Federated Auto Parts 400 – Richmond International Raceway

After a dicey race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last Sunday that kicked off the playoffs and produced major problems for 12 of the 16 drivers eligible for the championship, it was no wonder that most were concerned for their point standings. Though it was only the first race in the first round of the playoffs, it unexpectedly put several drivers in jeopardy and in a ‘must-deliver’ situation at Richmond International Raceway for the Federated Auto Parts 400.  This was especially so considering the next track on the schedule is the dreaded Roval (half road course, half oval) at Charlotte Motor Speedway where, to date, no driver has tested well. To make matters worse, the Roval is an elimination race.

Polesitter Kevin Harvick out front, Martin Truex Jr. 2nd

Everything considered all eyes were on Richmond. Yet, this race wasn’t the spectacle it has been the past few years when the track has hosted Fan Appreciation Weekend for the fall race.  The event helped to distinguish the track (and the race) as something special and different, much like Darlington Raceway hosts Throwback Weekend.  Fan Appreciation tended to feature a number of events geared to NASCAR fans, as well as an impressive 4-wide salute just before the cars fell into their qualifying positions for the starting grid.

Yes, strangely that was absent this weekend, and so was much of the excitement considering the race was uneventful for the most part, lacking incidents and cautions and controversy.  It was hard fought, no doubt, with a few good battles for lead changes.  But, essentially it was a straight-up race with the predictable Big 3 (Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Martin Truex Jr.) dominating the event, and finishing in P1, 2 and 3.  Brad Keselowski, the newcomer to the party with 3 consecutive wins, put the pressure on but ultimately used up his car and fell back to a 9th place finish.

So let’s break it down into stages. Despite brushing the wall in qualifying, Kyle Busch managed to put his #18 Toyota in the 12th starting position. However, his run-in with the wall was so significant the team had to make repairs that caused Busch to start at the back of the field. Making his way up to the front is never a tough feat for Busch, and he entered into the Top 20 in only 30 laps.  Teammate Daniel Suarez also started at the back after failing pre-race inspection.

Chase Elliott, who had started in 19th position, made a hard charge to the front.  Though initially, his car was slow on the short run, it came alive a few laps later and he easily began passing the field and ended up P4.  Busch continued to run hard despite that crew chief Adam Stevens instructed him to put the car on ‘cruise control’ and it wasn’t long before he entered the Top 10.

The stage also saw Ricky Stenhouse Jr. re-create his strategy from the spring race at Richmond, pitting early for fresher tires in an attempt to drive through the field.  In reality, it helped him to drive through Denny Hamlin in the #11 Fed Ex Toyota. On Lap 54, just following his pit stop, Stenhouse had a run and forced himself into the bottom lane under Hamlin despite that Hamlin was turning down. The two made contact, Denny got loose and almost spun out.  Miraculously, he saved the car without the intervention of a caution, made up the lap the incident cost him and drove to 9th place to earn points in the stage.  Stenhouse, who was already a lap down from pitting under green, was now minus two.  Meanwhile, pole-sitter Kevin Harvick in the #4 Ford lost the lead to Martin Truex Jr. who claimed the Stage Win.

Martin Truex Jr wins Stage 1 and 2

Stage 2 brought out 3 consecutive pit stops for Eric Jones when his crew failed to do a wedge adjustment on the car and accidentally left the wrench on the deck lid. Failure to remove the tool from the car before re-entering the track resulted in a penalty and Jones returned to his pit to remove the wrench. However, work could not be performed on the car while serving the penalty, which caused Jones to return yet a third time for the actual wedge adjustment. Chase Elliott restarted 3rd in Stage 2 but immediately lost position once again due to lack of short-run speed.  Yet again the car came alive a few laps later, allowing Elliott to drive back to P4.  Late in the stage, Paul Menard, Ryan Blaney, and Kurt Busch managed to un-lap themselves just prior to Stage Winner Martin Truex Jr. crossing the finish line.

Stage 3 saw Chase Elliott take the lead on the restart, following an impressive pit stop.  For Martin Truex Jr; however, the stop was not nearly as stellar when he was penalized for an uncontrolled tire, forcing him to go a lap down while serving a pass through.  Elliott would hold the lead for 36 laps but eventually lost ground as Kyle Busch once again drove to the front.  Not long afterward, Kyle and Brad Keselowski did battle for the lead, swapping places several times on the track as Aric Almirola in the #10 Smithfield Ford ran third.  Eventually, Keselowski used up his tires while drag racing Kyle Busch and lost position, allowing Kevin Harvick to take over the battle though Harvick couldn’t quite make it to Busch’s bumper.

The race would end with Kyle Busch as the winner, Kevin Harvick second, Martin Truex Jr. third, Chase Elliott fourth and Aric Almirola fifth.  This leaves Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, and Eric Jones below the cut line for the elimination race at the Roval, on Sunday, September 30th at Charlotte Motor Speedway.



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