Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – RICHMOND, VA – Martin Truex Jr. took over the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship lead Sunday after the Las Vegas Playoff opener – and holds a slim two-point edge over the regular season champion Kyle Busch entering Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 (at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Richmond (Va.) Raceway.
It marks the first time the 0.75-mile Richmond oval has served as a Playoff race – it has been the regular season finale previously. That may make the characteristic of the race this week different with no more guarding regular season points positions and a Playoff-advancing win on the line.
No one in the field has been better at Richmond than Kyle Busch, whose five wins place him seventh all-time on the winningest driver list there – tops among active drivers and secondarily only to a list of six NASCAR Hall of Famers. The key, however, is that all of Busch’s victories have come in the Spring Richmond race – including just this May. And a Fall trophy has never been so crucial to his title hopes.
“I think wins are always important and I think the biggest thing now is that each (Playoff) round kind of has its own wild-card race, if you look at it – you’ve got the “roval” (Charlotte Road Course) in the first round, Talladega in the second round and then Martinsville kind of turned into a crazy race in the third round,” explained Busch, who drives the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
“It’s all just going to be about trying to maintain and have a good day. If you can get top-five finishes, great, that’s going to propel us through with the amount of points we have and the point cushion we have, but wins are the ultimate. If you can get those, then you’re automatically in and that’s what we all strive for.”
Busch, who finished seventh at Las Vegas, recognizes that his fiercest competition this weekend may well come from his own Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin, a three-time Richmond winner whose 1,659 laps out front is most among anyone in the field this weekend.
Hamlin had a rough first Playoff outing at Las Vegas (finishing 32nd after an incident) and is ranked 16th – last – in the rankings headed to what he considers his hometown track, Richmond Raceway.
Hamlin is currently 20-points behind 12th place Alex Bowman with only Saturday night’s race and next week’s race at Charlotte to determine which 12 drivers advance on in the Cup championship.
Hamlin last won this Fall race in 2016. And it’s been a varying cast of trophy winners in the last decade at Richmond with last week’s Vegas winner Brad Keselowski taking the Fall Richmond win in 2014, Matt Kenseth in 2015, then Hamlin in 2016 and Playoff contender Kyle Larson last year.
In fact, nine of the 16 Playoff drivers have won previously at Richmond, also including Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Kyle Larson, Keselowski, Kyle Busch, and Hamlin. Truex, has not won at Richmond previously.
Every time the series arrives in Richmond, however, Hamlin’s name comes up as the driver to beat and with so much on the line this season, it’s reasonable to expect big things from him.
“I think a lot of it comes from Denny (Hamlin), being that it’s his home track,” Busch acknowledged. “I’ve been good there in Hendrick and JGR cars. But Denny and I really feed off each other an awful lot at Richmond. We use each other a ton there, just to be sure we can beat the rest of the competition, of course.
“We do like similar setups there, unlike some other places we run. Richmond is one of those places where we both know what it takes to get around and we’re both similar to one another in that we both run well.”
XFINITY PLAYOFF TIME
The 12-driver, seven race NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs begin this Friday night in Richmond with the Go Bowling 250 (at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). It marks the first time this track has opened the Playoff run.
Regular season champion Justin Allgaier, a five-time winner in the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet, holds a seven-point edge on four-time winner, Sunoco rookie Christopher Bell in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Toyota. The remaining 10 drivers are separated by a mere 11-points.
Bell won his first Xfinity race of the year at Richmond this spring with a close 0.423-second advantage over NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Playoff contender Noah Gragson. Elliott Sadler, who is third in the championship rankings, finished third in that race.
Tyler Reddick won the 2017 Playoff opener at Kentucky last year. Three Playoff race winners are in the championship field this year – Tyler Reddick (who won at Kentucky last season), Christopher Bell (won at Kansas) and Cole Custer, who won the season finale at Homestead-Miami. Now a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series rookie, William Byron won the 2017 NASCAR Xfinity Series championship.