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Saturday September 26th, 2020 10:02PM

Some drivers look for Playoff gains at Richmond

By Holly Cain-NASCAR Wire Service
  Contact Editor

In many ways last week’s NASCAR Cup Series Playoff opener was reflective of the season-long championship stakes.

Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex, Jr. fielded strong Toyotas and led a lot of laps. Ultimately, regular season champion Kevin Harvick held off the field for a series-best eighth trophy and an automatic bid into the Playoffs’ Round 2 in three weeks.

This 2020 Playoff field showed up ready to take the championship hunt to a higher level. And the expectations for Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway remain equally as high.

Truex has won the last two Richmond races and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, defending NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch won the two prior to that (2018 sweep). In fact, Busch’s six series victories at the 3/4-mile track are most among his competitors.

And while he is winless on the season, expectations are that a venue like Richmond – or even next week’s half-mile Bristol Motor Speedway – are places that Busch is highly-favored to restore that path to contending for a second straight, and third overall title.

He’s that good at these short tracks.

“Having good cars there (Richmond) has certainly been something that we’ve been fortunate with at Joe Gibbs Racing over the years,” said Busch, who drives the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

“I’ve won there six times and I’ve been in the top-five about every time we go there, so I would like to think that we can keep that string going and more importantly, get a win. We need some wins this year and we look forward to Richmond being one of those places we can do that.”

Busch has a series-best 22 top-10 finishes in 30 Richmond starts – meaning he earns a top 10, an amazing 73 percent of the time.

“Right now you can still point your way through the first round, but you’re going to need some wins also. Richmond and Bristol, those are great opportunities for us to score a victory. You get two stage wins and a win at Richmond and Bristol – or both and boom you’re right back in the Playoff picture. That would give us a good opportunity to be right back in the ballpark.”

The challenge for Busch will be that several of his other key competitors have also circled Richmond as a place to score a win or at least, major points with only one more race after that at Bristol to decide which 12 drivers will advance toward the title among the current 16-driver Playoff field.

Harvick has three Richmond NASCAR Cup Series wins and seven Xfinity Series trophies. Hamlin, who is second in points, 19 behind Harvick, also has three NASCAR Cup Series wins and three Xfinity Series wins at the venue he considers his home track. Defending race winner Truex has two wins as does Joey Logano, who is third in points, Kurt Busch, who is 11th and Clint Bowyer, who is 13th. The only other former winner among the Playoff contingent is Logano’s Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski, who is ranked fourth in the standings. He won the 2014 Playoff race at Richmond.

Currently, Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Aric Almirola and Bowyer are tied in points amassed, but Almirola has the tiebreaker edge -best finish in the current Playoff round. He is ranked 12th and Bowyer 13th. Their other SHR teammate, rookie Cole Custer is 14th, three points behind the pair. Matt DiBenedetto and Ryan Blaney are 15th and 16th – both 17 points behind Almirola.

Among this group of five drivers, Bowyer has the best Richmond record and is the only one with a previous win – victories in 2008 and 2012. The driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford has 16 top-10 finishes in 29 overall NASCAR Cup Series starts there.

Almirola, who steers the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, has five top-10 finishes at Richmond in 17 starts. Custer, who drives the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, was a career-best 12th last year making one of a handful of series starts, but he did win the Xfinity Series race at the track last Spring.

Wood Brothers Racing driver Matt DiBenedetto and Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney are ranked 15th and 16th in the standings – both 17 points behind Almirola in the 12th place cutoff. Neither of them have ever finished in the top-10 at Richmond.

DiBenedetto’s best effort in 10 career starts is 14th last year – eight times he’s finished 20th or worse. Blaney’s best finish in nine career starts is 17th in the 2019 Playoff race. He has five finishes of 20th-place or worse. Neither he nor DiBenedetto has ever led a lap at Richmond.

