Categories
XFINITY

Noah Gragson Makes Name Known in XFINITY Debut

Friday night, the NASCAR XFINITY Series race at Richmond Raceway was another short track spectacular. The Toyota Care 250 was filled with action on the 0.75-mile oval among many of sport’s rising stars.

Once again, there were no Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regulars in the field, and four drivers were not only racing for a win, but for $100,000.

Nonetheless, another young star was making his XFINITY Series debut and caught the eye of many after the event. Las Vegas native Noah Gragson brought the No. 18 Switch Toyota Camry home in the second position.

“It’s tough,” Gragson said of his first XFINITY start. “I found a little something in the track, a little speed there at the end of the second stage on old tires, and I kept it in my memory banks till the end, and I told my team, ‘I’ve got something when it’s time to go — just tell me when.’

“And about 18 to go, I told them, ‘I can’t wait any longer; I don’t have any more patience.’ And I ran Christopher down about two or three car lengths.”

After starting 11th,Gragson nearly passed teammate Christopher Bell in the late stages of the race for the lead, but came up short. Despite being frustrated, the 19-year-old demonstrated that Joe Gibbs Racing doesn’t lack talent and has many skilled drivers in their organization.

We saw it the weekend prior, when Ryan Preece, who isn’t running a full-time schedule in the XFINITY Series, won his second career victory. 

But for Gragson, he is young, and his future is bright as he is learning from one of the best in the business, Kyle Busch. He grew up watching him race, and now the future Hall of Famer is his mentor.

His impressive performance at Richmond just added to his success so far. In the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, the Kyle Busch Motorsports driver saw victory lane last season at Martinsville and has two top-fives in four races so far this year.

Gragson’s personality outside of a race car is fun and humorous, especially on social media. But when he is strapped in a race car he is focused on running strong and hopefully parking it in victory lane.

The KBM driver is still developing and he will be one to keep an eye after showing signs of success early in his career.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MrBrandonRivero

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Kenseth Claims Pole in Hotly Contested Richmond Showdown

Lame-duck Joe Gibbs Racing driver Matt Kenseth will start from the pole in Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at the D-shaped, 0.75-mile Richmond Raceway.

Kenseth busted off a lap of 122.421 miles per hour to claim the No. 1 starting spot ahead of JGR teammate Denny Hamlin, who ran 122.277 mph.

Saturday night’s battle will be the 26th and final race of the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular season

And it’s the last chance for any driver who is winless in 2017 to score a victory and qualify for NASCAR’s 10-race, season-ending playoffs, which start next week at Chicagoland Speedway.

Thirteen of the 16 playoff drivers are locked in already by virtue of winning earlier this season and three more will sew up spots on Saturday night. Here’s where all 39 drivers will start the Federated Auto Parts 400.

  1. Matt Kenseth

Still without announced plans of 2017, Kenseth is one of three playoff bubble drivers in the field but he’s safely in unless there’s a first-time 2017 winner, then it could come down to points.

  1. Denny Hamlin

The good news for Hamlin was he swept both races at Darlington last weekend. The bad news is both his cars flunked tech.

  1. Kurt Busch

The 2017 Daytona 500 winner won the first NASCAR playoffs way back in 2004 and on Saturday, he’ll start from the inside of Row 2.

  1. Kyle Larson

One of the favorites to make it to the championship race at Homestead, Larson has had a breakout season with Chip Ganassi Racing.

  1. Martin Truex Jr.

The star of the season so far, Truex is guaranteed to enter the playoffs with a minimum of 52 playoff points.

  1. Kevin Harvick

The 2014 Cup champion is a threat to win pretty much any and every weekend. He ought to be tough again this time, too.

  1.  Kyle Busch

The 2015 Cup champion is in great position to make a serious run at a second title.

  1. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Stenhouse has 10 playoff points, which is good, but little momentum, which isn’t too good.

  1. Chase Elliott

Despite being winless in his career so far, Elliott is in good shape to make the playoffs for the second consecutive season.

  1. Erik Jones

Riding a streak of three consecutive top-five finishes, Jones could very well break through and win on Saturday night, which would be huge.

  1. Jamie McMurray

Although he’s currently playoff eligible, McMurray is the only one of the top 16 drivers with no playoff points so far.

