Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – RICHMOND, VA – For a driver with a two-race winning streak, Kyle Busch wasn’t exuding confidence when he took questions from reporters Friday afternoon at Richmond Raceway.
Busch used to own the spring race at Richmond. He won it four straight years from 2009 through 2012. In each of those years, the race fell on or near his May 2 birthday, and Busch was unabashed about gifting himself with the Richmond trophy.
But times have changed, and so have NASCAR rules. In recent years, Busch hasn’t been able to find the edge he enjoyed during his heyday at the .75-mile short track. And with six dry years in the interim, Busch can hardly remember what it feels like to celebrate in Richmond’s Victory Lane.
“The success is almost forgotten it’s been so long ago,” he said. “So we certainly want to get back to our winning ways and doing a better job of being up front and winning here at Richmond. We’re just kind of missing a little bit.
“There were some rule changes years ago that had some things kind of taken away from our camp and things that we were doing that made us a little bit better than our competition.”
Not surprisingly, Busch eyes Kevin Harvick, a three-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series winner this season, as his foremost competition so far this season. In Friday’s opening practice for the Toyota Owners 400 on Saturday (6:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), Harvick posted the best consecutive 10-lap average speed. Busch was fourth.
“Man, I think we’re pretty equal honestly,” Busch said of comparisons between his No. 18 Toyota and Harvick’s No. 4 Ford. “I think I’ve got to give them the notch a little bit. I think they’re a little bit better than we are. I think (Kyle) Larson’s right there as well, too.”
Point taken. Harvick is a three-time winner at Richmond, but he hasn’t been first to the checkered flag since 2013. Larson, on the other hand, won last year’s fall race at Richmond and posted the fastest lap in Friday’s final practice.
RICHMOND RACEWAY HAS GROWN MORE UNPREDICTABLE IN RECENT YEARS
Chalk it up to aging pavement, which delights most race car drivers.
The asphalt surface at Richmond Raceway has become more volatile and unpredictable as the pavement degrades.
“It’s way different,” said NASCAR Xfinity Series leader Elliott Sadler, one of four drivers competing for the Dash 4 Cash bonus in Friday night’s ToyotaCare 250. “The tires are different that Goodyear brings. The asphalt is really worn out here, and the car changes a lot during a long run here.
“The track has really widened out a lot in the last couple years. It used to be everybody (ran) the bottom. Now you see guys making time through the middle and right up against the wall, especially in (Turns) 3 and 4. So the groove has really changed.”
Sadler got a second opinion from JR Motorsports teammate Justin Allgaier, who, along with Daniel Hemric and Spencer Gallagher, also earned eligibility for the $100,000 Dash 4 Cash bonus at Richmond.
“Today I saw Noah Gragson running the middle, and there were quite a few other cars that were running the middle,” Allgaier said. “I would say about five years ago, no one would have even thought about venturing up past maybe a lane and a half off the bottom, and he was out there actually making laps.
“That’s exciting from a driver’s standpoint. When you can see somebody already getting up there, and you’re an hour into practice, that’s pretty cool.”
Interestingly, Gragson found significant speed in the middle lane. He posted the third fastest lap overall and fastest consecutive 10-lap average in final practice for the NASCAR Xfinity Series drivers.
Kyle Larson – Kyle Larson had just lost a heartbreaker to Kyle Busch last Monday at Bristol Motor Speedway. Busch got to the bumper of Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet on Lap 495 of 500, pushed Larson up the track and made the winning pass.
Larson, who led a race-high 200 laps, returned to his motor home, prepared to put the close loss behind him. No such luck. His son Owen made sure of that.
“The last thing I wanted to hear but the first thing I heard when I walked in the bus was Owen (saying) ‘Did you get me some Skittles?’ So, I couldn’t help but laugh at that, so that wasn’t what I wanted to hear but it kind of lightened the mood, so it helps to get over it a little bit.”
Busch’s winning Toyota was sponsored by the Skittles brand at Bristol.
Kyle Busch – After the race, Kyle Larson sent Kyle Busch a text, congratulating him on the victory and relating Owen Larson’s request for Skittles.
“It’s cool that many of these drivers’ kids like the candy man,” said Busch, whose cars sport paint schemes that feature a variety of products from candy maker Mars, Inc. “So they certainly know what’s up, and whether it’s the paint scheme or it’s the personality – I’m not sure which – but certainly Cash (Clint Bowyer’s son) is one of those guys, and Owen is one of those guys, so pretty neat that that those guys were wondering where the Skittles were.
“I was wondering where the McDonalds (Larson’s sponsor) was there during the rain delay (at Bristol), to be honest with you, so we can certainly work out together on that front and maybe work some B-to-B deals, but it’s cool that these kids are interested in the candy aspect, so they know where to come.”
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – In the past six years, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has seen three veteran teammates—Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle—leave the Roush Fenway Racing organization. Edwards subsequently stepped away from NASCAR racing in 2016, after two seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Stenhouse says he stays in touch with Edwards, who has taken up farming in his native Missouri.
“Carl, I guess he just wanted to go sit on a tractor and hang out, which I don’t blame him,” Stenhouse said. “I like sitting on my tractor and being on my John Deere throughout the week and hanging out and enjoying that. I talk to Carl every now and then, and he’s definitely enjoying that.”
It’s doubtful, however, that either driver could get much of an adrenaline rush from a tractor race.