Track Talk: Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond

In the spirit of the late Prince Rogers Nelson, if the elevators (or in this case, the higher line at Richmond International Raceway) tries to break you down, go crazy and race the lower line.  This 0.75-mile short track that behaves like an intermediate speedway is perhaps as unique as it gets.  Sure, a baseline setup from New Hampshire Motor Speedway or Martinsville Speedway may come to mind but not even those tracks compare to the speeds and unique strain it presents on equipment like at RIR.

Come Sunday afternoon’s Toyota Owners 400, war will be all around the 40 NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers and teams and their minds will them to prepare to fight.  Nobody will party like it’s 1999 after at least 400 laps of racing at The Action Track but perhaps it’ll feel more like 1997, the most recent occurrence of a springtime race held during the afternoon unlike 2002, ’07 and ’15.

This place is fast, intense, and most of all, it’s likely to be as exciting as any Cup race has been in recent times for this NASCAR stalwart venue.  Immediately, the first drivers that come to mind as the favorites are Kyle and Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano, and Kevin Harvick.  However, don’t count out the likes of AJ Allmendinger, Matt Kenseth, Chase Elliott, Dale Earnhardt Jr, and Ryan Blaney as they could all be major players for the race win when it gets down to the intense final 100 laps.

Sure, some may miss that this race was on a Saturday night for the past 18 years.  No worries.  Now it’s back to Sunday and not a Manic Monday (see what I did there).  Before kicking things off, we’d like to take this moment to acknowledge and send our support and prayers to the Karen and Bryson Byrnes.  This week marked the one year death anniversary of a beloved racing figure and friend, Steve Byrnes of FOX NASCAR.  We’d like his family to know that we’re thinking of them and that we love them all very much.

In the spirit that Steve would want us to have with NASCAR racing, let’s remember him with the sport he enjoyed covering.  Friends, let’s get this preview started with Trending Topics on Track Talk featuring our TPF team of Ashley Hobbs, Ashley Hull,Cody Shoppe, Kathleen Cassidy, Katie Copple, Sean Fesko, and Stephen Conley!

Trending Topics
Question 1
Bring your butts to Bristol, race fans!

Bring your butts to Bristol, race fans!

Despite the competitive racing that was prevalent at Bristol Motor Speedway, it was a bit troubling to see a portion of the grandstands lacking race fans.  In a year where TV ratings have fallen and attendance is dwindling, is this a sign that stock car racing has declined with its popularity with sports fans or a temporary lull in the action?

Fesko :  Stock car racing has declined in its popularity, and while some of that can be attributed to long-time fans tuning out, I think the majority of it revolves around NASCAR failing to truly capture the imagination of those who became casual fans in the mid-2000s. Back then NASCAR was all the rage and thousands flocked to the sport.

As time passed, many of these fans got bored watching cars go in circles, so they left. To them, it was a nice way to pass the years. But as technology got better and people’s attention spans got shorter, they lost interest. It’s sad, certainly, but it doesn’t spell the end of the sport. We’re seeing a consolidation now but one day we’ll see the explosion of popularity again.

Hobbs :  Seeing seats across the board less filled is something that has been happening for a while now. This year, I feel there has been quite a changing of the guard in the sport with drivers like Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart not being on track that make some fans not want to return. It has been about two years myself since I have been to a race and from my person point of view, the travel costs just add up. The ticket prices themselves are not bad, but most fans travel and make a vacation out of attending a NASCAR race and that has been something we have seen less and less of each year. But if we turn the tune to the TV side, it appears that while ratings are down, the viewership number is up. With the apps that NASCAR has (including the networks), following the race is easier than before.

Overall, I think we are in a spot where the sport is trying to find its footing again. With so many changes in the field and the rules, fans are not as dedicated as they once were. When you have to learn a whole new set of rules and feel as though the NASCAR heads are screwing things up, it is hard to come back in the fear of them doing something stupid again. For the sport, it is still going strong, but NASCAR as an organization needs to do something to get their fans back into the seats.

Hull :  It was very sad and troubling to see the stands that empty at Bristol on Sunday. However, I think that most people prefer to attend the August night race at Bristol, because it has a lot more pomp and circumstance than the Spring day race. A lot of people I have seen comment on the poor attendance have added that the cost of tickets and hotel accommodations have gone up significantly in the last few years;  therefore, a lot of people are unable to attend because it’s too much.

Also, to address the decrease in television ratings, a lot of that has to do with how many people do not like the FOX coverage. For professional purposes, I will not mention who in the broadcast irks a lot of viewers, but it may have a lot to do with it. But, I have seen how popular it still is with a lot of young people too. We shall see if this is really the decline of the sport or not, but we all see that there haven’t been quite as many viewers.

