Like in several Richmond races over the years, tire strategy again played a major role in deciding the outcome of Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400, where Kyle Larson picked up his first victory of the year.
Larson, who started from ninth after the cancelation of qualifying, started Sunday’s race in pursuit of Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron, as between them, the two drivers continued to dominate the NASCAR Cup Series, leading 210 of 400 laps.
“It’s really cool. We’ve been close to winning a couple,” Larson said post-race. “William [Byron] has been extremely good this year. It was going to be between probably him, the 19, us, and the 20 was really good.”
However, in the middle of the race’s second stage, the tide started to shift, as one of the longest green-flag runs of the event allowed Larson to close in on his fading teammate, eventually snatching the lead away.
Immediately gapping the field, Larson would continue holding steady in the lead until the next round of green-flag pit stops, where the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion made contact with another vehicle – Daniel Suarez – at the exit of the pit road.
“I got into the 99 on pit road there sometime in the second stage, and we were awful after that,” Larson continued. “I was hoping the damage was the reason why, but they had to calm me down a little bit and get refocused and was able to get it done.”
The combination of time lost from the contact, and the damage sustained to the HendrickCars.com Chevrolet would see him relinquish his control of the event, and quickly fade through the pack, at one point falling outside the top-10.
By that point in time, the race had a pair of new contenders, in the form of Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex, Jr., who then took control of the event and looked to have the victory on lock.
A cycle of green-flag pit stops threw a wrench into that plan, though, at least for Denny Hamlin, whose No. 11 team had a dismal pit stop when the front-tire changer had to run back around and make sure a wheel was tight, dropping him outside the top-15.
For Truex, his demise – in terms of winning the race – came with a rash of cautions in the closing stages of the event, which left the Joe Gibbs Racing team with only a set of used tires, after making an extra pit stop earlier in the day to gain track position.
The Mayetta, New Jersey-native restarted the race inside the final 25 laps on older tires and watched as his chances at a victory slowly faded away, ultimately fading back to 11th place at the conclusion of the event.
William Byron, who was set to be in contention for the victory in the race’s closing stages, had it all taken away on a late-race restart, when he was spun by Christopher Bell, damaging his RaptorTough.com Chevrolet Camaro. Byron would finish 24th.
While that was a major disappointment for Hendrick Motorsports, there was some good to come out of it, as Josh Berry – serving as an interim driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet Camaro – recorded a career-best runner-up result.
Berry had run outside the top-10 for the majority of the event and even brought out a caution early in Sunday’s event, but used an excellent dose of tire strategy from crew chief Tom Gray, to put himself inside the top five when a late-race caution flew.
The NASCAR Xfinity Series regular was able to hold onto second while giving his teammate Kyle Larson a run for his money in the first couple of laps after the final restart. Berry finished a second and a half behind Larson for the win.
Ross Chastain and Christopher Bell both continued strong starts to the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season with finishes of third and fourth place, while Kevin Harvick – in his penultimate event at Richmond Raceway – finished fifth.
Michael McDowell utilized the same pit strategy as Josh Berry to record a sixth-place finish, while Joey Logano, Alex Bowman, Ty Gibbs, and Brad Keselowski each scored finishes inside the top-10.
After leading laps early in Sunday’s race, Denny Hamlin had a myriad of problems late in the going, including a second pit road speeding penalty inside the final 30 laps of the race, which relegated him to a 20th-place result.
Chandler Smith, the 1,975th driver to compete in the NASCAR Cup Series, made his series debut in the 400-lap contest at Richmond Raceway, and earned an impressive 17th-place finish, recording a lead-lap run in the third entry for Kaulig Racing.
The NASCAR Cup Series will have a break from the traditional pavement racing that the series does 37 times a season next week, as the field travels to Bristol, Tennesse for the third annual Bristol Dirt event.
Leaving Richmond, Alex Bowman has a four-point lead on Ross Chastain in the NASCAR Cup Series point standings, while Christopher Bell, William Byron, and Kevin Harvick maintain their positions inside the top-five.
At the playoff bubble, Chris Buescher continues to hold the final spot in the post-season by six points over Daniel Suarez. Michael McDowell enters Bristol eight points behind, while Corey LaJoie continues a stellar season only being nine points behind.