RICHMOND, Va. — Hendrick Motorsports driver Jeff Gordon sits on top of the Sprint Cup Series standings after the most recent stop at Richmond International Raceway, but he knows he just missed an opportunity by placing second. This season NASCAR has changed things around significantly, more heavily weighing wins for the Chase and championship.
Gordon led a race-high 173 laps at RIR, but he was unable to close the deal, as Team Penske driver Joey Logano worked his way up to the top in a spirited run at the end.
“Normally I’d be ecstatic to lead points, but those wins are so important. All night long I had to let the (No. 2 and 22) go by me, then 10 laps or so reel them in. It was a great night, and (we have) great race cars we’re bringing to the track,” Gordon said. “(It’s) disappointing not to win, but good finishes are building more confidence. I feel we can win races anywhere we go. I think we seem to be at our best when finesse is important, and that was the case also tonight.”
Gordon will get his win. He has been so very close so many times this season, and his team is there every single week. In terms of Fantasy, he is a must-start nearly every time out except for perhaps the road courses. If you’re in a league which limits the amount of times you can start a driver, Gordon is a must-have on most intermediate tracks and restrictor-plate runs. I’d pocket him on the tri-ovals like Pocono, and flat tracks with the exception of Indianapolis. He is not showing any signs of letting up, and if anything he is getting better each week.
It appeared Gordon had the strongest car all evening. The next best car was Penske Racing’s Brad Keselowski, who had his Detroit Genuine Parts ‘Powder Blue Deuce’ up front for 114 laps. He ended up in fourth place after a spirited bump and grind over the final couple of laps, and Gordon had to settle for second. That’s because Keselowski’s teammate Joey Logano, who quickly marched up the leaderboard earlier in the race, took advantage of all of the jostling between Gordon, Keselowski and third-place driver Kyle Busch to free himself, find some clean air and slingshotted to the front of the pack in what turned out to be one of the most exciting free-for-alls of the season.
Logano’s second win of the season all but assures him of a spot in the postseason Chase, and he is looking forward to letting loose in the remainder of the regular season. “We’ve put ourselves in a good position early in the season. Now, it’s all about wins and having fun. If we crash, we crash. We’re going for wins,” Joey Logano said.
Logano’s message might be a little scary for Fantasy owners in future weeks, but it could have just been the adrenaline talking, too, after a monster win, his fifth career Sprint Cup Series victory. Still, he’ll be a driver with nothing to lose with the Chase all but assured. If he is going all out for wins, throwing caution to the wind, there might be quite a few more rewards for Fantasy owners this season. However, there could also be DNFs and poor Fantasy scores, too.
Logano also explained why it has taken him a few years to get regular wins after a few lackluster seasons to kick off his career. “It’s an air battle. In sprint car, you drive one way,” Logano explained. “You have to learn to pass cars at a completely different way at this level.”
It appears Logano is certainly learning, and rather quickly. He and crew chief Todd Gordon both made mention of their ‘notebook’, which is diary of their experiences together. They’re learning what makes each other tick, as they have only been together for about 18 months, and the combination is certainly working for the former Joe Gibbs Racing driver. And pairing Logano together with former Sprint Cup Series champ Keselowski gives the team a young gun one-two punch that not many teams are in possession.
Todd Gordon made mention of their ‘notebook’, and how quick Logano has been to learn from past mistakes on the track. They’ve quickly cleaned things up, shared information with the No. 2 team, and Team Penske sounds like a contingent to be reckoned with down the stretch, as both Keselowski and Logano are on the move. “We’ve focused on what we need to be more successful. We have confidence in our notebooks. The chemisty and communication between (the No. 2 and 22 teams) has been oustanding,” Todd Gordon said.
The staff at RIR (follow them @RIRInsider) do it right from top to bottom. If you’re a NASCAR fan, and live within a reasonable distance, this is a track you must put on your list. Before the race, ALL fans were invited to walk on the track beforehand in an event called ‘Track Takeover’, and if you brought your own pen or marker, you could sign the checkerboard finish line or retaining wall. Some people had less than savory things to say, especially about Kyle Busch, in their messages. But most of the stuff was clean. Ha.
At any rate, the staff makes this an enjoyable day for everyone, from the parking staff being ever so helpful pointing you in the right direction, the shuttle drivers making you feel welcome and getting you where you need to be, the hospitality staff, the lady at the door of the media center who was amazed how much I enjoyed the lemonade, and the media relations staff. They do it up right at Richmond, and I encourage you to attend.
And, RIR just announced over the weekend that after the fall race, they will have ‘Track Takeover’ AFTER the race, where you can celebrate the end of the regular season with the drivers, and cheer on the winner up close and personal.
Did I mention, the race was sensational, too?
