Analysis: Strategic risk in Richmond is key to playoff survival

The Richmond Raceway is a more difficult track than it looks, where its perceived parity – 12 winners in its last 17 events – somehow doesn’t signify a competitive balance.

It’s a tough track to pass over, made problematic by the fine line to manage balance – loose is good entering the turn, but too loose coming out of the turn is a race breaker. And when 37 teams fight within themselves, being considered for a position falls on the priority list. What seems uneventful to fans is often too hectic for the competition.

That’s why track position is paramount in tonight’s Federated Auto Parts 400 (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Team leaders, especially for playoff teams, will have plenty of strategic options available to them and for anyone lacking elite speed and victory, the more unconventional choices might provide the clearest path to a night out. productive.

One option for what we were able to see was a failed call earlier in the year on that same circuit, which team manager Jeremy Bullins attempted on behalf of Brad Keselowski.

Bullins’ bet started on lap 181, the start of a second pit cycle – necessitated by the high degradation of lap time (1.5 seconds in extreme cases) on worn tires. Fuel not being a problem, he chose to capture the position on the track as the cars pulled off the track and headed for the pit lane for new tires. Keselowski inherited the lead on lap 186. There would have been no warning flag, the fluke that would allow the No.2 team to maintain their position on the track. Instead, the rest of the stage turned green and Keselowski was caught and passed. Denny hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. on turn 207.

From the start of the cycle to the end of the stage, Keselowski’s position on the track went from fourth to first to 16th.

Looking back, it was a call gone awry, but the logic behind it makes it a bit more palatable. Keselowski clocked 14th in the middle lap that afternoon and reached a climax with his fastest lap ranking as 11th among all drivers’ fastest laps. Thus, there was no evidence that Keselowski had a possible winning race car.

Bullins’ bid was for clean air, track position and a warning flag, and the warning flag did not come. Keselowski finished 14th with the 14th fastest car. On paper, it’s not bad, no fault, but in reality – certainly in real time – it was scary to watch.

The same heartbreaking calls could surface in Richmond tonight, especially from teams hovering near the playoff cup line.

A second stage of 155 laps and a final stage of 165 laps could accommodate green flag dueling strategies – two stops for tires against one – in which those who attempt a stop will be forced into moments of discomfort and vulnerability, similar to Keselowski was attempting to run a car 1.3 seconds slower per lap than his pursuers on cooler tires.

But for Michael mcdowell (20 points below the cut line), Kyle busch (two points below), Tyler reddick (on the cut line) and even Keselowski (12 points above but a poor speed ranking this season on 750 horsepower tracks), there may not be a conventional way to compete in this race. evening.

The McDowell’s Front Row Motorsports team is self-aware, aware of its own shortcomings. Team manager Drew Blickensderfer admitted that the team’s focus at the end of the regular season is towards the current playoff round and Richmond in particular. What they lack is obvious, placing 28th in average lap time on 750 horsepower tracks, but their talent for (and success with) calculated risk is surely something auspicious tonight.

Busch bluntly expressed his dissatisfaction with his car last week at Darlington, but when it comes to his team’s performance on shorter tracks, that’s nothing new. Her car ranks eighth based on average center lap time and Richmond offers little salvation – she completed the seventh fastest halfway lap in the spring race while her fastest lap was in 11th rank among the best pilots.

Strategy-planning of team leader Ben Beshore at Pocono suggested he hasten to stop out of sequence if absolute winning speed is not present. Unlike the leaders, he can tap into a driver whose defensive position in traffic – Busch ranks fourth in excess passing value this season – is among the best.

Point accumulation is the very method Reddick uses to qualify for the playoffs. Barring some form of speed we haven’t seen from him this season – he had the 23rd fastest car in the Richmond Spring Race and finished 14th in lap average time on 750 horsepower tracks. this season – it is also the method that will grant him survival in the first round.

Richard Childress Racing, on behalf of Austin dillon, called for a one-stop second stage and a two-stop final stage in last year’s playoff race, a design that led to 51 points and a fourth-place finish, seven places beyond his rider position at the start of the pit window of the second stage.

Keselowski’s team suffered a dizzying drop, going from being the fastest car in last season’s final in Phoenix to a car ranked 15th on 750 horsepower tracks. Their seventh place finish at Darlington without stage points was satisfactory due to the shortcomings of the others, but Richmond probably presents the same challenge as in the spring.

Without a different brand of speed and a tendency towards low volume caution that suppresses driver restart prowess, a strategy going against what’s popular has its place in Bullins’ playbook.

As we saw earlier this year, he’s willing and ready to use it.

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