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Denny Hamlin jumped the restart so what now and other Richmond NASCAR takeaways

He went early.


But here’s the deal, and as veteran racer Josh Wise pointed out in the aftermath of the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway, NASCAR gives the leader a lot of leeway on the final start and Denny Hamlin used up every bit of it.

At the same time, Hamlin is also in a vulnerable position coming to that final green flag. Martin Truex Jr. on the outside front row is absolutely trying to snooker Hamlin. Logano and Larson on the second row are poised to apply their own sense of gamesmanship.

He articulated the point here.

But he went early and NASCAR refused to call it for reasons articulated in the post mortem by senior vice president of competition Elton Sawyer.

“We reviewed that,” Sawyer said during a post-race scrum outside the Cup Series hauler. “We looked at it. Obviously, the 11 was the control vehicle. It was awful close but we deemed it to be a good restart.”

But Hamlin sure did take an awful lot of the reasonably expected tolerance and it’s going to become a problem very soon because it became permission for leaders on a late restart to take more and more liberties with the restart zone until the tower puts an end to it.

And the moment it first gets called, the response is going to be that Hamlin got away with it, and it will be a fair rebuttal.

Wise said, ‘there would be dozens of wins overturned if they had a hard line in this,’ but NASCAR literally has a hard line. It’s painted on the track each week and Hamlin went before the line that literally permits drivers to get on the throttle.

So, what now?

Is NASCAR really going to penalize Hamlin, two days after the fact, for something that they absolved him of on Sunday night? That would be absurd. Instead, NASCAR just needs to come out and effectively penalize itself on Tuesday and say they missed it, messed up, and that the restart line is a hard line moving forward.

The leader ultimately controls the restart, and Hamlin had an entire box in which to time his jump and try to catch his pursuers off guard. He jumped early and NASCAR failed to call it. Case closed.

Everyone needs to do better next time.

NASCAR: Toyota Owners 400
Credit: Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

Moribund Richmond

Richmond Raceway is no longer The Action Track of yore but it has earned a reputation in recent years as the quintessential chess match between crew chiefs.

It’s The Intellectual Track if you will.

Sunday’s spring race, which was contested on Easter because FOX wants a race of some kind to fall on the holiday now, met neither distinction.

The NextGen is doing no favors to the racing product at Richmond, but really, the three-quarters mile wasn’t exactly delivering bangers with the Gen-6 car era either. The pavement is too old, the lack of a track sealer might be a factor and corner speeds are way too down.

“You get to two or three car lengths behind some one and you just stall out,” said Joey Logano afterwards. “This is what it is now.”

That sentiment was echoed by Truex after the race too.

“Tires go off and then it gets really, really hard to pass, and you get in traffic, and it really hurts your tires a lot,” Truex said. “But it’s just kind of what we fought here in the past. Pretty typical Richmond.”

The intervals between drivers were close, but only because passing was near impossible and everyone was running the same speeds on the same strategies in nearly identical cars on Sunday.

The most telling sign of the current state of the track is that the Xfinity Series races, which deliver everywhere, aren’t even the most compelling these days either.

The first 30 laps on Sunday, which began on a wet track and the wet weather tires, was pretty awesome though. Drivers were using the entire width of the racing surface. Josh Berry drove from 30th to 15th. Drivers had to tip toe around sketchy track conditions.

That was fun.

Then came the competition caution, the inevitable decision to put slicks back on, and passing became near impossible on equal tires. Once again, it’s a combination of the car, tires and the track.

This is what made the caution on Lap 170 so disappointing. The one thing Richmond has had going for it, even in the NextGen is era, is that it encourages crew chiefs to decide between splitting the stages in half or pitting twice.

The reason is that cautions are scarce these days and if the race is going to stay green, the extreme fall-off offers two choices — track positions by not spending 30 seconds on pit road or the amount of time gained by having fresher tires throughout the duration of a run.

We’ve seen countless stages and races play out with a driver on fresher tires trying to make up that track position over the course of the final stage. The cars that have tires can pass too.

Hamlin, who won the race anyway, was the lone driver off strategy, but only by nine laps later but it probably wasn’t the winning strategy as he got too bogged down in traffic and the challenges of passing.