The good news for these four drivers, is that the points are very close after last weekend’s opener. Only 12 points separate seventh place Chase Elliott from 12th place Almirola. And as it has played out, other than Bowyer, the tightest battles for those last Playoff positions are largely among drivers who wouldn’t count Richmond among their “best” tracks.

“You feel pressure, yeah,” Bowyer said. “I’m going to postpone that pressure until I get in that car Saturday night. I’m just going to wait for then. I’m not going to go ahead and feel pressure right now. I’ve chosen not to experience pressure today. Saturday, it’s a different day.”

Xfinity Series Double Dips At Richmond

With three races remaining to set the 2020 NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoff field – this weekend’s Richmond Raceway doubleheader will play a major role in seeding the championship-eligible drivers and deciding which competitors complete the 12-driver Playoff lineup.

A highly-anticipated two-race slate this week begins with the Go Bowling 250 on Friday night followed by the Virginia is for Race Lovers 250 on Saturday afternoon. No current fulltime Xfinity Series driver has won at Richmond previously.

Five-race winner, Team Penske’s Austin Cindric goes into the pivotal race slate holding a sizable 54-point advantage on six-race winner Chase Briscoe, of Stewart-Haas Racing, for the regular season championship title. They are two of seven drivers with victories already – Playoff hopes secure.

Last week’s dramatic Darlington Raceway finish featured some particularly hard racing between NASCAR Cup Series championship contender Denny Hamlin and Xfinity Series championship contender Ross Chastain, who was looking for his first win of the season.

Contact between the two in the closing laps allowed Brandon Jones to surge by and pick up his third trophy of the year. Chastain finished runner-up (for the fourth time this season), which keeps him third in the driver standings – but eighth place in the Playoff outlook standings, the first driver without a victory on the season.

No doubt he’s eager for that win to propel him to what he would consider a more fitting position to start his first Xfinity Series Playoff run. This weekend gives him two chances for a trip to Victory Lane, however, the0.75-mile Richmond track hasn’t historically been one of Chastain’s best. However, he will start from pole position on Friday.

The driver of the No. 10 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet has only a single top-10 finish in nine previous Richmond Xfinity Series starts. That was a runner-up showing in 2018 driving a Chip Ganassi Racing car. He was 11th in last September’s race at the track.

That 2019 Fall race was won by current NASCAR Cup Series rookie Christopher Bell with Cindric runner-up by a healthy 1.7-seconds. In all, six current Playoff eligible drivers finished among the top-10 last September – Justin Allgaier (fourth), Briscoe (fifth), Harrison Burton (sixth), Noah Gragson (seventh) and Michael Annett (ninth).

There are seven drivers with victories this season – six of them are multiple winners from Cindric (five) and Briscoe (six) to three-race winner Jones, and two-race winners Gragson, Justin Haley, and the rookie Burton.

Points-wise there remains one position still considered competitive for the Playoffs. Brandon Brown is 12th points, with a 45-point edge on veteran Jeremy Clements. Myatt Snider is ranked 14th, 51 points behind Brown.

This weekend, marks Snider’s Richmond debut. The 35-year old Clements has 19 Richmond starts, yet only a single top 10 – eighth place in Spring, 2018. He was 35th and 16th in the two races last year. And while he has continued to mount a challenge to Brown, the driver of the No. 51 Chevrolet, hasn’t had a top-10 finish since the Daytona Road Course, five races ago.

Brown, who will celebrate his 27th birthday next week, has six Richmond starts and no top-10 finishes. The driver of the No. 68 Brandonbilt Motorsports Chevrolet has a career-best showing at the track of 19th in Spring, 2018. He was 20th there last year. He hasn’t scored a top-10 this season since a 10th-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway on July 18 – seven races ago. He finished 17th at Darlington last week.

WDUN will have live MRN Radio coverage of NASCAR from Richmond Raceway, beginning with Saturday afternoon's NASCAR Xfinity Series Virginia Is For Racing Lovers 250 at 1:30 pm on 102.9 FM and streaming live on AccessWDUN.  Coverage continues on Saturday night with the NASCAR Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 at 6:30 pm on 102.9 FM, AM 550 and streaming live on AccessWDUN.

