Track Talk: Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond

Each weekend, our panel on The Podium Finish provide their thoughts on the latest stories in NASCAR. Additionally, we attempt to pick the winner of the upcoming Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race, the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway!

This weekend, our panel consisting of Adam LucasAmanda ParmeleeAshley HobbsAshley Hull, Cody ShoppeKathleen CassidyKayla Sturm, and Stephen Conley muse about the now encumbered victory for Denny Hamlin at Darlington, Martin Truex Jr’s bountiful amount of playoff points, Austin Cindric’s somewhat controversial last lap victory at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park, and a bubble racer with the best shot at this year’s playoff field!

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Question 1
Rest assured, Denny Hamlin wasn't reenacting his high school senior photo.

Rest assured, Denny Hamlin wasn’t reenacting his high school senior photo.

Denny Hamlin scored his second victory of the year at Darlington. However, the win was encumbered by NASCAR. Is Hamlin a legitimate contender for this year’s Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami?

Conley :  Denny Hamlin is not the lead car during this roller coaster season. Consistency is more of an issue for the No. 11 team this year than I think for anyone else.

Can they turn it around? Of course, as can any of the other contenders in the playoffs. But I wouldn’t bet the farm on driver 11.

Lucas :  Brace yourselves, Joe Gibbs Racing is coming! If it’s not Denny Hamlin in the Championship 4, then it will be Kyle Busch. The organization has found something over the summer that is working very well. When you feel good, you race good, and Denny Hamlin is racing really good lately.

Sturm :  No, I don’t think so, if I’m being honest. Denny Hamlin is good, but I don’t think he’ll make it to the Championship 4. There are other racers, like Truex, that are way too good to be beat.

Not to mention, while JGR hasn’t been absolutely awful this season, they have been missing their marks quite a bit compared to last season. I think he has a good chance of making it to the round of eight, but that’s about it.

Magda :  He is one of my championship 4 at the moment. Hamlin put on a masterful performance running Martin Truex Jr down in the closing laps and outran JGR teammate Kyle Busch for the victory.

Homestead’s a good track for the 11 and 18 teams as Hamlin and Busch have been the two best cars in the Gibbs organization. However, I was surprised Hamlin rallied back from missing pit road in the Southern 500. but they’ll be sneaky dangerous come playoff time.

Hull :  While Denny Hamlin has had a decent year thus far, I don’t see him in the Championship 4 this year, unless he gets some luck in the playoffs.  Having a P1 penalty and an encumbered win isn’t a good start. I don’t think he has anything for Martin Truex Jr. or Kyle Larson. We shall see how it goes though.

Shoppe :  Although a dark cloud has now overshadowed the win by this team at Darlington, I still believe the way they overcame the issue to win will have a positive effect on the group heading into the playoffs.

Confidence is certainly there for the 11 team and it looks like they were peaking at the right time. Time will tell if this penalty will be the kiss of death for Hamlin’s title chances. The loss of Mike Wheeler heading into race one in Chicagoland will be a tough challenge for the team to overcome.

Parmelee :  I think Denny Hamlin has had a great year this year with wins at Loudon and now at Darlington. I would love to see him be a solid Chase contender, but I definitely think it will take some work on the team’s part to ensure that mistakes like his missed pit road entry don’t happen again.

Hobbs :  Well, the win is a “win” as the car was illegal. Like Logano, the victory is now encumbered.

However, unlike Logano, Hamlin already had a win and was in the playoffs. But, outside of that, no, this does not make Hamlin a legitimate contender for the title.

A win here and there means nothing these days in the regular season. Sure, they get you into the playoffs, but if you are not consistently running up front, what is that going to do come playoff time?

Cassidy :  I think the 11 team has been strong this season. However, I am not confident that they can be consistent throughout the last 10 races to end up in the Championship 4.

Question 2
You're only human.

You’re only human.

A tire issue prevented Martin Truex Jr from his second straight victory at Darlington. However, he clinched the regular season championship. Do you consider him an automatic lock for the Championship 4?

