“Today seemed like y’know…normal, like you could wrap the paint…you could…if somebody missed the bottom in front of you, you could throttle up and like get to their back bumper uh…I just didn’t feel as affected behind people in traffic so I was pleased with that.”Kyle Larson
This week we were excited to get another good look at NASCAR’s new Next Gen car after the package changes the series decided on for the road course and short tracks in 2023. As the new car debuted last year, we knew it was time to reach out to NASCAR so that we could get a good close look at their new hot rod, and especially at the region’s short tracks. After seeing the car up close and personal, we immediately started to get a better understanding of what the series was trying to achieve with the new car as it started a new era of competition. Early on in it’s first season, the car performed well and was well received by both the competitors and the fans, but we knew the true test for us was how well it would perform on a short track. And of course we had to be honest. Even though we were beginning to understand the vision for the car, as with anything new, there were some bugs to work out. The teams were having trouble adjusting to the low profile tires and the one lug wheel that came with it. But even more concerning was the car’s safety concerns with the drivers feeling heavier front and rear impacts that left Alex Bowman out for several weeks and Kurt Busch still trying to recover. But the series went to work on the issues as promised, and here early in 2023, there have been little to no issues with the wheels as the teams have adjusted, and the series has also addressed the rigidity of the car, with marked improvement, though many experts say that it can be even better going forward as tweaks are made to soften the front and rear clips safely.
Given these improvements, as always safety comes first, we again turn our attention here at Short Track Report to the car’s short track performance. And if we are honest, and we were, we had to admit that last year’s NASCAR Cup Series short track performance was nowhere near what we were hoping for. Martinsville for industry insiders and fans alike was akin to torture, with single file racing on a short track as the drivers struggled to get to the bumper of their competitors. There were a number of reasons for the lack of exciting fender to fender racing a stock car fan has learned to enjoy over the years, but on the top of the list was a bigger tire that didn’t fall off keeping corner speeds extremely high, and an aero package that just didn’t work on the region’s three short tracks. But again, the car had just debuted and we knew there were going to be some learning curves getting the car dialed in for every type of track the series competes on. But with the car performing on the mile and a halves and superspeedways right out of the gate, we could only hope that the guys at the top would put a bit of emphasis on getting the car dialed in for some great short track racing, as we know that despite where the series takes itself going into the future, the heart of stock car racing was bred on the regions short tracks. And so this year we knew we had to add Richmond Raceway to our schedule, not only because of it’s amazing history which is a whole article in itself, but because the world’s premier stock car racing series begins it’s 2023 short track racing run here in Richmond, Virginia.
The weather couldn’t be better and there’s pure energy here at the speedway. No other sport allows the fans to get closer to their stars and the infield is packed with people trying to get a better view of their favorite teams and drivers. There’s a calm professionalism from NASCAR management and staff as they are set to implement the new rules package for the first time this year on the region’s biggest short track, as they know Strawberry Hill is the perfect place to see if the changes have any positive effect on today’s racing. The energy ramps up as the pre-race ceremonies wrap up with a beautiful invocation and the singing of God Bless America and the countries National Anthem. And you could hear the crowd roar as the sports most famous command is given and the thunderous machines roar to life. The teams are ready, the fans are ready and on their feet, so, Let’s Go Racin’!
Alex Bowman in the # 48 would start on the pole as a result of qualifying being rained out with Kyle Busch in the # 8 starting second, William Byron in the # 24 third, # 1 Ross Chastain fourth, and # 45 Tyler Reddick fifth. Busch would lead lap one before Bowman took the lead the lap after. But Bowman was no match early for Byron, who would run away for the win in stage one. The # 11 of Denny Hamlin would get into the # 15 of J.J. Yeley in turn one, sending Yeley into the outside wall hard. Yeley would be able to continue as Byron led the field at the start of stage two. The # 12 of Ryan Blaney would make contact with the # 9 of Josh Berry coming out of turn four, sending Berry around. On the next restart, the # 5 of Kyle Larson would start to show his muscle, getting by Byron for the lead as the field tried to save tires as much as possible, reminiscent of the CARS Tour. The long green flag run led to pit stops, where Larson would find trouble with the # 99 of Daniel Suarez, making contact that would hinder his right front. Chasing him down in a thrilling stage two finish would be the # 20 of Christopher Bell, whose car came on strong during the long run. But his teammate of Hamlin made a ferocious charge near the end, taking the stage two victory.
Hamlin led the field to green for the final stage, and would lead another fifty plus laps before the # 19 of Martin Truex Jr made his presence known, taking the lead and seeming like the late favorite. Noah Gragson in the # 42 would find trouble in turn 2, nailing the wall and ending his day prematurely. After another long green run, Reddick went around in turn two, setting up a late race shootout between Truex and a reemerging Byron. All of the frontrunners were left with a fresh set of sticker tires, except for Truex, who was left with six lap old scuffs. Playing pit strategy was Berry, who had battled back from his early spin and Michael McDowell in the # 34, gaining their teams valuable track position. On the money stop, it was Larson who came out on top though, beating Berry out. On the ensuing restart, Bell would try to make up as much ground as possible, getting into Byron and spinning him around in turn one. That left a fourteen lap shootout that saw Truex Jr fall victim to fresh tires while Larson would overcome his early damage, grabbing the big victory ahead of Berry, Chastain, Bell, and the # 4 of Kevin Harvick, who put together a quietly consistent race.
