NASCAR Barometer: Hamlin Wins in Richmond

NASCAR Barometer: Hamlin Wins in Richmond

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Richmond Raceway hosted the first short-track race of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season Sunday, the first of three consecutive stops at short tracks. The prior day's Xfinity Series race went caution-free, barring the scheduled stage breaks, which turned out to be a strong indicator of what Sunday's Cup competition would produce. The after was largely a quiet one with only one caution period in the first half of the race aside from the stage breaks. The relative lack of cautions in the final stage also set up the battle between tire strategies to determine the outcome. On one side of the coin was the track position bet placed by William Byron and Hendrick Motorsports, while on the other was the fresh tire approach by Denny Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing. Byron did his best to work through traffic and maintain his spot at the front in the final miles only to be caught and swallowed by Hamlin with just five laps remaining. The victory was Hamlin's first of the season and ended the slowest start to a season in his career. He is also the seventh different winner in as many races in what has become a very unpredictable NASCAR season.

UPGRADE

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin missed stage points in both segments of Sunday's Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway, but he powered to the lead with fresh tires with five laps to go and won for the first time in 2022. The strong finish led many to wonder

Richmond Raceway hosted the first short-track race of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season Sunday, the first of three consecutive stops at short tracks. The prior day's Xfinity Series race went caution-free, barring the scheduled stage breaks, which turned out to be a strong indicator of what Sunday's Cup competition would produce. The after was largely a quiet one with only one caution period in the first half of the race aside from the stage breaks. The relative lack of cautions in the final stage also set up the battle between tire strategies to determine the outcome. On one side of the coin was the track position bet placed by William Byron and Hendrick Motorsports, while on the other was the fresh tire approach by Denny Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing. Byron did his best to work through traffic and maintain his spot at the front in the final miles only to be caught and swallowed by Hamlin with just five laps remaining. The victory was Hamlin's first of the season and ended the slowest start to a season in his career. He is also the seventh different winner in as many races in what has become a very unpredictable NASCAR season.

UPGRADE

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin missed stage points in both segments of Sunday's Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway, but he powered to the lead with fresh tires with five laps to go and won for the first time in 2022. The strong finish led many to wonder where he came from. Fresh tires were the story of the day, and Hamlin pitted much later than leader William Byron, which gave the No. 11 the grip he needed to charge to the front and make a relatively easy pass for the win. The last five laps were the only Hamlin spent out front the entire race, and the victory vaulted him from 22nd in the standings to a playoff position. It was Hamlin's first top-10 of the year and puts him position to be one of the favorites at Martinsville this week. 

Ryan Blaney – Blaney said Richmond was one of his worst tracks ahead of last week's race, but Sunday's effort might change his mind. First, he qualified on pole and then led all 70 laps in the first stage to win his third stage of the season so far. Then he went on to finish the race in seventh position, slipping a bit backward from the front without the grip of the late charging contenders. All in all, it was a confidence building day for the team that now has four top-10 finishes this season, including Sunday's at a track at which the time not have expected one. Team Penske has shown early speed in races this season but needs to make some adjustments to stay in that position through an entire race distance. Wins will come when that happens. Blaney finished 11th in both Martinsville races last season but does have six top-10s from 12 tries.

Martin Truex Jr. – Truex use a two-stop strategy in the second stage to track down and pass teammate Christopher Bell, who only stopped once, to score his fifth stage win at the track. The strategy gave him the freshest tires in the closing laps of that segment, but the team used almost the exact opposite strategy in the final stage. It almost worked out for them, but Truex complained about lack of grip relatively early in his final run. He still had newer tires than leader Byron and closed the gap, but ultimately wasn't able to make a pass and was himself overtaken by Hamlin in the final miles. The team settled for a fourth-place finish, its best so far of 2022. Looking ahead, Truex has three Martinsville wins to his credit, including last season's spring race. He has also led more than 700 laps in the last five races there.