Conley :  I don’t think he’s a lock yet. Just ask Kyle Busch what can happen in one single instance.

Better yet, ask Sterling Marlin how quick a championship can change. I’m pretty sure the 2002 will never be a popular number or year for him as he crashed while leading and running away with the championship.

For Truex, the bonus points are going to make things a lot easier for him than it will be for the rest of the field. He’ll cruise to the second round, but the top 11 won’t let it be easy for the regular season champ.

Lucas :  There is no such thing as an automatic lock in sports. Martin Truex Jr should know a thing or two about luck. He has had a turn of it in the last two seasons, but still plenty of heartbreak on and off the track.

Consistency has been the No. 78 team’s saving grace this season. That alone can get him to Homestead without a doubt. It’s great and all to win the regular season championship, but honestly, that’s like going undefeated in the NFL preseason.

It doesn’t really matter until playoffs time. The only business that’s left to finish is winning the championship!

Sturm :  Absolutely. It would be crazy to count Martin Truex Jr out of the Championship 4. With all the points he has and with him clinching the regular season championship this past weekend at Darlington, he could practically walk to Homestead.

I’d even go as far to say that he wins the championship this year. The dude has been on fire all season and I don’t see that ending anytime soon.

Magda :  Mark the 78 in for Homestead, as they’re in with all of the playoff points accrued during the regular season.

Still, there’s no coasting for this team as the 78 and 42 have been the two best cars of 2017. The FRR team is superior on 1.5-mile tracks which consists of most of the final 10 races. Chicagoland will be the real test in who’s brought their best stuff for the playoffs.

Hull :  Martin Truex Jr. has smoked the field this year. I not only see him getting into the Championship 4, but winning it this year, unless Jimmie Johnson has something for him and/or he has bad luck. But he has had a solid year and I see him being a champion this year.

Shoppe :  It is safe to say that Truex and the No. 78 team will be a part of the Championship 4, provided nothing absolutely crazy happens! I am a huge fan of this tweak to the playoff structure!

Having a regular season championship mean something really should reward the team who has worked so hard to earn this throughout the first 26 weeks. To use at least a huge playoff point cushion to lean on through these ten unpredictable weeks is a tremendous advantage!

To have nearly twice the playoff points as any of their competitors in hand will make them a heavy favorite, and rightfully so!

Parmelee :  NASCAR is unique. in that sometimes, you can be the best driver out there but an error on someone else’s part ruins your run. MTJ has shown that he’s certainly capable of making his way to the Championship 4 — but I don’t think there’s ever a way to know whether it’s an automatic lock or not.

Hobbs :  I mean, dude has basically half a race advantage going into the playoffs. And, he has been the most reliable and consistent driver this season; how can you vote against him? To say he is a lock might be a stretch because nothing in guaranteed in this sport. However, I’d put him as my number one driver to make it all the way there.

Cassidy :  Hands down, the 78 team is the one to beat this season. This is their championship to lose!

Question 3
Like it or not, Austin Cindric scored his first Truck win at MoSport! (Photo Credit: Matt Johnson)

Like it or not, Austin Cindric scored his first Truck win at MoSport! (Photo Credit: Matt Johnson)

Austin Cindric scored his first career NASCAR Camping World Truck Series victory at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park. However, Cindric’s peers and critics viewed his pass as controversial and dirty. Was his pass justified or was there a better way to make his pass for the lead?

Conley :  As Kaz Grala said, “He just used me as a brake.” Cindric forgot about the middle pedal, drove right through Grala, and cruised to a win.

That wasn’t a bump ‘n run. That was a wreck and cruise. But in recent years, young drivers have come up the ranks thinking this is OK.

Cindric said as much in his post race interviews. It’s the new way of the sport and I for one don’t like it one bit. But I guess that’s one reason why I’ll never stand in Victory Lane with the trophy.

Lucas :  I was not a big fan of Cindric’s questionable tactics, even calling him out on social media. But let’s break it down for a moment.

