Denny Hamlin scored his first victory of the season Sunday night in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoff opener at the venerable Darlington (S.C.) Raceway – he and runner-up Kyle Larson combining to lead an impressive 302 of the race’s 367 laps (82 percent) in a duel reminiscent of their Regular Season Championship battle as well.
And as dominant as the pair was last weekend, they will arrive at Richmond (Va.) Raceway for Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 Salute to First Responders (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) absolutely considered the duo to beat – again. Hamlin, who grew up in Virginia, has three previous wins at the Richmond three-quarter mile track and Larson, who edged Hamlin for the 2021 Regular Season Championship, is a Playoff race winner (2017) there as well. He comes to Richmond with top-three finishes in 11 of the last 16 races this season.
Interestingly, several recent success stories at Richmond have centered around drivers who got off to a rough 2021 Playoff start last Sunday in Darlington. This Spring’s Richmond race winner, Alex Bowman, for example, finished 26th and dealt with car issues almost from the drop of the green flag.
“Going back to Richmond is something to look forward to,” said Bowman, whose team is bringing the same No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet he drove to victory earlier this season.
“After last week, we need to rebound and capitalize on a good night on Saturday,” Bowman continued. “There’s not a lot of comfort going forward the next two weeks, but we are going to two places we know we can be strong at and have good runs.”
Kyle Busch, the active winningest driver at Richmond with six victories, also got off to a frustrating Playoff start, finishing 35th at Darlington.
Six of the 16 Playoff-eligible drivers finished outside the top-20 at Darlington, including three of the four Hendrick Motorsports drivers – Bowman, reigning series champion Chase Elliott (31st) and William Byron (34th).
Christopher Bell (20th), and Ryan Blaney (22nd), who had a two-race winning streak going into the Playoffs had disappointing nights, as did Michael McDowell, the Daytona 500 winner, who finished last (37th) at Darlington due to a multi-car incident.
Races this week at Richmond and next week at the traditionally dramatic Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway half-miler will determine which 12 of the 16 drivers will remain championship eligible and advance to the next round of the Playoffs. And already, the standings have been shaken and the stakes raised for the second race of the Playoffs at Richmond.
Tyler Reddick, who finished 18th at Darlington, Bowman, Kyle Busch, Byron and McDowell are now ranked 12th-16th and in those vulnerable points positions, if not must-win situations now.
A total of 10 drivers – including nine of the 16 Playoff eligible – have won at Richmond previously with Busch’s six wins tops among them. Kevin Harvick, who finished fifth on Sunday, and Hamlin each have three victories. Kurt Busch and Team Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, who finished sixth, seventh and eighth at Darlington respectively, each have a pair of Richmond wins.
Martin Truex, who finished fourth Sunday, also has two wins, impressively sweeping the 2019 Richmond stops.
Last year’s Playoff race winner was Keselowski, who led a dominant 192 of the 400 laps. The top 10 in the race were all Playoff drivers.
Kyle Busch, in particular will be looking to reclaim some of that Richmond glory. And he has plenty of reason to be optimistic. His 24 top-10 and 18 top-five finishes in 31 starts are most among current drivers. He’s led at least 200 laps in four different races and earned top-10 finishes in 11 of the last 12 Richmond races, including a pair of wins and three runner-up finishes in that time. In 2018, he swept both race trophies.
The driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota shows up in Richmond, however, with three finishes of 30th or worse in the last six races, however, including Saturday night’s frustrating showing in Darlington.
Hamlin’s 1,911 laps out front at Richmond is most among current drivers and like Busch turned in dominant performances. Five times he’s led at least 200 laps. In 2008 he led 381 of the 400 laps but finished a heart-breaking 24th. In 2009, Hamlin led 299 laps and won the Fall event. This Spring, he led a race high 207 laps, but finished runner-up to Bowman by a scant .381-second.
As with Hamlin, who finally earned his first trip to Victory Lane last weekend in Darlington, despite leading the championship for most of the season, Harvick arrives in Richmond ready to right his win column. The driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford won a series-best nine races in 2020, but did not advance to the Championship 4 Round. The first round of the Playoffs, however, was his best. He scored wins at Darlington and Bristol and finished seventh at Richmond.
Harvick has three wins Cup wins – and a record seven NASCAR Xfinity Series victories – at Richmond, but his last came in 2013. In the 15 races since, he has eight top fives, including runner-up finishes in 2015 and 2019. He was running among the top-five in the series’ first Richmond stop in April, but had a tire go down forcing a green flag pit stop. He remains optimistic, however, that Saturday presents a real opportunity to score in the win column for the first time this season.
“It’s definitely a unique short track,” Harvick said. “It’s got enough speed to where you have to be good under braking and have a good-handling car in order to make it through the long runs that you know you’re going to get throughout the night.
“Hopefully, we can have a good night. Based upon the first race, we should run well.
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!