  1. Joey Logano

In the first race at Richmond this year, Logano won the race but flunked tech inspection afterwards, so his victory doesn’t count towards the playoffs. Saturday night he needs to win again and this time clear tech.

  1. Clint Bowyer

For Bowyer at Richmond, there is no try. Do or not — win or miss the playoffs in his first year with Stewart-Haas Racing. He was the first driver to miss the final qualifying round.

  1. Ryan Blaney

He’s in the playoffs alright, but Blaney and the Wood Brothers need to run error-free races if they want to advance.

  1. Brad Keselowski

Two early season victories and four stage wins have given Keselowski 14 playoff points, a respectable total.

  1. Daniel Suarez

The last-minute substitute for Carl Edwards at the start of the season, Suarez has had a good rookie season.

  1. Kasey Kahne

A surprising Brickyard 400 victory means Kahne is in the playoffs in his last year at Hendrick Motorsports.

  1. Trevor Bayne

Bayne is one of 14 drivers who is in the top 30 in points, but winless so far this year. His only playoff shot is a victory.

  1. Danica Patrick

Will 2017 be Patrick’s last year at Stewart-Haas Racing? Could be, as neither she nor the team has shown signs of staying together.

  1. Jimmie Johnson

Yes, the seven-time champion has three race victories this season, but his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has lacked speed of late.

  1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

After practice, Earnhardt said he has about a sixth- to 12th-place car. He needs to win to make the playoffs. Qualifying back here won’t help.

  1. AJ Allmendinger

Historically, Richmond hasn’t been of the ‘Dinger’s best tracks, but he’ll press on.

  1. Aric Almirola

Rumors persist that Richard Petty Motorsports might be switching to Chevrolets in 2018 and maybe even to Dodge in 2019.

  1. Chris Buescher

Last year, Buescher made the playoffs as rookie; this year, he probably won’t.

  1. Matt DiBenedetto

DiBurrito, as he’s known to call himself, has had some decent runs this season.

  1. Paul Menard

With a move to the Wood Brothers set for next year, Menard will be glad to put this season in the rear-view mirror.

  1. Ryan Newman

The Indiana native is locked into the playoffs but at the moment doesn’t look like a serious championship contender.

  1. Michael McDowell

It’s been a good season so far for the Arizona racer, but this is one of his worst tracks.

  1. David Ragan

Three times, Ragan has finished fourth or better at Richmond in his career. He probably won’t add to that this weekend.

  1. Landon Cassill

So far this year, Cassill has finished very well, but he takes good care of his equipment.

  1. Austin Dillon

The elder Dillon is coming off a top-five finish at Darlington last week, his first since winning the Coca-Cola 600 in May.

  1. Ty Dillon

The younger Dillon tied his career best with a 13th-place finish last weekend at Darlington.

  1. Corey LaJoie

Looks like LaJoie will start deep in the field, which is normal this year.

  1. Gray Gaulding

The young racer is gathering valuable experience this season.

  1. Cole Whitt

A dubious honor for Whitt: He’s 33rd in the Cup points standings, which is the worst of any driver who’s made every race this season.

  1. Reed Sorenson

This is will be Sorenson’s 20th start in the first 26 races of the season.

  1. Jeffrey Earnhardt

Another dubious honor: Earnhardt leads the series with 11 DNFs.

  1. Derrike Cope

The veteran soliders on for another weekend.

  1. B.J. McLeod

As expected, McLeod will start deep in the field and probably will end up there, too.

All article photos courtesy of Nigel Kinrade Photography © 2017 

Categories
Photos

PHOTO GALLERY: Richmond

A look back on the XFINITY and Sprint Cup Series in action at Richmond International Raceway, courtesy of Nigel Kinrade Photography.

Categories
Commentary

RAPID REACTION: Push It to the Limit

RICHMOND, Va. — Push literally came to shove at the end of Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400.

Just one week after the racing at Bristol Motor Speedway was criticized for a lack of passing up front, drivers struggled to find grip under the bright Richmond sunshine, using as many as four grooves throughout the race.

Needless to say, fans will be talking about this race for a long time, and for all the right reasons.

No More Mr. Nice Guy

Carl Edwards already lost one heartbreaker. In Phoenix, Edwards made an aggressive move into Turn 3 on the last lap, nudging Kevin Harvick before drag racing and body slamming Harvick to the checkered flag, coming up just inches short.

