The third short track on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup schedule, Richmond International Raceway, played host to Sunday’s race, the Toyota Owners 400. Entering the weekend, the spotlight shone on Dale Earnhardt Jr. after announcing his retirement on Tuesday. However, it was Joey Logano who stood in Victory Lane at the end of the day, overcoming a back-of-the-field start to win in his 300th career Cup Series start.
After qualifying 5th, Logano started at the rear of the field for a transmission change. Matt Kenseth won the pole, his first since the fall Kansas race in 2016, and started on the front row alongside Ryan Blaney. Erik Jones was the race’s first victim of the caution flag when he cut a left front tire and went into the turn three wall on lap 6. Prior to the caution, he made contact with Kasey Kahne. The green came out on lap 13 with Kenseth leading, lasting 53 laps until lap 66, when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was clipped by Denny Hamlin and hit the wall in turn four. Although he was able to continue, the contact forced a caution to come out.
The green flag waved on lap 73 as Kenseth continued to lead. By the time the stage ended on lap 100, Kenseth had led every lap, the second consecutive week with a driver leading every lap in a stage after Kyle Larson did the same in Stage #1 of Bristol’s Food City 500. It was Joe Gibbs Racing’s first stage win since Kyle Busch won Stage #1 of the Daytona 500 in February. Behind Kenseth were Larson, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, Clint Bowyer and Logano.
Stage #2 began on lap 111 with Kenseth and Larson restarting in the first row. The Wisconsin native’s domination extended into the second stage until lap 163, when Keselowski passed him on the inside for the first lead change of the day. Keselowski went on to win the stage with Kenseth behind him. Harvick, Hamlin, Larson, Newman, McMurray, Bowyer, Ty Dillon and Logano rounded out the top-10 and received playoff points.
When the leaders pitted, Hamlin elected to not change tires, enabling him to take the lead for the restart alongside Harvick. The final stage started on lap 212 with Hamlin as the leader. Harvick took the lead on lap 229, but Keselowski reclaimed it nine laps later. On lap 250, a caution for debris took place, lasting six laps. Keselowski remained the leader on the restart before relinquishing it on lap 319 as he pitted under green. As the field began green flag pit stops, Newman became the leader. Newman led for 25 laps until the next caution came out on lap 344.
That lap, Jimmie Johnson attempted to pass Earnhardt on the inside as they exited turn two, but Johnson inadvertently squeezed his teammate into the wall to bring out another caution. Five laps later, green flag racing resumed with Keselowski continuing to lead. Earnhardt’s day worsened four laps later when he cut his tire and spun into the turn four wall to bring out the yellow flag. Moments later, Bowyer and Ty Dillon made contact on the apron leading onto pit road, spinning the latter in front of Bowyer.
The next green flag came out with 39 laps to go as Keselowski and Hamlin comprised the top-2; although Hamlin led the first lap since the restart, Keselowski fought back to retake 1st on the following lap. Meanwhile, Kenseth began to fall after making contact with Chase Elliott, cutting his right rear tire. Debris from the tire forced NASCAR to throw another caution with 34 to go.
The Team Penske cars of Keselowski and Logano opted to stay out for the restart, while the Kyles of Busch and Larson led the race off pit road to start 3rd and 4th, respectively. The restart took place with 29 laps remaining, and despite an early battle between Keselowski and Logano, the latter was able to pull away and settle into 1st. The unofficial third car of the Penske stable, Wood Brothers Racing’s Ryan Blaney, collided with Kurt Busch on lap 377, causing him to get loose and hit the wall, producing the seventh and final yellow flag of the day. Kyle Busch, who remained in contention in the recent laps, suddenly dropped out of vying for the win when he suffered a commitment line violation; when he was interviewed after the race, he simply stated, “Balls and strikes.”
Larson stayed out and became the leader for the restart with 19 laps left, but Logano passed him in just three laps. The Connecticuter would go on to win his 18th career Cup race, his first at Richmond since 2014. He became the first driver to win in his 300th start since Hamlin performed the feat in 2014; Ned Jarrett, Rusty Wallace, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch have also accomplished this.
Keselowski finished second to complete the Penske 1–2 finish and adding to the team’s IndyCar Series stable doing the same on Saturday at Phoenix (Josef Newgarden and Will Power), followed by Hamlin, Stenhouse and Harvick. Larson dropped to 14th, while Kenseth – who led a race-high 163 laps – finished a distant 23rd.
“I am proud of the effort of the team,” Logano stated. “We executed under pressure today and brought a car home that was a 5th-to-10th place car home to Victory Lane.” He added had Kyle Busch not been penalized, he probably would not have been in Victory Lane. “I don’t think we would have been able to win the race and hold off Kyle if it had stayed green.”
Next week, the Cup Series travels to the fastest track on the NASCAR schedule for the GEICO 500: Talladega Superspeedway.
Race results (courtesy of Racing-Reference)
Featured image courtesy of @NASCAR