Evaluation: Strategic threat at Richmond key for playoff survival

Richmond Raceway is a more challenging track than it initially appears, where its perceived parity – 12 winners in the last 17 events – somehow doesn’t imply a competitive balance.

It’s a difficult track to overtake and the narrow line makes it problematic for handling – loose is good at entering a corner, but too loose at exiting a corner is a run-breaker. And when 37 teams are fighting within themselves, passing falls to the bottom of the priority list. What looks uneventful to fans is often too eventful for competitors.

Because of this, the track position is very popular in today’s Federated Auto Parts 400 (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Crew chiefs, especially for playoff teams, will have many strategic options at their disposal, and for those lacking elitist, race-winning speed, the more unconventional choices could provide the clearest path to a productive night.

One possibility for what we could see was a call that failed on this circuit earlier this year and tried crew chief Jeremy Bullins on behalf of Brad Keselowski.

Bullins’ move began on lap 181, the beginning of a second pit cycle – required by the high deterioration in lap times (in extreme cases 1.5 seconds) with worn tires. Fuel was not an issue, he decided to take the position on the track when the cars pulled off the track and hit the pit lane to get fresh tires. Keselowski inherited the lead on lap 186. There was no warning flag, a stroke of luck that enabled Team No. 2 to keep its position on track. Instead, the rest of the stage turned green and Keselowski was overtaken and overtaken by Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. on lap 207.

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

In hindsight, it was a call that went wrong, but the logic behind it makes it a little more acceptable. That afternoon, Keselowski set the 14th fastest average lap time and reached a high point with his fastest lap score as the 11th fastest time among the best laps of all drivers. So there was no indication that Keselowski had a possible winning racing 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. It’s not harmful on paper, not a foul, but in reality – certainly in real time – it was excruciating to watch.

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

A second leg of 155 laps and a final leg of 165 laps could host dueling green flag pit strategies – two stops for tires against one – in which those who attempt to stop are forced into moments of discomfort and vulnerability similar to how Keselowski tries to drive a car 1.3 seconds slower per lap than his pursuers on fresher tires.

But for Michael McDowell (20 points below the cutting line), Kyle Busch (two points below), Tyler Reddick (on the cutting line) and even Keselowski (12 points above but a bad speed rating this season on 750 hp tracks), there may not be a conventional way to survive in the race tonight.

McDowell’s Front Row Motorsports team is aware of its own shortcomings. Crew boss Drew Blickensderfer admitted that at the end of the regular season, the team focused on the current playoff round, and in particular on Richmond. What they are missing is obvious, they rank 28th on average average lap time on 750-horsepower tracks, but their sense of (and success with) calculated risks is certainly something that bodes well tonight.

Busch was blunt about his displeasure with his car last week in Darlington, but that’s nothing new in terms of his team’s performance over shorter distances. His car is the eighth fastest based on average average lap time, and Richmond offers little rescue – it completed the seventh fastest average lap in the spring race, while its fastest lap finished 11th among all drivers.

The strategic planning of crew chief Ben Beshore in Pocono indicated that he would quickly get out of line if there was no absolute winning speed. Since he is crooked from the leaders, he can run into a driver whose position in road traffic – Busch is fourth in the overtaking value this season – is one of the best.

Earning points is exactly the method Reddick used to get into the playoffs. Aside from a form of speed we haven’t seen from him this season – he had the 23rd fastest car in Richmond’s spring races and finished 14th in survival in the first this season on 750-horsepower tracks Round.

Richard Childress Racing called for a one-stop second and a two-stop final stage on Austin Dillon’s behalf in last year’s playoff race, a design that resulted in 51 points and fourth place, seven places off his starting position at the top of the pit window the second stage.

Keselowski’s team has seen a steep fall, from the fastest car in the last season finale in Phoenix to a car that was ranked 15th fastest on 750-horsepower tracks. Her seventh place in Darlington with no stage points was satisfactory due to the backlog of others, but Richmond is likely to face the same challenge as it did in the spring.

With no other speed mark and a trend towards low volume caution that stifles the driver’s ability to restart, a strategy that goes against the tide of popularity has a place in Bullins’ playbook.

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

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