Remember the following three words: hard to pass.
If the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Richmond plays out as many drivers expect it to — and how they said it did in the spring (photo above) — those words will be uttered often. In fact, they already were on Friday when many of the drivers were asked if it was going to be a particularly tough 400 miles in the commonwealth of Virginia.
“Extremely,” said Kevin Harvick after qualifying second.
Those asked about the difficulty of passing included Jimmie Johnson, Erik Jones, Darrell Wallace Jr., Denny Hamlin, and pole-sitter Brad Keselowski. Kyle Busch was the first to get it out of the way by mentioning it in his post-race interview last weekend in Las Vegas.
“Sadly, even on short tracks like this, aero is king. And this year’s aero package with the 750-package stuff — you’re going through the corner so much faster than normal that to pass, it’s very, very difficult,” said Johnson.
The seven-time champion made a note of how the track used to race differently back when sealer was used, which was over 10 years ago. Johnson said when there was sealer on the track, drivers could “chase the edge” of where the blacktop and sealer were, which provided an outside lane.
Time will tell if a second lane develops on Saturday night.
“You can go up there and pass a slower car; you might be able to set up a better exit to pass a car or two in a run. But the fastest way around is chasing the bottom,” said Johnson. “Unfortunately, we can’t really get that outside groove — we don’t have the traction compound or the sealer we used to use years ago.”
Johnson believes that putting down traction compound at Richmond is an option, and drivers have lobbied for it. However, the veteran thinks there might be a concern in doing so because of the high tire wear and fast corner speeds.
“The sealer was terrible for the first race,” continued Johnson. “A lot of crashed cars; whatever the first cars were on track, they’d always tear them up. So, I think there’s a bit of concern that if they put sealer down, the Xfinity cars are the first race, that it’d be bad. But every race after that is just awesome.”
Harvick “honestly thought” there would be traction compound used for this particular race.
“Chase Elliott had the best idea, just like we used to do with the sealer, just coat the whole corner and let it ride for the weekend,” he said. “Let the racetrack evolve. But it’s become one of the most difficult places to pass, and it’s even more difficult this year. I think the traction compound would definitely be a good option because the tire dragon is really just wasting rubber.”
No one knows better about how tough the spring race was than Clint Bowyer, who was flying in the late stages of the race and caught leader Martin Truex Jr., only to not be able to do anything with him.
“If I really think back, passing used to be pretty easy,” said Bowyer. “It’s extremely hard right now. It’s challenging, and it’s been a while since we’ve been on a short track like this. The last time we were here it was about as tough as I’ve seen it with our sport and it could be worse this time because it’s gonna be slicker. It’s a little hotter.”
“I think the aero package and the horsepower is definitely a big part of the struggle to pass,” he continued. “We saw it in the spring race. I mean, I was way faster than him, literally. I think about it every day. I hate to use the word because it’s not a very good word for a race car driver to use, but I was dumbfounded. I knew when I caught him I was gonna blow his doors off and go on and win the race, or at least go to the next caution and have my hands full to deal with whatever then. But as far as passing him — that was a no-brainer, easy-peesie; and I got to him and within a lap-and-a-half, my mindset went from no problem to ‘Oh no, I’m not gonna pass him.’”
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. expressed the importance of qualifying and track position. Joey Logano, who qualified 28th, said it’s going to take time for him to get to the front.
Logano went on to share the sentiments of others who said that Richmond — and other short tracks — have been much tougher to pass on with the aero package. But when it came to whether traction compound would be a benefit here, Logano hesitated.
“Ah. Eh. Ah…Nah,” Logano said. “I don’t think so. I don’t think of Richmond as a track that needs PJ1 out there. I think this track is fine the way it is. The tire that is brought here really affects how wide the racetrack is, more than anything; and I think if you put PJ1 down, everyone’s just going to run up in that and it’s going to be just as hard to pass, maybe harder.
“I don’t think so.”
Said Erik Jones, “You can pass; it’s just a matter of how long it takes. You run out of time eventually. Our loose wheels put us to the back (at Richmond in the spring), and we could only get back to the top 13, 14. It just takes a long time to trudge your way back through the field — longer than it used to — so you have to kind of start up there and stay up there and not give that track position up, not have any penalties, and keep that position all night.
“I think (track compound) would be too dominant. If you were to put it in the upper grooves, I think everybody would end up running there. The track is so slick, and if you gave an advantage anywhere on it, I think everybody would end up running it.
“I don’t know, it’s tough. You can run the middle a little bit but enough to be overpowering right now; but the traction compound would definitely make it pretty overpowering.”
Not a fan of traction compound is Wallace, and he, too, said wherever it was put would end up being the dominant groove. A driver who tries to run out of it ends up in no man’s land.
Kurt Busch said traction compound might work at Richmond, and then followed that by saying, “I would just try to have Goodyear build a better tire, and then we can go from there.”
Having qualified on the pole, Keselowski will have the track position and, if the team chooses, the first pit stall on pit road. But he said it’s hard to pass in some ways and also not hard in some ways. Keselowski referenced how both he and Kyle Busch once had to come from the rear of the field in Richmond and did drive toward the front.
“If you get long runs, it becomes an easy track to pass at because the mechanical grip is pretty low and you really have to drive the cars; and the aero grip kind of evens out because everybody is in traffic. So on long runs, I think there’s a fair amount of passing,” Keselowski said. “But certainly, having the patience and discipline for that to be realized is tough for us as race car drivers.
“There’s never a track you want to start in the back at, so don’t get me wrong there,” Keselowski added. “But this isn’t the worst (place) you could.”
For comparison, in the spring race at Richmond, there were 1,238 green flag passes, down from the 1,822 seen in the 2018 spring race. There were also eight lead changes and five caution flags — two for stage breaks, one was a competition caution.