On Sunday, Edwards wasn’t going to be denied again. Chasing down teammate Kyle Busch in the closing laps, Edwards found himself in a similar position when the white flag flew. Edwards drove his No. 19 Toyota deep into Turn 3 and shoved Busch up the track to take the checkered flag, going back-to-back for the sixth time in his Sprint Cup Series career.

Pocketful of Sunshine

In an effort to increase attendance and competition, Richmond’s spring race was moved to Sunday afternoon. Less than 100 laps into the race, drivers and fans alike raved about the slick track conditions.

With the new reduced-downforce package and a softer Goodyear tire, drivers were using every inch of race track in pursuit of grip. Just 15 laps into a run, lap times were down a full second. By the time they made green flag pit stops, drivers were nearly three seconds slower around the 0.75-mile track.

Mother Nature has been kind to NASCAR in 2016, and Sunday was no exception.

Down, Not Out

Joey Logano’s race was a microcosm of his season. Logano’s No. 22 Ford started the race on the outside pole after rain washed out qualifying. By Lap 15, he ran the top groove to help his ill-handling car.

By Lap 81, Logano was lapped by Carl Edwards, dropping as far back as 26th. Todd Gordon and crew kept their composure, though, and went to work on improving the handling. Logano and Tony Stewart made contact on a restart with 143 laps to go, resulting in a flat tire for Stewart.

The 2014 spring Richmond winner benefited from the yellow, receiving the free pass. Logano continued to work his way to the front, scoring an impressive eighth place finish.

Welcome Back, Smoke

In the most anticipated return since Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart hopped back behind the wheel of his No. 14 Chevrolet after missing the first eight races of the season with a fractured back.

Stewart started the race in 18th, and lingered around the back half of the top 20 for most of the race. The three-time cup series champion gave Edwards his best to stay on the lead lap, battling hard with the JGR driver for about 15 laps before yielding to the No. 19 at Lap 148.

READ MORE: Stewart Makes Presence Known in Return

Bad timing on a couple of cautions kept Stewart a lap down before contact with Logano left him with a flat. Another yellow with 70 to go allowed Stewart to receive the free pass after NASCAR determined that Ryan Blaney lined up in the wrong position.

When the smoke cleared, Stewart crossed the stripe in 19th, feeling as fresh as ever.

“Line them up again and let’s run another, hell, make it 800 laps,” Stewart said. “There will be a bunch of these guys falling out of the seat if they had to run 88 more laps, but I will not be one of them.”

Charged Up

Former Richmond winners and Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin both experienced electrical problems Sunday.

At Lap 158, Hamlin received a penalty on pit road for an uncontrolled tire, forcing the Virginia native to give up the third position. To compound his problems, Hamlin then reported voltage problems, forcing him to switch to the backup battery. The Virginia native soldiered on to finish sixth.

Even though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky Sunday, the perpetual rain cloud hanging over Matt Kenseth made its weekly appearance.

Kenseth reported voltage problems similar to Hamlin’s just before halfway. On the team’s next pit stop, they changed both batteries in Kenseth’s No. 20 Toyota. The former cup series champion followed Hamlin through the field, finishing seventh.

(Lug) Nut So Fast             

Coming into this week’s race, the main topic of discussion was lug nuts, and whether NASCAR should make a change requiring teams to install all five during pit stops.

The story was so large, in fact, that it overshadowed Tony Stewart’s return to the sport. But enough of that.

After a plethora of drivers had runs ruined by loose wheels in Bristol, Sunday’s race saw fewer mishaps on pit road. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. ran in the top 10 throughout the first half of the race, before a loose wheel forced him to pit road on Lap 262 with a vibration. Stenhouse was two laps down after the unscheduled stop and limped home in the 26th position.

Austin Dillon also had a top-15 run going before a vibration forced the No. 3 to pit road with 95 laps to go. Dillon battled back to the lead lap for a 20th-place result.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Trevor Bayne also reported vibrations after pit stops, but neither driver came to pit road for an unscheduled stop.

EMAIL HANK AT editors@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @HankLee89

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
Editorial

DO THE MATH: Hendrick Rarely at Factor at Richmond

This week, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is at Richmond International Raceway for the last event before the playoffs. During the Chase’s 12-year history, the venue has served as a battleground for last chances. Perhaps it is the perfect place because of its parity. In the last nine events there, Chevy, Ford, and Toyota have walked away with three wins each.

