The slogan for Virginia is ”Virginia is for Lovers”
When NASCAR rolls in twice a year, it becomes ”Virginia is for RACING Lovers”.
For some of our playoff drivers, anything but love was felt on Saturday night under the lights.
There were plenty of headlines going into this past weekend’s race. Could Denny Hamlin follow up his win at Darlington with another strong finish? Would Larson make up for last week’s crazy ending? Would the Hendrick cars dig themselves out of a points hole, including 2020 champion Chase Elliott?
But first, we paused to remember.
Saturday marked 20 years since the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. There were American flags, USA chants and the inclusion of fire trucks and police cars in the opening pace laps. After a day of remembrance, it was time to go racing.
By virtue of being the fastest last week at Darlington, Kyle Larson was scheduled to be the pole sitter. As we all know lately, inspection is a hard thing to pass for some teams. The Hendrick teams went through the inspection process three times, and Kyle was forced to start in the rear.
As our race went green, the opening lap featured some controversy. Martin Truex Jr. was black flagged just after the start for jumping the start before crossing the line. Truex would radio into his crew and voice his displeasure. He felt as if outside pole sitter Denny Hamlin spun his tires at the start and that resulted in how that came to be. Unfortunately NASCAR didn’t see it that way and he was forced to come down pit road to serve his penalty. Denny Hamlin would lead the opening laps.
Like any trip to a short track, the race featured brake glow early and often. Shortly after the scheduled competition caution, Kurt Busch would make hard contact with the turn one wall. Also involved in that wreck was Bubba Wallace, who would hit the rolling tire carcass as he tried to avoid Busch’s car sliding down the track. Wallace would continue on with no damage. With Busch’s early exit, it meant that there had been three issues for playoff drivers within the opening 50 laps. It seemed as if the race was lining up to be a repeat of last weekend.
Fortunately the rest of the race was relatively caution free.
By lap 60, Kyle Larson had made his way into the top-10. Crew chief Cliff Daniels felt like the car was horrible the first time they came to Richmond in April, but tonight felt different. Denny Hamlin, a Virginia native, would win stage one. Larson would end up in fourth.
As we got going for stage two, Ross Chastain made a run for the top three positions. It’s the second race in a row that Chastain has shown his talents up front and put the team in contention for a win in Chip Ganassi Racing’s final season. Michael McDowell would have a curious night on pit road. He was penalized for being too fast exiting his first stop in the second stage, and would be penalized for too fast entering when he came to serve the penalty. After this week and last week’s wreck, that all but closes the book on McDowell’s playoff chances unless he can pull off a surprise victory at Bristol.
As the second round of pit stops in stage two commenced, Denny Hamlin was the first to pit road. Chase Elliott, who lead in the early stages of the race would have trouble getting into the pit box and have a long stop. Elliott made contact with Ross Chastain and it forced him too deep and crumpled the left rear fender. To further complicate things, Elliott believed he was too far in the stall so he attempted to back up, even though he was legally in the stall. As that happened the jack broke. It would force him to go a lap down, but he would later salvage the evening. The stage would go caution free and Hamlin would take the first two stages of the race.
Stage three had one lone caution, as Bubba Wallace overcooked just brakes going into turn one. What had been a solid night for the 23XI racing team, quickly turned sour and resulted in a 32nd place finish, 11 laps down. Kyle Busch would lead with about 90 to go, but Martin Truex Jr. and his crew were mistake free during that last run and pit stops. Denny Hamlin chased down Truex, but would run out of time as Truex secured his place in the Round of 12. JGR teammate Christopher Bell finished in third to complete a team sweep of the top three positions. Chase Elliott rebounded from the pit road mistake to finish in fourth and Joey Logano brought his Penske powered Ford home in fifth.
This was Truex’s fourth win of the season and the first since Darlington in the spring. It’s the second consecutive win for Joe Gibbs Racing, as they begin to get hot at the right time. This Saturday night’s race is at Bristol and is the cut off race for the round of 16. Some drivers have already approached it as a race with nothing to lose, but for Martin Truex Jr. and his 19 team, they already know their spot is secured.
Featured photo from @NASCAR on Twitter.