Copple :  I think it has to do with the price of tickets for a race weekend. When attending a NASCAR race, many fans can’t just drive to the track for the day. A good portion of them have to book a hotel room as well which means they have to buy food and gas and other expenses as well. Everything is so expensive any more. As someone who has to travel to races herself, attending a race costs me roughly $800. And that’s on the low end. Hotels rack up prices because they know people are still going to book with them. Something needs to be done to get attendance back up at the track and I think taking a look at the price of everything is one place to start.

Cassidy :  Over the last few years, NASCAR has received a negative filter of conversation surrounding it. With the lack of hardcore racing action and competitive finishes, stock car racing should expect falling ratings. However, the Chase has been able to draw fans in. Hopefully, the word of the new low downforce package and exciting racing will reach fans as the season continues.

Shoppe :  For better or for worse, Bristol isn’t the same track that sold out it’s 160,000 seats about 15 years ago. Although the racing is extremely good there at the moment, some of the first races on the new progressive banked track marred the reputation of Thunder Valley with fairly boring. Another problem with Bristol is since it seats so many, even if you have a halfway decent crowd, it still looks like there’s nobody there. We all want to see the grandstand full again and viewership up where it should be but the on-track product just isn’t a problem.

Conley :  I don’t think it’s either. Fans have so many ways to view a race nowadays. I don’t believe the TV ratings are an issue. As for the stands, there were 90,000 people in attendance; that’s a stellar crowd. Compare that to Phoenix, who if they have two complete sellouts, barely tops the 110,000 mark. We hear fans and media alike saying that track is great and the fans are attending. But 90,000 at Bristol is bad. We are over analyzing empty seats. And if anything could be a legit argument, we have two races within 300 miles of each other in a week.

Question 2
Good going, Guido.

Good going, Guido.

Let’s reflect a bit on the amazing sixth place finish for Matt DiBenedetto and his No. 83 Cosmo Motors/BK Racing Toyota team at Bristol.  How big was it for the Golden State Native to bring home a solid result and what is it that compels a majority of those in sports to the Davids conquering a competitive battle against the Goliaths?

Fesko :  This was an absolutely huge day for DiBenedetto and BK Racing. I’d argue, like Carl Edwards, that the run that the No. 83 put up was better than that of the race-winning No. 19 car. Think of this: DiBenedetto passed drivers like Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick on the track for position – no pit calls, no attrition, no draft equalizer. That’s basically unheard of for a small team.

As to why people flock towards the underdog, they do so because they feel that the small teams represent them. Anyone with millions of dollars can buy the best equipment and run up front, but most don’t have millions of dollars to plunk down on a race team. BK Racing represents what most of us would find ourselves with if we entered Sprint Cup racing, and to see them succeed is a giant shot in the arm for the sport that people have railed against because of the consolidation among the top teams.

Hobbs :  When I look at BK Racing prior to entering Bristol, they had a team finish just north of 29; post Bristol, it drops to 28 (and change). For a team of this magnitude, it is nothing but celebration. Single out the driver that made the news in Matt DiBenedetto, this is the feel good story of the weekend.

Prior to Bristol, DiBenedetto had an average finish of 30th. In his previous Bristol start, he finished 27th. While not bad for a rookie, there is certainly room for improvement. In 12 short track starts, DiBenedetto posted an average finish of 30.5 in those events.

Come back to this past weekend, he earns a beyond solid top-10 finish and that was not due to luck but due to pure talent behind the wheel. He may not have been Landon Cassill leading the race for 20 laps (under green), but he was holding his own the entire race with the likes of Bristol greats in Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, and Joey Logano.

For a small team to show so much power and speed at the crazy track of Bristol Motor Speedway speaks great of the team and the driver to always push hard. A run like this is what brings the car to TV, which showcases the sponsors, which then make potential sponsors pay more attention.

This is the kind of attention these smaller, under funded teams need. If BK Racing is looking to get more sponsors involved, DiBenedetto is a driver to look at, especially at the short tracks, because he may just surprise you.

Hull :  This was HUGE for Matt DiBenedetto! I think it’s always great to see a driver from a small team do so wonderfully in a marquee race. This shows that the American dream of seeing an underdog succeed is still alive and well. Naturally, people are going to root for the underdog, and a good guy like DiBenedetto. It was also really nice to see Landon Cassill do amazing as well. Hopefully, this will help bring in more fans, and this will continue.

Copple :  To start, it’s not necessarily David vs. Goliath. It’s evident every weekend who the front runners are going to be and that’s before the cars even hit the track. Small teams, like that of DiBenedetto, are going to run in the back to mid-pack a majority of the time. They really have to work their tails off to run up front and beat those powerhouse teams. Kudos to the No.83 for putting together a car good enough to do just that. Hopefully they take this and run with it and we can see some major improvement this season for this team.