What a race! Short track racing is unlike any other form of racing. It requires that you get up close and personal with your competition. And if we came to focus in on the car itself, we left with our focus on the competitors, and that’s what we need the car to do. In this race there were many storylines but only because the car allowed for the race to be settled by the drivers on the track and the strategies coming from the top of the pit boxes. There were comers and goers, and there was drama, all because the car’s performance put the outcomes back in the hands of the competitors themselves. But of course we aren’t naive as all of this may not translate to Martinsville or Bristol as that remains to be seen. But we are more than optimistic. And we also have to give some kudos to Goodyear for the improvement in the tire they brought to this event. The only issue the tires gave was to the anxiety of the crew chiefs as they had to employ some real strategy as Truex’s team clearly showed when they came out on the bad end of it. But to us, the fact that strategy even came into play was an extremely good sign to us, albeit the headache it gave to the minds that had to deal with it.
But we think winner Kyle Larson said it best when we asked him: (Short Track Report)- “What were your thoughts about the new short track package and what do you think we can expect when we get back on the pavement at Martinsville?” (Kyle Larson)- “So I thought um…I thought things felt more normal to like the previous model car. I felt like um, last year here at Richmond, like you could follow somebody down to the bottom and you would just get so tight and uh, even if they missed the bottom a little bit in front of you you’d get tight but… Today seemed like y’know…normal, like you could wrap the paint, you could… if somebody missed the bottom in front of you, you could like throttle up and get to their back bumper…um so you just…I just didn’t feel as affected behind people in traffic so I was pleased with that.”
And speaking of dialing it in…our Short Track Report Blue Collar Racer Of The Week choice is certainly doing just that and on the biggest stage imaginable. But honestly, it comes as no surprise to us. But before we name this week’s pick, we of course had to consider the competition. Our first mention of course was Kyle Larson as his performance on track was nothing less than phenomenal. Starting just inside the top 10 due to qualifying being rained out, Larson ran into trouble on pit road literally after contact with Daniel Suarez and he had to fight through the handling issues that came with the slight damage incurred with that contact. But fight through he did and when the team got the chance, they fixed the damage and Kyle took advantage of their work, bringing the car home to victory lane after all was said and done. Next we had to take a look at the performance of one Chandler Smith, making his NASCAR Cup Series debut in the # 13 Kaulig Racing machine. The qualifying rain out left Smith having to start shotgun on the field in his first race in the series, but in the early laps he began making some headway through the back half of the field. And during the middle of the race, he was methodical as he found himself in the middle of the pack. But as the tire wear started to set in, I could see Smith’s # 13 machine struggling to get straight coming out of turn two as Chandler wrestled the car into position to take turn three. But I also noticed that while he was wrestling the heaviest car he’d ever driven in top tier competition, that he was pulling away from the cars behind him and gaining on the ones in front. And by the end of the race, after fighting his way through the field, fighting to stay on the lead lap in the middle, and wrestling the car in the final stages, Chandler Smith battled his way to a remarkable seventeenth place finish.
But there was a familiar face that we couldn’t deny. Josh Berry also started toward the rear of the field in the thirtieth starting position in his fill in role for injured Chase Elliott. And as the team came up with some strategy to help Berry manage his tires, Josh put in the work on the track, and at the end of the race found himself restarting second at a time when the best in the business got up on the wheel. But Josh Berry could see the front, and he was able to hold off the field behind him as he tried to walk down leader Larson in the closing laps. He came up just a bit short, but he turned his thirtieth place starting position into a runner up finish against the best in the business in a performance that we just couldn’t deny for this week’s Short Track Report Blue Collar Racer Of The Week. Congratulations to Josh Berry and Hendrick Motorsports for an amazing run that earns Josh Berry his first Short Track Report Blue Collar Racer Of The Week for an exceptional run at Richmond Raceway at the 2023 Toyota Owners 400. So we leave Richmond markedly excited for the gains we’ve seen NASCAR make getting the car to race well on the tour’s short tracks. We named one of the articles after last year’s performances Quarter Off, but leave Richmond’s opener in 2023 noticing the work the Series has done to improve as they get the car dialed in, leaving us extremely optimistic about the future of NASCAR’s Cup Series’ short track future. They say you’ll forget where you’re going if you forget where you came from, and I for one hope that some in NASCAR’s upper echelon have the memory of an elephant. But I’m glad to report that at least for now, it appears that someone hasn’t forgotten. ‘Till next time, See You At The Track!