In the last four Richmond races, qualification has not been all that important. Five top-10 finishers came from outside that mark in both events last year. In 2017, four drivers started outside the top 10 before finishing with the leaders. One reason for that is, the .75-mile track has a wide pit road and sweeping frontstretch, which allows drivers to make up some ground on the competition.
That is going to be exceptionally good news for a number of racers who failed to navigate a new set of rules that made all three rounds only five minutes long. The abbreviated sessions were further complicated by rain that rolled through the area on Friday – washing what rubber had been applied during the weekend off the asphalt. It was important to get on track early in each session.
Rain also canceled one of the two practices that were scheduled to be run on Friday. Teams are going to need to go back to their notes. That typically rewards well-established drivers and crew chiefs.
Last week had to be more than a little embarrassing for Kevin Harvick. The team apparently was playing outside the rules and still could not manage to get into the final round of qualification. For all the questionable efforts that caused them to fail inspection multiple times, Harvick was forced to fall to the back of the pack and then do a pass through penalty. He spent most of the day off the lead lap and finished 13th – but he had one of the best cars in race trim. This week, he was solid in practice and won the pole. The season has not gone the way he wants so far and that may give rise to a new nickname: Hungry Harvick. We expect him to eat well this week.
Many expected Kyle Busch to win the pole. He was fourth-fastest in practice and then posted the fastest laps in the first two rounds of time trials. He slipped just a little in Round 3 and will roll off the grid on the inside of row three. Still, starting fifth is Busch’s best starting spot in the last four week. He failed to make the round of 12 at Martinsville, Texas, and Bristol. On the two short tracks, he nonetheless climbed into the top five and that added to his appeal in games that offered place-differential points.
Ryan Blaney was the biggest victim of the new rules. When rain swept through the area and washed the rubber off the track, it became imperative to get off pit road quickly before the asphalt became slick with new rubber. Blaney was one of the last drivers off pit road and he complained of overall grip. The top 24 advance from Round 1; Blaney was 29th and that is where he will start tonight. He should easily move up through the field, but a top-five is going to be questionable since he will not have a very good pit stall. The good news is that he has been solid this year. Blaney has never cracked the top 15 on this track, but we are willing to bet that is going to change.
The risk of NASCAR’s two-day Cup shows for fantasy owners is that we don’t have a lot of data to crunch especially when one session is removed from the schedule because of the capriciousness of Mother Nature. In this case, it sounds like most of the teams worked on long runs in what was supposed to be the morning session: 33 of the 37 entered got in 10+ lap runs.
Busch topped the 10-lap chart with a speed of 120.529 mph. That comes as no surprise since he won both races last year and has been the class of the field in 2019. Harvick had the second-quickest time of 120.132 mph and coupled with his pole winning run, he could easily dominate Segment 1 of the Toyota Owners 400.
Fans looking for a dark horse don’t have to go very far down the order. Chris Buescher had the third-fastest and third-quickest times in the morning session. He advocated caution when talking to reporters after practice and sounded like he was unhappy with the fall-off in his Chevrolet after that mark. He doesn’t need to perform miracles tonight in order to be a good value, however, and a top-15 will make him worthy of the allocation. He qualified 11th and should be able to stay out of trouble in the early stages.
Erik Jones had the fourth-quickest time in practice. He qualified second and like Harvick, he should be able to find a comfortable spot in the field to run. On paper, this has not been a very good track with only one top-10 and no top-fives in three starts. He has notes from teammates Busch and Denny Hamlin on which to rely, however, and over time that is going to pay dividends.
On the other side of the coin, Joey Logano was one of the slowest drivers in morning practice. His 10-lap average of 116.844 was the 29th-slowest. It was so slow in fact, that players can disregard it and assume the team was working on something experimental. He picked up the pace in practice and rolls off the grid fourth.