Kevin Harvick – After exiting the car, Harvick said that Sunday's race was the first clean one for him and the team of the season. He, like Truex, had newer tires than the rest of the field, allowing the pair to carve their way forward for the finish. In the end, Harvick just didn't have the speed of Hamlin and wasn't close enough to make a lunge for the win. It was still his best finish of the year, though. In fact, it was Harvick's first top-five finish of the year and might indicate that he has a greater chance of scoring wins this season than he has in the past few, as the team struggled with the old car. The team has shown signs of progress with this season's new car, and fantasy players might want to start thinking of Harvick as a winning option again.

William Byron – Byron may have missed out on the win Sunday, but his team put him in the best possible position to go for it. The No. 24 bet that track position would help overcome new tires for the victory, and Byron came within just a handful of laps of pulling it off. Even while having the oldest tires among the leaders, Byron still managed to finish third, his third top-five in the last five races. Byron has been working on his race craft by getting behind the wheel in various series this season and that work is showing positive results in the Cup Series. He already has a win this year and has been in the mix for more as well. With Byron having four top-10s from eight career Martinsville starts, it would  be wise for fantasy players to keep him in mind for selection this coming week, too.

DOWNGRADE

Kurt Busch – Busch's afternoon at Richmond went south very quickly. Not more than a few laps into the race the car developed a fuel pressure issue that left him stranded on the back straight, bringing out the only caution flag of the stage. The crew took the car to the garage to diagnose and repair the issue, but the trouble effectively turned his afternoon into an extended test session, as he returned to the track nearly 100 laps behind the winner. The team will work to solve the issues that ruined Sunday's race and focus on running in the top 10 this coming week at the next short track stop. Busch has two Martinsville victories from 43 starts and finished seventh in the fall race there last season, and the team should feel confident of a top finish if it doesn't have more trouble.

Kyle Busch – Busch was putting together another competitive race Sunday until the pit crew made a mistake by putting tape on the grill. In years past that wouldn't have been a problem, but with the new car, the move earned him a black flag penalty to come to pit road and have it removed. The team claimed they were trying to put the tape over one of the brake ducts, but the crewman applying it missed by a good number of inches. The mistake dropped Busch from the lead lap and ended his chances of winning. A sign of what might have been was his charge back to ninth for the finish, however. As his frustration with mistakes builds, he will have to focus it to perform well at Martinsville where he last won in 2017. He finished 10th and second in the two races there last season.

Joey Logano – Logano said that he expected to contend for the win in Richmond. Those hopes fizzled in the final stage, though. The Team Penske driver started the race strong, albeit without the same pace as teammate Blaney. Logano ended the first stage eighth and the second in fourth. The team was laying the groundwork to be in contention at the end, but as the final stage wore on, Logano slipped from contention. As fresher tires became a larger factor in the finish, the No. 22 just didn't have the grip needed to stay up front and finished a lap down in 17th position. That was Logano's second finish worse than 15th in as many races. Martinsville should be a good opportunity for him to right the ship, however. He will enter this week's race with five consecutive top-10 finishes at the track and needs another to turn his mini slump around.

Erik Jones – Short tracks are some of the few circuits on which Petty GMS Motorsports should be capable of moving a little higher in the finishing order than would otherwise be expected. That looked like it would be the case for Jones last week at Richmond after he qualified fifth for the race. Jones, however, wasn't in the mix for stage points for either segment and then was involved in a crash just past the halfway point of the race. The handling trouble and damage left the team with a 23rd-place finish on a week it should have been gaining ground on its competition. A regroup is necessary, and the team will have to get back on its game for this week's trip to Martinsville. Jones finished eighth there last fall, which was his first top-10 at the track. A top-15 would help him get back in gear after Richmond.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Bubba Wallace – In a race with so few cautions, any lack of pace was going to be amplified. That was precisely the case for Wallace. The 23XI Racing driver was not up to speed all weekend, qualifying 29th and only managing a finish of 26th. The lack of pace was a surprise considering Wallace has shown the ability to run inside the top 10 and top 15 on many occasions this year. Coupled with teammate Kurt Busch's mechanical issues, it was a week to forget for the organization. Wallace has just one top-15 finish in the last five races and needs to find some consistency to begin making a case for a spot in the playoffs. A smooth top-20 finish this week at Martinsville should be where this team is aiming right now.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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