And it’s also what made the Lap 169 caution for Kyle Busch lightly hitting the wall and negating the second stage strategy play so frustrating. And it seemed to scare off the field from trying anything over the final, longer, stage too.

Regardless, Richmond can be fun when multiple pit strategies are allowed to play out.

“It’s a chess match out there,” said race winning crew chief Chris Gabehart. “You can make one wrong move that will hurt the next 60 laps. I thought for sure we had it, to be honest with you, as that last run was starting to unfold.

“There was one very particular reason that we didn’t that he and I talked briefly about. Wasn’t anything he did. It was some gamesmanship by some damn smart racers in front of us. The math should have worked out and it didn’t. That’s why Richmond is awesome.”

It’s awesome but only in a way that really asks a lot of the viewers, and there’s definitely a place for that kind of race, but probably not two.

And that’s the conversation after Sunday.

Richmond is once again, as has been the case for years, rumored to lose one of its two dates but where does NASCAR take that race?

“Where else you going to go, right,” Hamlin said. “NASCAR owns it, so there’s going to want to go to another NASCAR track. If they have another NASCAR track, that’s already got a date as well, so…

“I don’t know what else you do. Certainly it’s not fair because I’m biased and have grown up loving this racetrack, so I’m always going to vote for it to have two races, for sure.

“I thought today nobody really ran out too far. I think we’ve seen some Richmond races where some guys get way out there at times when they kind of hit it. We were all just in a wad there for 150 laps or so. A couple car lengths here and there.

“From NASCAR’s point of view, they wanted us all in the picture on the TV. It probably was a great race from that standpoint.”

Except, it really wasn’t and Richmond was neither action nor intellectual on Sunday.

Slippery slope

Joey Gase got so mad at Dawson Cram that he tossed an entire rear bumper at him under caution.

That was shades of the old Richmond if nothing else.

NASCAR is in such a predicament here because it’s going to have to issue a pretty stern penalty for walking down a hot track towards oncoming traffic or its permission for everyone to do it every time they get mad.

It’s been a decade since the fatal Tony Stewart/Kevin Ward incident at a New York dirt track event that NASCAR responded with a sentiment that it would really come out against walking down a hot track.

At the same time, some of NASCAR’s most utilized social media clips all involve drivers throwing objects at cars under caution and this clip will make the rounds for years to come too.

It’s also emblematic of an identity crisis that NASCAR has struggled with over the past decade, wanting at times to shy away from its roughneck image but then swinging right back towards wanting to be the least polished mainstream motorsports product in the world.

It’s a sanctioning body that can’t decide between have at it boys and something far more buttoned up.

Regardless, NASCAR is inherently a lot of fun when there are rivalries and drivers who have a degree of beef with each other, even if it’s in the midpack of the second tier division, and it’s a throwback to both a Busch Series and Richmond that was all about this kind of drama.

More Bubba

Syndication: Pensacola
Bill Vilona / bvilona@pnj.com via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Bubba Pollard was such a fresh breath of air in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and the Super Late Model legend made the absolute most of his debut on Saturday at Richmond.

He finished sixth, overcoming a disaster of a qualifying effort, with some help atop the pit box on strategy but looked like someone who belonged.

That was the key takeaway.

There were several moments during the race where Pollard was in a battle with both AJ Allmendinger and Shane Van Gisbergen, two world class drivers with renown resumes, and he looked like he belonged there with them.

It might be too late, at 37 years old, for Pollard to make a full-time go at NASCAR but if this was any sort of meritocracy, he would get a few more shots to implement all the lessons he learned on Saturday. He’s already eyeing Iowa Speedway in July, too.

Pollard only got this opportunity because he has the respect of Rheem president JR Jones and similar funding would need to be found for additional starts but NASCAR is better for Pollard having at least gotten one shot to show his talents on this stage.

He is one of the most decorated stock car drivers to have never competed at the highest levels until now and he absolutely showed that his short track skill set translated to the big leagues.

Pollard will do the Dale Jr Download this week, which will certainly lend him even more visibility to the masses, and wouldn’t it be cool if some other JR Jones types could find their way to Pollard’s corner for this season and beyond?   

Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.

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