Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – RICHMOND, VA – Certainly last week’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff opener at Las Vegas proved to be a compelling 400 miles of competition and energy with much of the drama involving drivers among the Playoff-eligible 16. Martin Truex Jr.’s win and some unpredictable fate for other season-long frontrunners shook up the championship standings and has created urgency for several of the series’ best heading into Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond (Va.) Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBSCN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
With his series leading fifth victory at Vegas, Truex took over the championship lead for the first time this season. He holds a three-point advantage on three-race winner Kevin Harvick and a seven-point lead on reigning series champion Joey Logano.
Truex’s other three Joe Gibbs Racing teammates – including four-race winners Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin – fell in the standings after frustrating runs. Busch, driver of the No. 18 JGR Toyota and the regular season champion, finished 19th dropping to fourth in the standings – 19 points behind Truex. Hamlin, driver of the JGR No. 11 Toyota finished 15th at Vegas and dropped from second in the standings heading into the Playoff opener to seventh (26 points behind Truex) heading into this weekend at Richmond.
Joe Gibbs Racing driver Erik Jones, who won at Darlington last month, suffered a mechanical problem in his No. 20 Toyota Camry and had an early night. He’s now ranked 16th of the 16 Playoff drivers, 75 points behind his teammate Truex, but still in the mix 26 points behind 12th place Aric Almirola with two races to make up the difference.
The good news for both Busch and Hamlin is that they are two of the best at the 0.75-mile Richmond oval.
Busch has a series best six wins and a series best six runner-up finishes – 12 of the 28 races he’s competed in at the track he’s finished either first or second. It’s an amazing statistic and something that Busch can use for inspiration this weekend. Hamlin, who grew up in nearby Chesterfield, Va., also has series-highlight numbers at Richmond. His 1,659 laps led is most in the field and already sixth most all-time. He has three victories and 16 top-10 finishes in 26 starts.
Of course, both JGR drivers will have top-shelf competition from Harvick, whose No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford team has steadily been raising its game. He’s won three of the season’s last eight races, including a statement-win at the regular season finale at Indianapolis two weeks ago, leading 118 of the 160 laps.
Since 2005, Harvick has the Cup Series’ best Average Running Position (7.214), Driving Rating (110.4), Quality Passes (905), and Laps in the Top-15 (93 percent) at Richmond. He’s won three times and has a series best 24 top-10 finishes. He’s finished top-10 in eight of the last 10 races and was runner-up to Kyle Busch in last Fall’s Playoff race.
Of course, with the victory and automatic position in the Round of 12 of the Playoffs already secured, Truex has once again presented himself a strong contender to hoist his second championship trophy in the last three years. He won at Richmond this April – making him the most recent to celebrate in Victory lane.
With seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson not qualifying for the 2019 Playoff field, there is a huge opportunity for the sport to crown only its second multi-time champion among active drivers.
Kyle Busch (2015), Harvick (2014), Keselowski (2012), Logano (2018) and Kurt Busch (2004) are looking for that chance. All are former Richmond winners. And no driver from outside the Playoff 16 has ever won the second race of the Playoff stretch.
XFINITY PLAYOFFS BEGIN
This week’s Go Bowling 250 at Richmond (Va.) Raceway (Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) marks the opening of the 2019 Xfinity Series Playoffs. Twelve drivers – including four rookies – will be competing for the crown.
Tyler Reddick, last week’s Las Vegas winner, is the defending champion and will be trying to win a second straight but with a different team, Richard Childress Racing. Should Reddick win again it would mark the first time the series had a back-to-back champion since Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won in 2011-12 driving for Roush Fenway Racing.
In fact, a driver has earned consecutive titles only six times in series history – Stenhouse, Martin Truex Jr. (2004-05), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (1998-99), Randy LaJoie (1996-97), Larry Pearson (1986-87) and Sam Ard (1983-84). Never has a driver won consecutive championships driving for two different teams, however.
Reddick and his No. 2 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet Camaro team certainly made a bold statement at Las Vegas – taking the checkered flag on a pit stop gamble that worked. He pitted off sequence and then stayed on track longer than his closest competitors and was able to hold off Bell – who led a dominating 154 of the 200 laps – by .738-seconds. It was Reddick’s fifth win of the season and he has a series best 20 top-five and a series best 22 top-10 finishes.
Making good on a bold pit call like that may come in handy with this group of championship contenders in particular. Bell and Custer have won six races each and when you add in Reddick’s numbers that means this “Big 3” – as they are known – have won 17 of the season’s 26 races.
Certainly Custer’s and Bell’s work at Richmond, in particular, looks as if they arrive the drivers to beat. Reddick has finished top-10 the last two races.
The veteran Allgaier – a five-race winner in 2018 – is on a streak of 10 top-10 finishes, and has runner-up showings at Indianapolis, Charlotte and the season-opener at Daytona. And still looking for that first victory of the season, Allgaier is super motivated. He’s had four top five runs at Richmond, including a third place this April. He was runner-up to Kyle Larson in 2017.
Rookie Noah Gragson impressed immediately at Richmond, finishing runner-up to Bell last Spring by less than half a second in his first Xfinity Series race at the track. He was 22nd earlier this season. Austin Cindric has two top five finishes in three starts, including a runner-up to Custer this season.