The two premier series of NASCAR visited historic Richmond Raceway over the weekend, and fans were treated to two races with nail-biting finishes, culminating with Joe Gibbs Racing sweeping both events at the iconic D-oval.
After an offseason of renovations, the Raceway debuted a new, reimagined experience for fans. VCU’s student radio station, WVCW, also held an event with live music and tailgating for college students, while prominent actor Michael Rooker, of “Days of Thunder” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” fame, piloted the pace car prior to the race.
WVCW also hosted an event marketed towards the Black and Gold student body that held both live music from local Richmond bands and tailgating prior to Saturday night’s race. The inaugural “Jorts and Tanks” event sold almost 200 tickets, bringing in Richmond fans of both music and NASCAR. Local bands and artists including Don Fredrick, Deau Eyes, and Space Koi appeared to both promote and play, as the latter recently premiered a new album. Held from noon to six, the event gave Rams an opportunity to enjoy music during the day and NASCAR racing at night.
Richmond Raceway Reimagined broke ground shortly after the 2017 September race weekend, and opened to fans on Friday after construction ceased for the spring events. Most notably, the garage layout in the infield had been altered, providing a fan experience like no other. A long walkway extended the length of the area between the garages and haulers, allowing spectators with certain passes to witness crews at work on the cars, and fans also have the chance to interact with drivers.
The pedestrian tunnel bridging the stands and the infield was also moved back, allowing fans to enter through the concourse and travel directly to the pits and garages. The renovations also were apparent to the drivers. Veteran Elliott Sadler mentioned that, although there was a noticeable bump in the track where the tunnel was rebuilt, it helped him place mental markers as to where to brake and accelerate going into the turn.
Saturday’s Monster Energy Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 was decided within the final few laps, after Penske Racing driver Joey Logano had swept the first two stages. Logano’s car, along with several of the night’s frontrunners, faded as the race stretched on, with green-flag laps taking their toll on the weaker cars. The two major incidents of the race came within the final 60 laps, collecting less than five entries each.
As the race wound down, Joe Gibbs Racing mainstay Kyle Busch found himself in the lead, after starting 32nd and running only around the top five for most of the race. After several late-race cautions, Busch emerged victorious for his third win in a row, returning to victory lane at one of his historically best tracks. The driver of the #18 Toyota Camry tied Buck Baker for 15th on the all-time wins list with his 46th checkered flag, while Daniel Hemric, an Xfinity Series driver, made his debut in a third Richard Childress Racing entry, finishing 32nd.
The ToyotaCare 250 took place on Friday evening for the Xfinity Series drivers, and featured just as many battles, on-track strategy, and close calls as the Cup Series race. As a “Dash 4 Cash” event, the race awarded the highest-finishing eligible driver a $100,000 check, and Elliott Sadler walked away with the payout Friday night after a third-place effort.
Noah Gragson was promoted from the Camping World Truck Series for three races, and impressed a number of his NASCAR compatriots with his performance on Friday night. Gragson’s #18 Toyota ran in the top half of the field most of the night, using pit strategy to climb several more spots into the top five. With around 75 laps remaining, the rookie was passed by teammate Christopher Bell for the lead. However, the entirety of the rest of the race saw Gragson continuously close on Bell, lap after lap, using backmarker traffic to cut the gap between the two cars.
The 19-year-old made several attempts at a pass, but was unable to pull off a stunning upset, as Bell cruised to his first win of the season. Gragson became only the 12th driver to finish in the top two positions in his debut, while Bell notched his second win of his career, finally scoring a victory after several weeks of disappointment. Gragson pilots the #18 Toyota Tundra in the Truck Series for Kyle Busch Motorsports, and when asked about his performance, Busch detailed his impressions of his driver. “I thought Noah did a phenomenal job,” Busch said. “I was really impressed with his run in second. (He was) there beating on Christopher’s back bumper trying to get a win for himself. Did a great job.”
Adam Cheek, Staff Writer