Sunday April 21st, 2024 11:36AM

Highly competitive NASCAR Cup Series heads to Richmond

By Bo Wilson Sports Editor

It’s been a fast and furious start to the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series season, with race records and competitive championship standings reflecting the pace. And there’s plenty of reason to expect that high level of competition to continue with Sunday night’s Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond (Va.) Raceway (7 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

The “Easter Edition” of this race on Richmond’s three-quarter mile short track brings plenty of expectation following an early season lineup featuring five different winners in the first six races.

Hendrick Motorsports’ Kyle Larson is the defending race winner, but it’s a couple of other drivers still looking for their first win of the season that the field knows it will also have to deal with Sunday night.

Last week’s third-place finisher, Ty Gibbs, has put himself in contention for a win every single race this season – his five top-10 finishes in six races are most in the series. The 21-year-old is coming off a third-place run at Circuit of The Americas road course last week and is only five points behind his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. atop the NASCAR Cup Series driver standings.

Most impressive is that Gibbs has been good on all brands of tracks – from superspeedways to short tracks – and his average finish of 7.8 this season is tops in the series. Only two years ago – en route to the 2022 NASCAR Xfinity Series title – Gibbs turned in a dominating effort at Richmond – leading 114 of the 250 laps to win the Xfinity race at the track. It seems a legitimate venue for the young talent to score his first career NASCAR Cup Series trophy.

“We’ve run well, and hopefully, we can have another good race this week in Richmond,” Gibbs said, “It’s been great.

“We’ve all been working really well together,” he added, “and we are going to keep hammering down.”

Of course, Gibbs will have plenty of competition from a veteran group of drivers also looking to secure a 2024 Playoff position with a win. Chief among those is Richard Childress Racing’s Kyle Busch, whose six Richmond wins are the most among active drivers. Busch’s last Richmond win was part of a 2018 season sweep and he’d love to reclaim that mojo this weekend. He’s ranked 13th in the standings with only a pair of top-10 finishes.

Gibbs’ JGR teammates Denny Hamlin (four wins) and Truex (three) are also multi-time winners at Richmond. Hamlin won at Bristol, Tenn., two weeks ago, but Truex is still racing for his first victory of the season despite holding the driver standings lead. In fact, the top-three ranked drivers – Truex, Gibbs, and reigning series champion Ryan Blaney – are all still competing for their first trophy of the year.

It’s been a record season for competition in the NASCAR Cup Series with the most average lap leaders per race (13) through the opening six-races. And the 31.33 average lead changes through the opening portion of the schedule is second most in the Modern Era (1972-present), only a tick off the record of 31.50 set in 2011. Last year’s Spring Richmond race set a record for Green Flag Passes for the Lead (35).

The pole position has historically produced the most race winners (24) in the field at Richmond and practice for the Toyota Owners 400 is set for 10:35 a.m. ET on Saturday followed immediately by Busch Light Pole Qualifying at 11:15 a.m. ET. Both sessions will be broadcast on FS1, MRN, and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Hill leads a pack of hungry Xfinity Series drivers to Richmond

Boasting a perfect five-for-five in top-10 finishes this season, championship leader Austin Hill has certainly set a blistering pace out front, but the Richard Childress Racing driver arrives at Richmond Raceway for Saturday’s ToyotaCare 250 (1:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) racing for his first win at the three-quarter mile track.

The two drivers right on Hill’s heels – Joe Gibbs Racing’s Chandler Smith and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Cole Custer – have won at Richmond before and would love to close that gap atop the championship lead.

Richmond is certainly a special place for Chandler Smith, who earned his first career NASCAR Xfinity Series victory in this race last year. He added a win this season at Phoenix and is sitting second in the current championship standings to Hill by only nine points.

Custer (2019) and JR Motorsports’ Justin Allgaier, who swept the 2020 COVID doubleheader, are the only other former winners among the fulltime contingent. A victory this week for Allgaier would be especially timely for the perennial championship contender and his JRM team – the whole four-car fulltime operation is still looking for its first win of 2024.

Allgaier, who has only a pair of top-10 finishes, is ranked eighth, followed by teammate Brandon Jones in ninth. Sammy Smith is 11th and Sam Mayer, who has had a season of tough luck, is ranked 19th heading into Richmond. Mayer’s best short track finish (third place) came at Richmond in 2022.

“We have always had really strong cars on the short tracks at JRM, and I see no reason why that won’t be the case again this weekend,” said Allgaier, who has had six career short track victories.

“I feel like Richmond is falling at the right time for us to get that positive momentum back going, and I know that [crew chief] Jim [Pohlman] and everyone on this No. 7 team is ready to go once we hit the track on Saturday.”

This is not only an important race for the championship, but a win this weekend will qualify a full time driver for the upcoming NASCAR Xfinity Series Dash 4 Cash program which gives drivers a chance to win a $100,000 bonus. The top-four eligible drivers from Saturday afternoon’s race will qualify for the first Dash 4 Cash event – April 6 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.

The top four eligible drivers from Martinsville will then be Dash 4 Cash eligible at the April 13 race at Texas Motor Speedway. The other two Dash 4 Cash events are on April 20 at Talladega (Ala.) and April 27 at Dover (Del.) Motor Speedway.

Of note, this weekend, late model superstar Bubba Pollard will be making his NASCAR Xfinity Series debut, driving the No. 88 Chevrolet for JR Motorsports. Not only will this be Pollard’s first laps in an Xfinity Series car, but it will also be his first laps at Richmond Raceway.

“I really don’t know what to expect, as it’s all very new to us,” Pollard said. “But I’m very thankful for the opportunity. .. I hope we can make the most of it.”

Also making their series debut is NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series standout Taylor Gray, who will drive the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and modified standout Morgen Baird, who will steer the No. 4 JD Motorsports Chevrolet.

It’s a busy race day for the Xfinity Series with practice slated for 8:35 a.m. ET Saturday followed by qualifying at 9:05 a.m. ET (FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

 

  • Associated Categories: Sports, NASCAR News, NASCAR Cup, Xfinity Series
  • Associated Tags: nascar xfinity series, NASCAR Cup Series, Richmond
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