Though the series formally considers it a short track, the mostly-flat 3/4 mile trioval at Richmond Raceway is the last track on the entire calendar that represents the Championship Four track and power output at Phoenix. That makes tonight's race the last real chance for playoff teams to see what their cars can do on a smaller, relatively high-speed track with the 750 horsepower package that will decide the title. That makes today's results overwhelmingly good news for Toyota.
It was not a flawless night for the four Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas in the playoff field, but it was close enough. JGR cars led more than three quarters of the 400-lap race, ran 1-2-3-4 on multiple occasions, and generally seemed untouchable on pace throughout the day. The cars were so dominant that Martin Truex Jr. was able to win the race despite being black flagged for passing the start/finish line before the leader and forced to serve a penalty one lap into the event. Denny Hamlin finished second after winning both stages. Christopher Bell came in third after a relatively tame night by JGR standards. Kyle Busch was running in the top three when he was handed a speeding penalty at the end of the race; he still finished a respectable ninth.
Chase Elliott, the only non-Toyota to lead significant laps in today's race, finished fourth among a contingent of strong finishing expected championship contenders that also included Joey Logano, Kyle Larson, and Kevin Harvick. Ross Chastain, coming off an excellent performance at Darlington last weekend, was the only playoff driver in the top ten.
The biggest playoff implications of the day came when Kurt Busch crashed in the opening stage, ending his race early and putting him directly on the cut line ahead of next weekend's event at Bristol. Michael McDowell, who served three separate penalties during the race, was the only other playoff driver to finish outside of the top 20.
With one race left in the round, only McDowell is far enough behind the leader to warrant a must-win mindset heading into the next race at Bristol. His Front Row Motorsports team has never run a full-length race on anything but the superspeedways at Daytona and Talladega. William Byron, 18 points back of the cut line after a rough race today and some damage last weekend, will need to put together two strong stages and a strong finish to advance.
The real danger zone is 14th through 7th. 25 total points encompass that group, including eight from 14th to 11th. At least two drivers from that field are likely to be eliminated at Bristol. Former series champions Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott, the greatest surprises of that group by far, are there only by virtue of crashes in last weekend's race and should still be considered real championship contenders if they make it to the points reset after the Round of 16.
The round ends with what used to be the Bristol Night Race, a 500-lap brouhaha known to sow chaos. As always, any race winner will advance to the next round regardless of their championship standing.
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