Cassidy :  Anything can happen at Bristol, and clearly that worked out in DiBenedetto’s favor last week! Many fans were excited to see the change in top finishing drivers which is one of the reasons Bristol is so popular. It is always great to see an underdog have a good finish and gain some new sponsors for the season. For these reasons, I think it is in the best interest of NASCAR and the fans to have David conquer Goliath a few times each season.

Shoppe :  That sixth place finish at Bristol is as big as a win for BK Racing! To get a great result like that at a difficult place like Bristol is a huge accomplishment for that small team. I would expect a upset run like that at Talladega where the draft plays such an equalizer but to run sixth in 2016 at a non-plate race is even more impressive!

Conley :  It’s huge for that team. Typically these things happen at Daytona or Talladega where the draft brings balance to the force (to coin a phrase). This proves that BK racing is developing good talent and they have balance in their cars. Doing that on a high speed short track gives them a good direction to head in. Big, big deal for that team.

Question 3
All about the lugnuts.

All about the lug nuts.

We’ve seen teams do themselves in with not putting in five lug nuts during pit stops in recent races.  Is it to a point where NASCAR should reinforce the five lug nuts per tires policy to minimize the possibility of loose wheels/tire problems for all race teams?

Fesko :  No. NASCAR allowed teams the choice to use fewer lug nuts because the issue is self-policing. If a team doesn’t do it right, they can suffer with an ill-handling car or tighten the lugs by coming in a second time. No team has had an issue with a wheel falling off, and that was the biggest issue NASCAR was concerned about. Between the terrible handling of a car with few lugs and the potential penalty for a tire separating from the car, teams won’t let it get far enough along to be a safety issue.

Hobbs :  No. The teams wanted more control and this is a way NASCAR let them have it. All the teams know five is the best option but three or four will gain them ground on track. They also know the risks they are taking by not getting five lug nuts (tight). If these teams opt for the fewer lug nuts, that is part of their strategy, and strategy is what can win you a race; or lose it. NASCAR should sit this one out as no major issues are occurring and endangering the drivers, crews, or fans; this one is all on the teams.

Hull :  With as many tire problems as we have seen in the last few races, I don’t understand why teams don’t really do all five lug nuts, other than to save time on pit road. I think that it’s counterproductive, since they have to fix their mistakes.  So while I don’t think that NASCAR needs to enforce any rules about this, teams need to be more cognizant about that, so they won’t cost their drivers the race.

Copple :  I think NASCAR was smart to do away with the lug nut rule. If teams want to push the boundaries and only put on four, then they do that at their own risk. If they screw up, it’s going to be pretty apparent when the wheel is vibrating and mishandling on the track. The rule should stay where it’s at. The teams will learn or they will pay the price come race weekend.

Cassidy :  I have touched on this topic multiple times while talking to other race fans. I believe that the five lug nut rule needs to be reintroduced for the safety of the sport. Although there have not been any major incidences yet, I feel like there will be a time where a tire flies off in the middle of a race. For the fans and crew members’ safety, I believe 5 lug nuts should be done up. In addition, there have been many drivers days who have ended due to a tire problem caused from loose wheels. For this reason, it would be in their best interest to tighten more lug nuts.

Shoppe :  I like that rule the way it is now as a non-rule. I feel like not tightening all the lug nuts is a self-policing issue. If you don’t get enough tight, you have a loose wheel and you will suffer for that whether it’s in a form of a vibration that forces you to pit under green and lose laps, or worse, a tire that comes off, ending your day. It is the crew’s responsibility to have a good mix of lightning fast stops and safety. I believe that NASCAR should only hand down formal penalties to a team if the wheel comes off on track because that is an inexcusable safety hazard.

Conley :  Absolutely! Tony Stewart said this week that this was a horrible decision by NASCAR. He says in a time where safety is primary, this is going to get someone hurt. Drivers are policing themselves now. But what happens closer to the Chase? Need that win to get in and you have a vibration while leading with 20 or 30 to go halfway through a run? They push it and bring catastrophe into play. Bad decision by NASCAR. They have the technology to monitor…use it. Five on, five off.

Question 4
Staying power.

Staying power.

Matt Kenseth has made it clear to the press that he isn’t about to go anywhere from his No. 20 Cup ride anytime soon.  That said, is this a similar situation to Jeff Gordon’s earlier in the decade, particularly when he struggled at times to achieve the same level of success during the earlier portions of his career?

Fesko :  Kenseth is like a fine wine – he’s been getting better with age. One-third of his career wins have come since moving to Joe Gibbs Racing, and the amount of top fives and top 10’s that he’s been racking up each season have been among the best of his career – only in his championship winning season of 2003 did he score more top 10’s, and only in 2006 did he score more top fives than in the last three seasons.

