ATW: Hot temps and a turbulent field in Richmond

Nigel Kinrade/NKP

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

After a fiery weekend at Richmond International Raceway, the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season has reach the quarter mark with nine of 36 races contested.

Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400 was the third and final short track race of the spring. With it came a host of surprises and storylines, though they were plagued by the sport’s largest nagging problems.

There are many trends and tales to digest leaving the .75-mile oval. Here are a few worth following.

A Passing Fancy

Say what you will about Sunday’s race, but there was plenty of passing.

In fact, a review of loop data showed that there were more green-flag overtakes than have been seen in any spring race in Richmond’s history.

Some may point to stage racing or the newest iteration of the low downforce package as the cause of the high passing numbers. Others may blame the unusually hot temperatures and recent move to a day race for the spring Richmond showdown.

In actuality, the cause of the increased competition likely lies in a combination of all of the variables listed above. Regardless, though, the race was highly competitive from start to finish, a good sign for those that love to see the sport at its best.

It’s a shame, then, that some estimate that only 30,000 fans were in attendance for Sunday’s race, a low that’s already seen RIR track president Dennis Bickmeier tell the Richmond Times Dispatch “everything’s on the table” when asked if the event could be moved back to a night race.

Third-place finisher and Virginia native Denny Hamlin commented on the event’s poor attendance after the race, saying: “It’s 90 degrees and coverage on TV’s pretty excellent, so it’s tough to sit in the bleachers when it’s 90, but who knows? I think that there’s more to it than just people not watching NASCAR. I think sports in general are way, way down. Attendance is down in a lot of other sports as well. It’s just viewing sports is different now than what it’s ever been.

“People with smartphones – they’re watching races and they’re watching games in the back of their car going up the highway. You don’t have to attend these races anymore. You get such a good experience through your cellphone, so the way we measure attendance and we measure TV ratings and all that – it’s always skewed because we live in a different world now.”

However, while hot temps may be blamed for poor attendance at the track, the fans in the stands may not have tuned in on TV, either. SportsBusiness Journal‘s Adam Stern reported on Twitter that Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400 saw a 7% decrease in ratings on FOX Sports 1.

There’s nothing to panic about on the TV front, but the notable lack of attendance at the track left fans and critics alike wondering how the facility should respond. Motorsport’s Lee Spencer even proposed a move to a mid-day race, something many in the industry have suggested in some respect or another in recent years.

Whatever the correct answer to bringing back fans may be remains to be seen, but if on-track product weighs into the solution at all, then RIR should be as well-positioned as any track to find an answer.

Blaney, Jones Tumble in the Standings

Ryan Blaney and Erik Jones – two of NASCAR’s brightest young stars – each made waves early in the season to establish themselves as contenders.

However, while fellow young stars Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott continue to excel, both Jones and Blaney are beginning  to fade into the pack.

Blaney was one of the sport’s top stories just a few weeks back at Texas Motor Speedway, claiming his first two stage victories and positioning himself firmly in the playoff grid in sixth. Just two races later, however, the North Carolinian has dropped to 12th and within reach for the many stars that struggled to begin the year.

After holding more than a full race’s worth of points over the playoff bubble less than a month ago, Blaney’s advantage has shrunk to just 36 points after back-to-back finishes outside of the top 30.

The Wood Brothers Racing star will likely be glad to see the recent trend of short-track races come to an end. Each of his three lowest finishes (25th, 33rd and 36th) have come at the MENCS tour’s three smallest facilities.

On a similar note, rookie Jones’ mid-spring misfortune has seen the Byron, Michigan native drop outside of the postseason field.

Erik Jones completed just four laps in his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Richmond International Raceway. 
(Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

The Furniture Row Racing star completed just four laps before his day came undone on Sunday, blowing a tire after contact with Kasey Kahne en-route to a 38th-place finish. The result – Jones’ second DNF of the season following a crash at Daytona – was enough to drop the 20-year-old to 16th in the standings, one spot shy of playoff grid.

Jones has proven surprisingly consistent in his rookie season to date, finishing no worse than 22nd in the seven races outside of his two DNFs, but those two early exits have loomed large over his season, keeping the Michigander just shy of where he wants to be.

Regardless, Jones has much to be proud of in a rookie season to date that’s seen little attention only because fellow young stars Larson, Elliott and Blaney continue to excel. The young shoe has the best opportunity of any of the rookies to make the playoffs in his rookie season, a significant feat given that veterans such as Matt Kenseth, Kahne and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. all sit behind him in the standings.