The track at Richmond is technically a short track, but from my experience it seems to play a lot more like Darlington, or an intermediate track, than Martinsville, a true short track. In fact, some consider it to be more of a hybrid. That makes for the best of both worlds, as there is a lot of room for passing, but not too much. Remember that for September, as those drivers such as Kevin Harvick, who are strong on Quality Passes, remain strong Fantasy options at RIR.
And during the race, we tweeted out to watch for those bright red rotors. Well, the combination of long green-flag runs led to the glowing red rotors, and that led to several fires, as the new Goodyear tires were no match for an inferno. In fact, we saw several fires on the night, including Michael Waltrip Racing’s Clint Bowyer, Roush-Fenway Racing’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Tommy Baldwin Racing’s Reed Sorenson and BK Racing’s Cole Whitt catch fire on Pit Road. And I can tell you, it wasn’t a pleasant smell with all of the burning rubber, plastic and fluids.
Five (plus one) items that have sunk in after further Richmond review
Some were diplomatic about new Goodyear tires..: Goodyear was running a new tire at Richmond, and many of the drivers were less than complementary of the new rubber. Some were more diplomatic than others. “Not a fan of the duel tread zone. (We) slid around at Texas, same here. I don’t like the way it drives, but we’re very good with it,” Jeff Gordon said.
…some were less diplomatic: The normally outspoken Kyle Busch was not a fan of Goodyear’s new rubber. “They put a harder inside on the right front edge, and a softer outside,” Busch said. “It’s just too hard of a compound for here. We were basically on ice here, it was just like having a hard tire out there. The effort that they tried to gain with the left side tire softening it up, you could just take the left sides off, it deel feel like they did anything. (It’s) really tough for all of us to, for one, keep the tires under our cars, and for putting a harder compound on the outside edge and having it cord and come apart, and actually it’s supposed to be more durable, I think was just not the right way to go obviously for Goodyear.”
Jimmie Johnson is human after all: Johnson continues to search for his first victory of the season. The six-time champ isn’t terribly concerned about his chances of making the Chase, something he has done every season it has existed. However, crew chief Chad Knaus has yet to find that correct combination to get the No. 48 to Victory Lane. Still, there are plenty of tracks right in Jimmie’s wheelhouse (like Dover, for example) in the not-too-distant future.
Quickest spin by a pole sitter?: Rookie Kyle Larson was on the pole at Richmond. However, in the very first turn of the very first lap, he made contact with Clint Bowyer and went for a spin. If it isn’t a record for the quickest wreck by a pole sitter, it has to be awfully close.
Don’t mess with Marcos Ambrose: NASCAR is still investigating a post-race fracas between Marcos Ambrose and Casey Mears, but punches were thrown in the pits and Mears was left with a bloody nose courtesy of the normally mild-mannered driver from down under. The incident appears to stem from a dust-up a couple of weeks ago at Darlington, but no one is certain what set off Ambrose at this point.
…and the plus one – Robert Griffin III feeling good: Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is a huge Washington Redskins fan and avid Fantasy Football player, was pleased to hang with QB Robert Griffin III at the race. RGIII was there as the honorary pace car driver. In passing, he said his knee is “110 percent,” and after his pace car duties, he camped out over the top of Little E’s pit box for the night.
Looking ahead to next week
The Sprint Cup Series heads to Talladega for the second restrictor-plate race of the season. Where you normally key on a handful of drivers, it will be anyone’s race to win, including drivers from some of the smaller teams, who seem to have their best chances at a superspeedway.
Fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. will also be a favorite in the eyes of Vegas, as he has five career checkered flags at Talladega, and he has placed inside the Top 20 in 20 of his 28 starts while leading 775 laps. Only teammate Jeff Gordon has more laps led (843) among active drivers.
Keselowski has also proven to be a legitimate contender at ‘Dega, quickly earning his chops. He has two victories in 10 career starts at the Alabama run, and he has six Top 10s with 32 laps led. His teammate, Joey Logano, hasn’t been as stellar, but he also has run with the kind of confidence he has right now. In 10 career Talladega starts, he has just two Top 5s and an Average Finish of 19.6.
Smaller team drivers like David Gilliland, David Ragan, etc. can also be very helpful. They’ll come with low salaries, but potentially high production as opposed to the finesse tracks which require much more fine-tuning.
It might be a stop Joe Gibbs Driver Denny Hamlin isn’t necessarily looking forward to making. In 16 career starts at ‘Dega, he has managed just three Top 5 and six Top 20s, with a whole lot of heartbreak in between. He has three DNFs and an Average Finish of 20.2. The same holds true for Roush-Fenway Racing’s Carl Edwards, who has five DNFs at the track, and an Average Finish of 20.6. He has never won at Talladega in 19 tries, and has just two Top 5s to show for his efforts.
Lastly, if you’re in a Fantasy league which limits the amount of times you can use a driver, Kyle Busch is someone you need to avoid for Fantasy purposes. In 18 career starts at Talladega, he has one victory, but just four Top 5s and five Top 10s with five DNFS and a dismal 21.9 Average Finish.