Saturday’s Cup race at Richmond is a bit of a mystery for teams. That it comes at a pivotal time in the playoffs adds to the pressure for those that had poor results last weekend.
NASCAR has yet to race at Richmond Raceway this season because the COVID-19 pandemic moved the spring race to Darlington. This will be the first time teams will race at Richmond with the low-downforce package introduced this season for short tracks and road courses.
As the middle race in the opening playoff round, what happens Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) could have an impact on who advances after the Sept. 19 race at Bristol.
Here’s a look at how the title contenders enter the Richmond playoff race:
WORK TO DO
Matt DiBenedetto (-17 points to the cutline)
Ryan Blaney (-17)
Both need a good race at Richmond.
The problem for Blaney is that he hasn’t had one. He’s never finished in the top 15 there in eight career starts. His average finish at Richmond is 25.5.
“Richmond is one where maybe we haven’t been so great, so we’ve our work cut out for us,” said Travis Geisler, competition director at Team Penske.
DiBenedetto finished a career-high 14th at Richmond last fall. He enters Saturday’s race with no finish better than 12th in the last five races.
TRANSFER SPOT BATTLE
Cole Custer (-3 points to the cutline)
Clint Bowyer (0 points)
Aric Almirola (holds last transfer spot)
Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer enter Richmond tied for the last playoff spot. The playoff tiebreaker is best result in the round. Almirola owns the tiebreaker based on his ninth-place finish last weekend at Darlington (Bowyer was 10th).
Bowyer goes to Richmond without crew chief Johnny Klausmeier. NASCAR suspended him for this race because Bowyer’s car had two lug nuts not safe and secure after the Southern 500. Former championship winning crew chief Greg Zipadelli, vice president of competition at Stewart-Haas Racing, will serve as Bowyer’s crew chief at Richmond.
Bowyer has four consecutive top 10s at Richmond. Almirola has one top 10 in his last five starts there.
“I love the challenge of (Richmond), but we’ve got to hit it,” Bowyer said. “We’ve been so-so on the short tracks. That’s certainly one of my best tracks, so we’ve got to nail the setup. If we can do that, we’ll get us a good run and go a long ways to getting into Bristol where we need to be.”
Austin Dillon (+10 above the cutline)
William Byron (+9)
Kyle Busch (+7)
Kurt Busch (+4)
Could Kyle Busch’s winless season end this weekend? He has six victories at Richmond, most among active drivers. Also, Joe Gibbs Racing’s 16 Richmond wins are its most at any track. JGR drivers have won the past four races at Richmond — Martin Truex Jr. swept last year’s races and Busch swept the 2019 races. If Busch wins, he’ll do so without crew chief Adam Stevens, who has been suspended one race because of a lug nut violation at Darlington.
Byron is intriguing. He scored his first top-five finish of the season at Dover last month. He followed that with a win at Daytona and a fifth-place finish last weekend at Darlington. But Byron does not have a top 10 at Richmond in four starts. Hendrick Motorsports’ last win at Richmond was in September 2008.
Dillon carries momentum after his runner-up finish at Darlington. He’s placed in the top 10 in two of the last three Richmond races.
“Richmond is what I have circled as my best track in the playoffs I feel, and I wouldn’t have been able to say that a couple years back,” Dillon said.
Crew chief Matt McCall’s strategy helped Kurt Busch score six points in the first stage at Darlington by not pitting when the field did. He might need more help Saturday. Kurt Busch has not had a top 10 in his last four Richmond starts.
Martin Truex Jr. (+16)
Chase Elliott (+12)
The two antagonists in the late-race drama at Darlington aren’t safe should they have problems at Richmond.
Last year, Truex was the safe bet. He won both races, leading 295 of 800 laps in those races. He’s won four of the last six short track races, including a win at Martinsville this year.
Elliott did not finish better than 13th in the either Richmond race last year.
Joey Logano (+27)
Brad Keselowski (+22)
Alex Bowman (+19)
Logano’s third-place finish at Darlington put eight drivers between him and the final transfer spot. The same tire that is used this weekend at Richmond also is used at New Hampshire and Phoenix, site of the championship race. Logano won at Phoenix in the spring and finished fourth at New Hampshire.
Keselowski recovered from an early incident at Darlington to finish 11th. He has four consecutive top-10 finishes at Richmond. He’s finished no worse than 11th in his last nine Richmond starts.
Bowman placed sixth at Darlington. He scored 43 points, including 12 stage points. Only winner Kevin Harvick scored more points at Darlington. Bowman’s fortune at Richmond, though, hasn’t been good. He’s never finished better than 12th in eight starts there.
FOCUSED ON WINS
Denny Hamlin (+54)
Kevin Harvick (advanced to second round)
These two have combined for 14 wins in 27 races this season and they are looking for more.
Harvick, who starts on the pole Saturday, already is in the second round with his Darlington win. Hamlin’s playoff points should put him into the round provided he doesn’t have any major problems.
Richmond playoff race holds many questions for drivers originally appeared on NBCSports.com