NASCAR Weekend Preview

NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Federated Auto Parts 400
The Place: Richmond Raceway – Richmond, VA
The Date: Saturday, September 12
The Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN, 7 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 300 miles (400 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 80), Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 235), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 400)
What To Watch For: The 2020 season marks the third time the NASCAR Cup Series Playoff’s second race has been held at Richmond Raceway (2018-2020). … The 0.75-mile track located in Richmond, Virginia is the third track in series history to host the second race of the Playoffs; joining Dover International Speedway (2004-2010) and New Hampshire Motor Speedway (2011–2017). Prior to 2018, Richmond Raceway was the regular season finale for the NASCAR Cup Series from 2004-2017. … A total of 12 different drivers have won the second race of the Playoffs (2004-2019), led by Hendrick Motorsport’s driver Jimmie Johnson with three wins (2005, 2009, 2010); followed by Kyle Busch (2017, 2018) and Matt Kenseth (2013, 2015) with two victories each. … No non-Playoff driver has ever won the second Playoff race in the NASCAR Cup Series. … Since the first NASCAR Cup Series race at Richmond Raceway on April 19, 1953 the 0.75-mile track has hosted 127 series races producing 55 different pole winners and 52 different race winners. … NASCAR Hall of Famers Bobby Allison and Richard Petty lead the series in poles at Richmond with eight each. Petty also leads the series in wins at Richmond with 13 victories (spring 1961, 1967 sweep, fall 1968, fall 1970, 1971 sweep, 1972 sweep, 1973 sweep, fall 1974 and spring 1975). Petty’s 13 wins are the third-most wins by a single driver at a single track in series history behind his 15 wins at Martinsville and North Wilkesboro. … Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick lead all active drivers in poles at Richmond with three each. … Kyle Busch leads all active drivers in wins at Richmond with six victories (spring 2009, spring 2010, spring 2011, spring 2012 and spring 2018, Playoff race 2018). … A total of 11 former Richmond Raceway winners are entered this weekend, eight of which are 2020 Playoff contenders – Kyle Busch (six wins), Denny Hamlin (three), Kevin Harvick (three), Martin Truex Jr. (two), Clint Bowyer (two), Joey Logano (two), Kurt Busch (two) and Brad Keselowski (one).

NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: Go Bowling 250
The Place: Richmond Raceway – Richmond, VA
The Date: Friday, September 11
The Time: 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN, 6:30 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 187.5 miles (250 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 75), Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 150), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 250)

NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: Virginia is for Racing Lovers 250
The Place: Richmond Raceway – Richmond, VA
The Date: Saturday, September 12
The Time: 2 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN, 1:30 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 187.5 miles (250 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 75), Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 150), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 250)
What To Watch For: This will mark the fourth doubleheader weekend for the Xfinity Series since the COVID-19 pandemic return to racing. This is also the last stretch for Xfinity Series drivers to make their way into the Playoffs with a doubleheader this weekend and the regular season finale at Bristol Motor Speedway next week. … Ross Chastain in the No. 10 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet will lead the field to green on Friday evening with last week’s race winner, Brandon Jones, in the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota joining him on the front row. … The race will be 187.5 miles and 250 laps with Stage 1 ending on lap 75 and Stage 2 ending on lap 150. … In 2019, Cole Custer won the first Xfinity Series race run at Richmond and Christopher Bell won the second. Austin Cindric finished both of those races in second. … Denny Hamlin currently holds the race record at Richmond for the series at 108.415 mph in 2011. … Kyle Busch holds the qualifying record at 129.348 mph in 2004. … Fifteen of 72 Xfinity races run at the track were won from the pole and Kevin Harvick holds the track record for the most wins (seven), most top fives (18) and most top 10s (21). … Joe Gibbs has the most wins of any car owner with 10 at Richmond.

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