Five drivers are looking to clinch their Chase spot tonight. For some, their chances are greatly affected by one factor – will there be a new winner or repeat winner? Anything can happen, but before the green flag flies here are some stats to consider.

• If there is a repeat winner tonight, @jamiemcmurray, @RyanJNewman, and @JeffGordonWeb will clinch regardless of finishing order. Each have solid stats at Richmond. In the past five races, they collectively have ten top-10s and six top-fives finishes. McMurray, Newman, and Gordon will start 31st, 13th, and 23rd tonight.

• Paul Menard and @ClintBowyer are in the red zone and will need a solid finish tonight to clinch their Chase ticket. Bowyer has had recent success here. His last two finishes were third and ninth respectively. In comparison, Menard has struggled, scoring finishes of 18th and 15th. He will begin 22nd while Bowyer will start 26th.

• Richmond does not have favorites. Even the best at the Virginia-based track have faced difficulty. @KyleBusch has the most wins among active drivers, four, along with the top average finish, 7.4. However, his past five races there do not reflect such success. In four of those events, he finished 14th or worse. With summer momentum on his side, will Busch get back to his winning ways at Richmond? He will start fourth.

• Looking specifically at the past five races at Richmond, @KevinHarvick leads the pack with a victory and average finish of 6.0. However, “The Closer” has led only 45 laps. In the same amount of time, @keselowski has led 648 laps, the most, but posted an average finish of 14.4. At Richmond, the winner is not decided until the checkered flag flies. Harvick and Keselowski will start sixth and third respectively.

• Penske Racing was able to sweep both Richmond events in 2014. However, of the two drivers, @joeylogano has the better recent stats and could be a threat for the win tonight. In the past five races, he has accumulated four finishes of sixth or better and led a total of 140 laps. He will start from the pole tonight.

• Here is the breakdown of the last ten Richmond events by organization victories:
Joe Gibbs Racing – three (2010, 2011, 2012)
Penske Racing – two (2014)
Richard Childress Racing – two (2011, 2013)
Stewart-Haas Racing – one (2015)
Roush-Fenway Racing – one (2013)
Michael Waltrip Racing – one (2012)
Noticeably one of the series top organizations, Hendrick Motorsports is not included. They have not been to victory lane at Richmond since 2008. Will they break that trend today?

Categories
Humor

NASCAR Fan Travel Guide: Richmond

I thought I drove by Richmond International Raceway recently, but when I posted a picture of it somebody said it wasn’t actually Richmond International Raceway. So I don’t know where the heck I was.

Anyway, Virginia is a great place, lots of fun stuff to do there.

  1. Go to Richmond International Raceway. But not the one I went to. Go to the real one.
  2. Visit Surrender Field in Yorktown, where the British surrendered, and George Washington had his men mow them down with machine guns. I think.
  3. Virginia Is For Lovers. Try to make love to somebody. “Hey, it’s the state slogan!” is probably a good pick-up line.
  4. Go to Martinsville. But be careful. There may be a fake Martinsville, like that fake Richmond I went to.
  5. Visit Ward Burton’s “I’ll Never Be At Peace With How I Left NASCAR” Sanctuary. But don’t stare at him too long. He don’t like that.
  6. Visit the local hospital if mauled by Ward.
  7. Visit the Denny Hamlin Museum. Or just have Erik Jones go for you and tell you what’s in there.
  8. Park in the Richmond International Raceway parking lot. Enjoy the rain.
  9. Enjoy delicious Maryland crab cakes. For some reason, Virginians were never able to master the art of combining crabmeat and bread crumbs.
  10. Enjoy delicious North Carolina barbecue. For some reason, Virginians were never able to master the art of combining vinegar and ketchup.

Richmond is a great racetrack. So great, in fact, that Denny Hamlin doesn’t even plan to get out of his car. Enjoy!

Categories
Development Journalists

Five Predictions for Richmond

By Jason Schultz – The racing at Richmond International Raceway is always spectacular. With the addition of a tight battle for the final spots in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, it will bump the short-track action up another level this weekend.

