Ryan Blaney won the pole at Richmond Raceway back in April. Martin Truex Jr. has won three of the past six races at this track. Two of the sport’s top-tier drivers, they’d typically enter Sunday’s Federated Auto 400 fine-tuning their teams for the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.
Instead, both drivers are fighting to simply be a part of it.
With three races left in the sport’s regular season, 15 winners in 23 races have put a squeeze on the postseason field. That leaves Blaney, second in the point standings to Chase Elliott, in the unenviable position of being the 16th and final driver on the postseason grid. Despite winning the NASCAR All-Star Race in May, Blaney has yet to win a points-paying event this season.
That leaves him vulnerable to getting knocked out of the postseason altogether. All it’ll take is another winless driver sneaking past to victory lane, anyone from Erik Jones to Bubba Wallace to Austin Dillon, who led 55 laps at Richmond as recently as 2020.
But Blaney’s biggest threat is another driver inside the top 5 in points who is inexplicably on the outside of the playoffs looking in: Truex. The 2017 Cup champion, also winless this year, sits 19 points behind Blaney in their battle for the final postseason spot.
It means Truex can still make it in on points if circumstances fall his way. And on paper, the edge should be with the No. 19 team at a track where they’ve flat-out dominated in recent years. Even a second-place finish with a handful of stage points might be enough to make up the gap on Blaney and put Truex on the right side of the bubble.
This drama was all caused by Kevin Harvick’s upset win at Michigan International Speedway, putting this duo along with several others in desperation mode.
“We didn’t need the 4 car to win,” Blaney said Sunday. “So, we’ll try to win the next few weeks and try to battle the 19 (Truex) in points. It’ll be exciting, that’s for sure, so hopefully we can do it.”
Can Blaney put a second solid run together after posting a seventh-place finish in April? This Richmond racetrack is one of his worst historically.
As for Truex, he’ll hope for some good calls on top of the pit box at a short track that’s seen strategy shift the final results. When and how you stop for tires is crucial at a 3/4-mile oval that often drives like one twice its size; you’re more likely to have a 100-lap green-flag run to the finish here than a race littered by numerous caution flags.
Can Truex and Joe Gibbs Racing keep up their good vibes here? JGR has won six of the last eight Richmond races, often leaving them primed for a deep playoff run. Or will Blaney, Harvick or another driver itching for their own postseason momentum in position to head toward the front?
Federated Auto Parts 400
Date: Sunday, Aug. 14
Time: 3 p.m. ET
Track: Richmond Raceway (Richmond, Va.)
TV: USA Network
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Kevin Harvick
Harvick ended a 65-race winless streak last weekend by cashing in during the closing stages at MIS. Leading 38 laps, he benefitted from a series of late mishaps that brought down fellow contenders Denny Hamlin, Ross Chastain and Christopher Bell in a series of events surrounding the final caution flag.
Outdueling Bubba Wallace on the restart, Harvick went on to earn his sixth career Michigan win, the most for him at any track outside of Phoenix Raceway. At 46 years of age, he became the oldest Cup Series winner since Mark Martin in 2009 as the veteran looks to rise back into title contention. Remember, Harvick’s just two years removed from a career-high, nine-win season that fell apart in the midst of what looked to be a championship rout.
Who’s at the Back: Aric Almirola
To retire or not to retire? As rumors about Almirola’s future swirl at Stewart-Haas Racing, back-to-back crashes sure aren’t helping convince the veteran to keep racing beyond this November. Three finishes outside the top 30 within the past month have left his NASCAR playoff chances on life support.
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Bubba Wallace signed a multi-year extension Saturday to continue as the driver of the No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota. Wallace, who won his first career Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway last fall, is currently 19th in the standings this year with a career-best six top-10 finishes through 23 races. Wallace’s average finish of 18.6 would be the best of his full-time Cup career if it stays that way.
Ty Gibbs will once again sub for Kurt Busch as the 2004 Cup champion continues his recovery from a concussion. Gibbs will drive Busch’s No. 45 Toyota for 23XI Racing, a car he drove to the first top-10 finish of his Cup career (10th) last weekend at Michigan. Busch, meanwhile, has missed four consecutive races since his Pocono crash with just three more weeks to get healthy before the postseason.
NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Noah Gragson will move up to the Cup Series full-time in 2023. Gragson, 24, will take over the No. 42 Petty GMS Motorsports car currently being driven by Ty Dillon. He’s running a limited schedule already in Cup this year, posting a 27.2 average finish while splitting the schedule with AJ Allmendinger and Daniel Hemric in the No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Straight finishes outside the top 10 for Kyle Busch. It’s the longest he’s gone between top-10 results since joining the Cup Series full-time prior to the 2005 season.
Race win for Kyle Larson through 23 races this season. He had 10 wins in 36 races en route to the championship in 2021.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
It’s hard to ignore the success of Joe Gibbs Racing at this facility. Denny Hamlin will start third and won the first Next Gen event held at this track in April. Truex has his back against the wall and hasn’t finished outside the top 5 at this track in four years. Plus, there’s Kyle Busch, a driver who’s run ninth or better in 12th of his last 13 Richmond starts.
Perhaps the sneaky route is to go with Christopher Bell? He’s got three top-10 finishes in four Richmond starts but no wins, making him the cheapest option of the JGR quartet. If not these guys, I’d go with pole-sitter Kyle Larson who is long overdue to break a 21-race winless streak as the reigning NASCAR champion.
Related: Best Richmond Raceway Drivers for DraftKings
It feels like Kevin Harvick is renting this space permanently. But would you want to bet against him now? The most recent NASCAR winner was second at the Richmond race back in April and has seven top-10 finishes in the last eight races held here. It feels like the 2014 Cup Series champion is turning it around at the right time and has one of the best crew chiefs in the business, Rodney Childers, in position to call A+ strategy on top of the pit box.
Alex Bowman needs a break in the worst way after a miserable summer. But a ninth at Michigan may have stopped the bleeding; can Richmond help get him the rest of the way back? Bowman has three top-10 finishes in his last four Richmond starts, including a surprise victory last season, and just one result outside the top 20 there since moving to Hendrick Motorsports full time in 2018.
Cup rookie Harrison Burton qualified a disappointing 30th at Richmond. But that could help your team gain some important position differential points; in April, he drove the No. 21 to a respectable 18th-place finish following an early-season slump. Burton is starting to get it together in Cup during the second half of the year and would be a cheap fill-out option for your roster.
In eight career Richmond starts, Ty Dillon has finished somewhere between 20th and 28th position. It’s a remarkable run of mediocrity but it comes with an unexpected bonus: a combined position differential of +31. That leads to hope he’ll make the most of his 22nd starting spot and climb up inside the top 20 to give your back-end roster the extra boost it needs.
What Vegas Thinks
The vegasinsider.com odds have Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin tied atop the board at +600 to win the Federated Auto Parts 400. Kyle Busch sits at +700 followed by Christopher Bell at +900 as the sports betting world respects the past history of Joe Gibbs Racing at this facility.
Former winner Alex Bowman has found himself left in longshot territory. Don’t ignore +3000 odds for a driver who won at Richmond just last year.
What I Think
Martin Truex Jr. earns his fourth victory in the last seven races held at Richmond Raceway, becoming the 16th different Cup winner this season as the push for the NASCAR playoffs gets even wackier.