The future is bright for both Blaney and Jones, but it’s going to take some work to make sure their results match their potential.

Big Runs for Blue Ovals

Richmond proved significant for Ford’s Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Aric Almirola, whom both soared to much-needed top 10s ahead of the upcoming wild card weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.

Stenhouse overcame an early trip into the outside wall to claim a fourth-place finish, his second top five in what’s proving to be a coming-of-age season for himself and Roush Fenway Racing teammate Trevor Bayne.

Paired with the misfortune of Jones, Stenhouse’s result saw the Mississippian rise into the provisional playoff grid for the first time this season.

“We had to fight hard for this top five,” Stenhouse Jr said after the race. “I made a mistake early. I thought we had a car capable of running in the top five for a majority of the race. I just got loose into turn three and got into the fence. I had to play catch-up for there.”

Almirola didn’t make any position jumps in the standings, but the Richard Petty Motorsports (RPM) driver’s ninth-place result did prove enough to elevate him back into the playoff discussion after two months of mediocrity following a top five in Daytona.

“We had a good day,” Almirola said. “We needed that. We typically run well here. This is one of our better tracks.”

As I wrote in this column last week, Almirola’s No. 43 team has had much to be proud of through the first two months of the season. Following a dire 2016 – one that proved difficult for even the most dedicated of team owner Richard Petty’s legion of fans – the organization has returned to form this season with their slimmed down one-car team.

However, while 2017 has already been an improvement by most standards, RPM needed just a bit better performance to be true playoff contenders.

On a hot Sunday in Virginia, the team managed just that. Almirola drove a smart, consistent race to his second top 10 of the season, and in doing so elevated himself to within 12 points of the current playoff grid.

The Floridian has completed all but seven laps of the season’s races so far, and has managed what would be a career best average finish (16.4) to keep RPM in contention for a playoff spot. If the team can deliver more results like Sunday’s, the postseason berth that was improbable just one season ago may be within reach.

All is Not Well at Richard Childress Racing

They may have celebrated their first win in nearly four years just six events ago at Phoenix Raceway, but Richard Childress Racing as an organization have since found themselves heading in the wrong direction.

Austin Dillon’s difficult 2017 continued with a subpar run at Richmond. 
(Photo:: Russell LaBounty/NKP)

It’s amazing what a victory can do for a group. The stress of earning a playoff berth disappears. Drama suddenly seems less important, and the teams that win are often looked upon with greater favor than their counterparts, for better or worse.

Such has been the case with RCR this season, as Ryan Newman’s early victory has led the way for the group despite an overall lack of consistent speed in the races surrounding the strategic win.

Sure, Newman’s okay – or at least as good as he’s been in any of the past few seasons. The Hoosier finds himself 13th in the points, safely in the postseason with a victory and a handful of top 15s. He’s had his struggles, three finishes outside of the top 30 among them, but is sitting pretty until the postseason arrives.

Outside of Newman, however, RCR’s season has proven dire.

After making his first postseason appearance in 2015, MENCS veteran Paul Menard has struggled out of the gate for the second-straight season. The Eau Claire, Wisconsin native opened the year with a fifth-place run in the Daytona 500, but has since finished no better than 16th in the last eight races.

Menard’s 21.6 average finish to open the year is nearly identical to the 22.0 average that saw him finish outside of the top 20 in the standings for the first time in four years last season. The 36-year-old currently sits 25th in points, trailing each of his RCR teammates, three rookies and even Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who has finished 30th or worse in five of the first nine races.

Coming off a year that saw him make the Round of 12 in the points, Austin Dillon hasn’t fared much better than Menard. The fourth-year driver sits just 21st in the standings after the season’s first quarter, hampered by three finishes of 25th or worse.

Dillon managed a fifth-place run at Martinsville Speedway, but otherwise has been unable to crack the top 10. The Lewisville, North Carolina native’s 19.6 average finish to date is better only than his difficult sophomore campaign in 2015, which yielded a 21st-place result in the standings.

The lack of results are beginning to show, and may even be seeping into the organization’s psyche. The No. 3 team elected to have Operations Director Sammy Johns serve as Dillon’s crew chief at Richmond, replacing veteran signal caller Slugger Labbe, though the company claimed the decision was made so Labbe could remain at the RCR shop “to work on cars for next weekend’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.”

Newman’s in the playoffs. But Dillon and Menard will need either a twist of fate or a checkered flag of their own if they intend to join him.

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