If I were in that position, knowing that a win will lock me into the playoffs, and also realizing that the leader is already locked in. Would I move him? Yes, I would have moved him into the next province of Canada if it meant getting into the playoffs! Cindric though, could have waited to make his move.

Traditionally at Mosport, the final turn has decided the winner in almost every Truck race held. Perhaps he could’ve moved Grala out of the way, rather then spinning him out. Now that Cindric and Grala have had time to digest the incident, I’m sure that Cindric will have a target on his back the rest of the season.

Sturm :  I didn’t watch the Truck race but from what I saw on Twitter, his move was quite controversial. If I understood correctly, he basically spun Kaz Grala for the win.

Yeah, that’s upsetting for Grala and I can see why people would be angry about it. But Cindric just showed that he will do whatever it takes to win. Sometimes, you need a little bit of that to make the sport exciting.

Cindric was fighting for a playoff spot considering Grala was already locked in earlier in the year at Daytona, so he did what he had to do. No one was hurt in the process so while I don’t necessarily condone his actions, I’m not going to attack the guy either.

Magda :  It was hard for me to swallow this one Sunday afternoon, but I understand the spot the 19 team was in. The argument can be made in this win-and-in playoff system because John Hunter Nemechek punted Cole Custer in the final turn of last year’s race. That move could’ve been avoided which led to the fight.

Ultimately, Grala and Cindric have raced each other through the ranks and both are tough competitors. Honestly, I felt bad for both drivers when it happened because everyone knew it was coming.

Truly, it was only a matter of time before there was contact made. Cindric should not apologize to anyone due to the system but these two might find each other on the track once the Truck playoffs kick off.

Hull :  It was sickening to see Austin Cindric dump Kaz Grala for the win, especially when he had an opportunity to pass him cleanly. I don’t think it’s right to do it the dirty way.

We can argue that Dale Earnhardt Sr did the same thing, but he got a lot of hate for doing it as well. Cindric will realize that other people will race him the same way for here on out. I know that he was hungry to win and get into the playoffs, but there are better ways than to race dirty.

Shoppe :  The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series has prided itself with its signature tough racing since its inception. But in the five races held north of the border in Canada, three of them have resulted in finishes that may have crossed a line.

Cindric’s “dump and run” to win last weekend is just proof that over-aggressive contact has become commonplace in this annual Truck road race. This was a situation where the leading truck (Grala) had already secured a playoff position with his win at Daytona.

However, Cindric needed a win to secure a place in the playoffs. As a result, this certainly played a huge role in his decision to take Grala out.

In Cindric’s defense, this was his best shot at making it in in BKR’s last season. He refused to let this opportunity slip away.

Parmelee :  It wasn’t the way that Austin Cindric won that annoyed me — it was primarily his comments afterwards. I understand that sometimes, you have to move someone out of the way in order to secure a place in the championship, but there’s a difference between racing hard and dumping someone in my opinion.

If Cindric would have simply said, “I’m sorry it had to end like that. I wish it didn’t come down that, and I hope he understands.” But he didn’t. I think that’s what really rubbed people the wrong way.

Cassidy :  Being there in person, I thought the race was amazing. I felt like Cindric’s move may not have been accepted by drivers, but fans were excited to see this kind of passion on the course in Canada.

Question 4

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As Richmond hosts the regular season finale, drivers like Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones, and Dale Earnhardt Jr need a victory to earn a playoff spot. Which of these drivers has the best shot to battle for postseason glory?

Conley :  Erik Jones is the only one that’s run well recently out of that group, but Logano can certainly win at Richmond.

Wouldn’t it be ironic for the driver of the No. 22 to get that much needed win at the track where he had his one and only win this season encumbered? I don’t see it happening though. They lost their advantage after that race.

Our top-16 stays the way it is. No new winners.

Lucas :  Simple. The numbers don’t lie for Erik Jones to be the wild card to get a win. He is focused, showing his maturity during the second half of the season all while rocking his majestic mullet.

