Race weekend at Richmond International Raceway was a climactic affair from start to finish, featuring regular-season champions, rogue ambulances, a crucial final cycle of pit stops and a legend’s final Cup race at the track.
A rising star emerged as the winner in a wild final two laps and the playoff field was set right here in Richmond for the ten-race playoff schedule. Kyle Larson won the race, Martin Truex Jr. became the regular season champion, and 16 drivers will now vie for a championship over the next 10 races. This is Richmond’s last year as the cutoff race prior to the opening Chase event at Chicagoland Speedway, as the date was moved inside of the playoffs for next season.
Friday proved to be one of the busiest days at any track during the season, as qualifying, practices, the Virginia529 College Savings 250 all took place over the course of around 12 hours.
Monster Energy Cup Series regulars Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch battled most of the night over the top spot, with Keselowski’s #22 Fitzgerald Glider Kits Ford Mustang proving to outlast Kyle Busch’s #18 NOS Energy Drink Toyota Camry on the long green-flag runs.
Keselowski emerged as the winner of the race, but his victory was another footnote in the lengthy complaint log of the Cup drivers’ allowances. Despite changes from NASCAR, fans continue to take issue with the fact that Cup drivers are allowed to compete in the lower series.
Adverse to some fans’ opinions, certain full-time wheelmen in the Xfinity and Truck series defend the Cup drivers’ participation, stressing that racing against upper-level athletes aids their careers, and that competing against the best helps them become better drivers.
NASCAR has taken steps to remedy this issue, limiting drivers to a certain number of races per season based on their Cup Series experience.
Elliott Sadler — an Emporia, Virginia native — clinched the regular-season championship with a fifth-place effort, having been one of the strongest teams all season.
Sadler attended James Madison University on a basketball scholarship, but injured his knee prior to the season’s opener. Focusing on racing, he has now made over 800 starts combined in NASCAR’s top three divisions, finding much of his success in the Xfinity Series.
Sadler said the championship was gratifying for his team and his career, and heavily emphasized his hopes to win a title.
“(Bonus points) allow us to make it through multiple rounds and get to Homestead,” Sadler said. “It also allows us to go to Chicagoland, be aggressive, take some chances, and use it as a preseason game, to use the NFL analogy, to kind of warm us up for Kentucky.”
Sadler and his older brother Hermie have both raced in NASCAR’s top divisions for many years, and Hermie Sadler has been a part of numerous broadcast teams for many races.
Saturday night’s Monster Energy Cup Series race, the Federated Auto Parts 400, took place over the course of three hours. Joey Logano entered the race with a win in the spring race at Richmond, but, due to unapproved modifications, the #22 team’s win was encumbered — Logano could not use the win to secure a spot in the playoff field.
Logano, rookie drivers Erik Jones and Daniel Suárez, as well as veterans Clint Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt Jr., were all in must-win situations going into Richmond, however, none of the five drivers made it into the playoffs, as Kyle Larson emerged the winner of the race.
Earnhardt — who has announced his emminent retirement — seemed especially positive during his interview, finishing 13 and running inside the top-10 most of the night.
As seems to be the norm for Richmond because of its position as the final race before the playoffs, several incidents took place over the course of the night that were cause for discontent.
The most prevalent storyline that caused a firestorm of discussion among fans and journalists alike took place on lap 257.
After Austin Dillon and Danica Patrick made contact in Turn 2, sending Patrick’s #10 car spinning, the field prepared to come to pit road for a normal pit stop cycle. All of a sudden, Matt Kenseth, then in the top five, pitted, and his crew was seen opening the hood of the car and wheeling it behind the wall.
One of NASCAR’s ambulances had stopped too close to the entrance of pit road, failing to heed NASCAR Race Control’s direction, and had caused a chain-reaction incident among the cars pitting. Kenseth, in the playoffs on points, and Bowyer, in a must-win situation, both had damage to the fronts of their cars.
Bowyer had significant damage that all but ended his contention for the playoffs, while Kenseth’s night was over after his radiator was terminally damaged.
Later in the race, with less than five laps remaining, a caution was thrown for the #15 Premium Motorsports Chevrolet of Derrike Cope, who had made contact with the wall. This set up NASCAR overtime, which arranges a restart with two laps to go. If the leader reaches the start/finish line for the final lap, then the next flag, whether a caution for a crash or the checkered flag for the finish, will end the race.
Larson ran away for the win, emerging with the victory as Denny Hamlin accidentally made contact with the rear bumper of Truex, sending the #78 into the Turn 1 wall. After the conclusion of the event, Truex, while officially being crowned the regular season champion, was clearly perturbed at NASCAR’s choice to throw a caution at that time. Not only did it cost him the win, but he ended the night with a wrecked racecar and disappointment heading into next week’s race.
Many fans objected when NASCAR made some major changes to its schedule to go into effect next year. The sanctioning body moved Richmond from its role as the cutoff race to make the playoffs to the second race of the Chase, Indianapolis to Richmond’s previous fall spot, and Chicagoland to the middle of the summer.
Many fans in attendance stated that they felt Indianapolis would not prove to be a worthwhile cutoff race — Richmond Raceway’s last appearance as the “Race to Make the Chase” was bittersweet for most involved.