straight top two results in the final standings before hitting retirement.

With Small, Truex has five wins, 31 top five finishes, 60 top 10’s, one pole and 2,411 laps led. That’s in 114 starts compared to 179 with Pearn. He’s had just one final round appearance (2021) and was 7th and 17th respectively in the final standings the other two years.

Outside of that four-win 2021 season, they’ve had just one lone win in the other 78 starts. It’s not trending in the right direction as you can tell something is missing.

From the Richmond finish to how Nashville went last year to other times of bad luck, the Truex-Small pairing isn’t what the Truex-Pearn one was and it’s sliding backwards. In a year that’s looking like more parity (6 winners in 7 races), it’s going to likely take a win in order to get into the postseason again this year. This group hasn’t found the right footing to get the job done.

AUSTIN, TEXAS – MARCH 24: AJ Allmendinger, driver of the #10 Celsius Chevrolet, drives during practice for the NASCAR Xfinity Series Pit Boss 250 at Circuit of The Americas on March 24, 2023 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

Not Start To Season That Allmendinger Dreamt It Would Be

I wonder how long AJ Allmendinger is going to be in Cup. He left this series a few years ago for results like we’re seeing now. He was semi retired and doing TV before he returned on a part-time role with Kaulig in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. That led to a few full-time opportunities to where Allmendinger was a weekly threat. He was having fun again.

In turn, it led to a return to the Cup Series. He was even competitive in his limited rides in Cup last year. He was everyone’s sexy pick as a sleeper to make a run in the playoffs. However, this season has started dreadful for him.

He’s 24th in points after seven weeks which has seen him finish 16th or worse in each of the last six weeks now. He was 36th in Fontana, 34th in COTA and 27th in Richmond. Ironically enough, he doesn’t like superspeedway’s but his best result this year was sixth at Daytona.

Can he turn this season around before it’s too late?

Suarez Reeling While Chastain Thriving

Daniel Suarez started the 2023 season off with three consecutive top 10 finishes. In the last four weeks, he’d love to just get a top 15. That’s how far he’s fallen. Suarez was 22nd in Phoenix, 29th in Atlanta, 27th in COTA and now 23rd in Richmond. While he’s had a more competitive car than those finishes reflect, a finish is a finish and it says he’s had four straight weeks outside the top 20.

Meanwhile, Ross Chastain just scored his second straight top four finish. In fact, he has three of those this season alone already and four top 10’s in seven weeks. He’s also been in the top 13 in six of the seven races which has him second in points right now.

While Bristol Dirt may not be Chastain’s best race, we go to Martinsville next to where he had that amazing moment last Fall. Then it’s to Talladega to where he won this very race a year ago and was fourth in the Fall. After that race is then to Dover to where he was third last May. Then it’s onto Kansas to where he placed seventh in both races last season.

There’s no reason to believe that Chastain won’t win a race in the next month or so.

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