What’s more, he matched these top-five and top-10 counts even in his winless 2014 campaign. Add that to the increase in poles he’s scored since the move to JGR and Kenseth has nothing to worry about. He’ll turn his season around and more than likely score a handful of wins before the Chase even starts in September.

Hobbs :  A driver is going to hit their peak in the career and then side down the hill. Kenseth has been around this sport for a long time but he is still just as competitive as the new(er) comers. There is no reason for the media to question Kenseth’s commitment to the team until he starts saying things.

He still has a few great years left in him, so why start circulating rumors that he may be going somewhere? He may be 40-something and that seems to be the point now where drivers are looking forward to retirement, but if he feels he has more years in him to be successful and is still loving what he does, then there is no reason for him to question his commitment, nor the media.

Hull :  I think that all drivers have a year where they just have no luck, and nothing goes their way. Matt Kenseth has shown that he really hasn’t ran out of talent, so that isn’t what’s going on. He could still have a soild career and stay within the sport for a bit longer. Greg Biffle is older than he is, and is still racing. But time will only tell what will go on with his career.

Copple :  I think Kenseth still has a lot of racing years left in him. Yes, he is among the older drivers on the track but he is still competitive every weekend. Every driver is different when it comes to the point they retire. It has to feel right for them, the team and their families. It’s unfair to compare Kenseth to Gordon so I won’t do that. But I will say this – Kenseth will be competing and winning races until he feels he can’t do that any longer. Whether that comes in two years or ten years, it’ll be a loss in the garage when he finally hangs up the firesuit.

Cassidy :  A few years ago, I thought Matt Kenseth’s career was over and it was only a matter of time before Erik Jones was in the 20 Cup car. However, I do not think that Matt is going anywhere for a few more years. Matt and the 20 team have showed great improvement over the years with strong finishes and many wins. I am not sure if he will reach the title of Cup champion again but he will definitely be a contender.

Shoppe :  Matt Kenseth isn’t in a slump in my opinion. He’s running as well as he usually does but without the luck that goes into securing a deserving finish. It won’t be long before he gets back to Victory Lane, putting a stop to this talk of this slow start to the season. With the ultra dominant Joe Gibbs Racing equipment underneath him, Matt Kenseth will be just fine.

Conley :  Kenseth is certainly not going to give up easy, nor should he, but he is the “old man” at JGR. With lack of results and a young superstar in the wings, he may not have a choice. It’s a little similar to Jeff Gordon but he had more years in him. The decision and timing worked out. I don’t think Matt has that luxury.

Fantastic work, y’all.  Before we go crazy with our race picks, let’s review the race results from last Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway and glance at the points standings heading into the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway!
Kathleen Cassidy emerged victorious at Bristol...

Kathleen Cassidy emerged victorious at Bristol…

...and that ultimately scored her the points lead!

…and that ultimately scored her the points lead!

Now comes the moment of truth like Danny LaRusso of The Karate Kid trilogy.  Let’s sweep the leg with our race picks revealed!
It's a Stewart-Haas Racing vs Team Penske vs the sole Toyota pick of the lot.

It’s a Stewart-Haas Racing vs Team Penske vs the sole Toyota pick of the lot.

Tiongson :   I’m trying to find a correlation between Kurt Busch and Prince but I can’t other than rain postponing last spring’s race at Richmond from Saturday night to Sunday afternoon. He’s the most recent daytime winner at RIR and perhaps without some purple rain, he’ll party like it’s 1999 at RIR. That worked, yes?

Conley :  Chevrolet conquers the Toyota sponsored event. Kurt Busch to victory lane.

Fesko :  Kurt Busch repeats at RIR.

Hobbs :  Going back to what the stats say for this weekend – Kevin Harvick shall be victorious!!! 

Shoppe :   Keelen’s daddy, Kevin Harvick!

Hull :  My pick for Richmond is, and this was hard to do, but I am choosing Joey Logano.

Copple :  Brad Keselowski is my pick.

Cassidy :  Kyle Busch – I foreshadow a comeback week.

That wraps it up, race fans! Thanks for joining us for another edition of Track Talk! How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into today’s race and who is your favorite to win?

Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now! Thanks as always to the TPF team. The opinions and thoughts expressed in Track Talk are solely of the authors and do not reflect on any organizations that we are affiliated with outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes and are not indicative of TPF, the organization, and its staff.

Rob Tiongson

30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field, and hockey. Born and raised in the Boston, MA area, racing was the first sport that caught my eye. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, you'll likely see an article on The Podium Finish by either myself or one of my talented columnists who absolutely have the motorsports passion.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. I enjoy editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography.

Graduated from Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication.

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