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Why Richmond Raceway is no longer NASCAR’s action track

richmond raceway
Credit: Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

RICHMOND, Va. — The Action Track is now the Strategic Execution track.

If not for Daniel Suarez spinning off the nose of Noah Gragson with 10 laps to go, the NASCAR Cup Series race on Sunday would have run to conclusion without a single caution for cause, leaving just two stage breaks to reset the field over the course of 400 laps.

That would have been unfathomable a decade ago but it’s very much the new normal these days at Richmond Raceway. In fact, there have been four races over the past five years to not feature a natural caution and three of them have come at Richmond across 2019 and 2020.

NASCAR was 10 laps short of adding a fourth such race at the Virginia short track.

The first half of the Cook Out 400 was denoted by a handful of teams deviating from the two-stop per stage strategy to a one-stop option — one that would give those teams track position at the expense of needing to hold out on older tires.

‘There wasn’t much drama to be found in the decision, mostly because those with the best chances of winning all chose the optimal two-stop strategy, with the understanding they were capable of making passes on a hot, slick day that approached 90 degrees.

The late caution notwithstanding, the race was ultimately decided on laps 284 and 285. Second-running Chris Buescher undercut, or short pitted ahead of a leading Brad Keselowski by one lap, in the hopes that one lap sooner on fresher tires would allow him to jump ahead of his teammate and boss.

It likely would have worked regardless, but it became a moot point because Keselowski nearly missed his pit box, the resulting slow stop costing him several positions and a full straightaway to Buescher. Not even the late caution and restart allowed anyone to overtake the Roush Fenway Keselowski No. 17 and the race was ultimately won on pit road.

Brad Keselowski’s appreciation for Richmond Raceway

Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

Despite coming out on the losing end, Keselowski says there is a throwback purity to what Richmond has become over the past decade.

“When you don’t know if it’s going to be a ten-lap run or a hundred-lap run, you have to make choices with how you drive the car, the setup, and how you approach the entire weekend as a team,” Keselowski said during a post-race press conference. “That creates all these different variabilities throughout the field that I think makes the racing fun as hell.

“From the driver perspective, when they dropped the green at the start of stage two, I was just digging. I’m in the background going, ‘Oh my God, don’t let this go long green’ because I knew I burnt the rear tires off this car.

“to me, that part is fun. That’s the challenge. It feels like there’s a game of chess going on and you’re trying to play it as smart as you can, trying to have the feedback loop with the team so they don’t over-adjust because you burnt the tires off, all these different things. That’s what Cup racing to me is.”

The Cook Out 400, like numerous Richmond races over the past decade, has become something of a showcase for the racing purist. Unlike the Richmond of over 10 years ago, which featured side-by-side racing that generated a lot of crashes, these races are now won on pit road, atop the pit box and with precision behind the wheel.

Denny Hamlin, who finished second, said there is an element of Formula 1 to the modern Richmond.

“If you’re a purist, you like it,” Hamlin told a scrum of reporters after the race. “If you like side-by-side and closing racing, you’ll have an issue. Sometimes you have races where Max (Verstappen) wins by 30 seconds.”

That sentiment was echoed by two-time Cup Series champion Joey Logano too.

“If you like authentic racing, that was a good race,” Logano told Sportsnaut. “If you look at some of the different strategies, that was interesting for sure.”

Ryan Preece, who was watching races from home last year, also says he enjoys this kind of on-track product.

“As a racer, I want to see my crew chief outsmart the others,” Preece told Sportsnaut. “I want to see them come up with different set-up ideas to make speed. That’s what a racer is. So, days like today, you saw teams make a variety of pit calls and then we had a late race caution that generated excitement for everyone.

“I don’t know what anyone else would have wanted.”

‘Dirty air isn’t that much of a factor here’

There is also an element of spec racing to what’s happened over the past two years because now everyone is running near identical times and experiencing the same degree of falloff under the Next Gen platform.

“You have 36 race cars that are running the same speeds, and everyone is really good,” Logano added. “So, the only way to find a difference is short-stopping, splitting the middle (of the stage) or trying to run long. The stages are what makes the racing interesting right now, so we definitely don’t need to change that.

“Dirty air isn’t that much of a factor here, because it’s not like it’s any different than everywhere else, but it is a factor. Then you’ve got guys like Kyle Larson running up against the wall trying to find clean air so there’s opportunities there too.”

This is all to say that Richmond can be interpreted as an interesting race but not in the same way as the Action Track era of the late 1990s and 2000s.

Hamlin has continued to lobby Goodyear over the summer to bring a gummier and somewhat less durable tire, one that risks creating failures if teams are too aggressive with the potential for creating lap time deviation.

“The cars are running the same damn times, and everyone is falling off at the same pace,” Hamlin said. “I will just keep beating the same old lap time variation drum until we make it better. But as a purist, I loved the racing today because I controlled so much of my own destiny behind the wheel.

“At the same time, the fans don’t really care about that because they just want to see side-by-side racing.”

A potential fix is in the works over the next two days at Richmond as NASCAR and six teams are set to test an experimental new short track package. The package features a new front splitter, one that intends to create lift for a leading car but downforce for those behind it, a reversal of the natural affect of cars running back-to-back.

The concept is that short track racing at the Cup Series level has especially been degraded by the current generation of car due to how much downforce a trailing car loses behind one with clean air. Thus, if the leading car is subject to lift in clean air with cars in traffic gaining more downforce, it could open up passing opportunities at tracks like Richmond, Martinsville, North Wilkesboro and Phoenix.  

Hamlin is tentatively optimistic.

“I’m optimistic and I’ll be optimistic until it proves otherwise, but I still believe the key to this riddle resides with Goodyear,” Hamlin said.

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

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