Jones had a solid race weekend in the spring event at Richmond, albeit his DNF within the first few laps. He showed consistent speed and lap times throughout practice and qualified in the top dozen.

Also, it doesn’t hurt that he has had success in the Xfinity Series at Richmond, finishing in the top-five three out of the four times he has started.

Could “that Jones kid” play spoil? I think he’ll make a strong push to oust one of the bottom three in points.

Sturm :  Joey Logano has the best shot. Richmond is a good track for him. Considering this is his last chance to get into the playoffs and had his win encumbered in April, I think he has the best shot.

Magda :  The only driver with a real shot at winning their way into the playoffs is Joey Logano. The Team Penske driver is no stranger to this win-and-in position and does better under pressure.

But, they’re going to need some luck Saturday night similarly to how the spring race played out and before the encumbered win. Since then, the No. 22 team has struggled as they have one last shot at making the playoffs.

Keep an eye on Erik Jones as well because he was fast in the spring until a cut tire put him in the wall on the first lap of the race.

Hull :  I think that out of these five drivers, Joey Logano can win and get into the playoffs. He won the spring race, even though his team was caught with P1 infractions. Hopefully, he can repeat his success without breaking the rules this time.

Shoppe :  A lot of people are looking squarely in Joey Logano’s direction to be able to get that much needed last chance win this Saturday night.

However, I am looking at Erik Jones. Fresh off his impressive top-five run in the Southern 500 last weekend, Jones has been improving so much lately. He is in the best form of his rookie season yet and at the right time. I think Jones is at the level to compete for the win he needs Saturday night at Richmond.

Parmelee :  This might be the hardest question ever. It would be great if Dale Earnhardt Jr earned a shot in the playoffs before he retires. However, I honestly don’t think that will happen.

If I had to place a bet on anyone, it would be Joey Logano. With his team already showing success at Richmond in the Spring, all they have to do is play it legal. Perhaps they may re-gain get their playoff spot.

Hobbs :  Best shot would go to Joey Logano or Clint Bowyer in my book. Then again, Bowyer can never go to Richmond without a certain cloud hanging over his head.

Cassidy :  Clint Bowyer has shown throughout this season that his team can compete at this top level of racing. I think fans need to be on the look out for that 14 car this weekend.

Fantastic four laps around “The Action Track” as the regular season winds down!  Before we drop the hammer with our winning picks, let’s review our Darlington race and points report!
Those who picked Truex nearly scored a win at Darlington...

Those who picked Truex nearly scored a win at Darlington…

...which means Hobbs has a determined Rob Tiongson wanting the points lead!

…which means Hobbs has a determined Rob Tiongson wanting the points lead!

Time to sweep the leg, race fans! Let’s get the crane kick ready by revealing our winning picks for Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond!
Might one of these seven be victorious in Virginia?

Might one of these seven be victorious in Virginia?

Tiongson :  Jamie McMurray will be my pick. What the heck? Might as well!

Conley :  Even though I questioned his consistency, with a home state race on tap, Denny Hamlin will win at Richmond.

TPF Stats:  The numbers seem to be in favorite of the one they call “Happy” Kevin Harvick.

Lucas :  I’m going with Kyle Busch for the win.

Magda :  I’m going with Kyle Busch.

Sturm :  Going with Joey Logano.

Hull :  I choose Joey Logano to win and get into the playoffs this Saturday night!

Parmelee :  My pick is Joey Logano.

Shoppe :  Martin Truex Jr is my pick for Saturday night’s race.

Hobbs :  It’s hard to root against Martin Truex Jr this season.

Cassidy :  Clint Bowyer takes the win on Saturday night.

That wraps it up, race fans!  Thanks for joining us for another edition of Track Talk! We’re ready for some racing. How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into Saturday night’s race and who is your favorite to win?  Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now!

Thanks as always to the TPF team for their amazing efforts each week! The opinions and thoughts expressed in Track Talk are solely of the authors. They do not reflect any organizations affiliated with the participants and author 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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