Two spots remain open on the Chase Grid. The excitement level will hit an all-time high with over a dozen drivers to possibly fill them. In addition, the always entertaining NASCAR Nationwide Series will put on a show Friday night. Past success at the speedway will greatly benefit drivers this weekend, which inspires this week’s five predictions.

Following a solid performance in Atlanta, @ReganSmith looks to continue his upward swing with title hopes in sight. In every Richmond race, since joining @JRMotorsports, he has posted a top-ten finish including a third-place last September. Another great night looks to be ahead as the No. 7 TaxSlayer.com Chevrolet will end up inside of the top-five.

No matter which track the Nationwide Series competes at @KevinHarvick is running up front. Coming off a dominating run in the Great Clips 300, he will look to once again finish the race in Victory Lane and capture the season sweep. Expect him to take the checkered flag for an eighth time in the series.

For drivers who have already secured a spot in the Chase, they will look to build momentum on Saturday night. @JeffGordonWeb is among those who will search for a confidence-boost as it could mean a lot in the quest for his fifth title. A runner-up finish from April has set hopes high for the No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet team. Anticipate this team to earn a third straight top-ten finish at Richmond.

The focus throughout the Federated Auto Parts 400 will be on the final spots available in the Chase. They are currently held by @RyanJNewman and @Gbiffle (Greg Biffle). Each driver must perform well or competitors on the outside looking in that includes @ClintBowyer and @KyleLarsonRacin will take advantage. Despite the hard-fought battle, I don’t see the final spots changing hands.

The @Team_Penske duo has been stellar throughout the season. Both @JoeyLogano and Brad @Keselowski could win and end up as the highest seed going into the Chase. Logano’s victory in April was impressive, however its his teammates turn to shine under the lights. Expect Keselowski to improve his fourth-place finish from earlier this season and take home the victory.

There will be a lot on the line this weekend which should produce exciting racing. With Smith scoring a top-five, Harvick grabbing back-to-back wins, Gordon building momentum, Newman and Biffle locking up the final playoff spots and Keselowski becoming a four-time winner – the short-track action will draw fans’ attention in each event.

Jason Schultz is a Popular Speed Development Journalist

EMAIL JASON AT jason.schultz@popularspeed.com

Categories
Development Journalists

ICYMI: Richmond International Raceway’s Top Five Storylines

By Kayla Darrow – Fans saw their fair share of beating and banging during Saturday’s Toyota Owners 400. Tempers flared and cars wrecked as NASCAR’s top drivers competed to take home the checkered flag. @JoeyLogano may have taken the top spot, but there is plenty more to talk about.

ICYMI, here are the top five stories from Richmond International Raceway:

1. @ClintBowyer dumps @KyleLarsonRacin. It didn’t even take a full lap for the first wreck to occur at Richmond. Before the field even completed two laps, Bowyer had Larson’s ride turned around and into the wall. Lucky for the No. 42, the field was able to avoid him – limiting damage to his car. He instantly pitted to fix whatever damage did occur and rallied back to finish 16th.

2. Cars were literally on fire. Tire wear was once again an issue for drivers and teams. @ColeWhitt, Bowyer, @ReedSorenson36 and @StenhouseJr all saw right front tires go down and flames spit out from under their hoods. Moving forward, teams need to figure out the key to tire management if they want be successful come Chase time. Too many drivers have already seen victories slip through their fingers because these challenges.

3. @RyanJNewman finishes solidly. Newman spent most of the race under the radar after starting 18th. He avoided trouble when he needed to and always kept up with the leaders. Newman scored his second consecutive top 10, bringing home an eighth place finish. Watch for him to be a dark horse in the Chase for the championship.

4. @JeffGordonWeb improves his restarts. Someone who normally struggles with restarts, Gordon shocked everyone when he held his own Saturday night. He faced some of the best restarters in NASCAR but maintained his lead most of the time. While Gordon didn’t score the win, he showed a huge amount of improvement in one of his weakest areas. This can only help him as he continues to search for his first victory.

5. @TonyStewart is still searching. Stewart’s up and down season continues as he struggled all night on Saturday. Starting 20th, he battled handling issues and fought to stay on the lead lap. Stewart ended the race one lap down in 25th place. Look for there to be some team restructuring if the disappointing results continue.

Kayla Darrow is a Popular Speed Development Journalist.  

EMAIL KAYLA AT kayla.darrow@popularspeed.com