Hendrick Motorsports may have seemed like a somewhat dominant force in the 26-race 2021 NASCAR Cup Series regular season, but Joe Gibbs Racing has come to play in the playoffs. The four-entry organization is 2-0 in the playoffs, first with Denny Hamlin claiming his first win of the season in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Martin Truex Jr. added a second-consecutive win Saturday night in the Federated Auto Parts 400 Salute a First Responder at Richmond Raceway. Truex’s latest win was the eight for JGR in the last 12 races at Richmond.
Saturday’s win was Truex’s fourth of the season, but his first since May 9 at Darlington.
“Yeah, it’s been a while,” Truex said. “We talked last week about how much speed we’ve had in these things, and just thanks to all my guys and everybody at JGR, Toyota, TRD, Bass Pro, Auto Owners, Reser’s Fine Foods, Oakley, Textron, everybody that helps us. We couldn’t do it without them. Very lucky to get to do this, as I mentioned, and very proud to win here tonight.”
Joe Gibbs Racing drivers finished first through third after combining to dominate the 400-lap Richmond Race. Hamlin finished second after leading a race-high 197 laps and claiming stage wins on laps 80 and 235. Christopher Bell was third.
“Well, it’s go time now,” Hamlin said. “Ultimately, it’s the time where you’ve got to bring your best. All JGR teams had fast cars for all of us today, and we just — I really wish we would have got two in-a-row, but regardless, still a great day for our team.”
At times in the second half of the race, Gibbs drivers occupied the first four positions in the running order, but the remaining team driver, Kyle Busch, wound up ninth after a pit-road speeding penalty during the final cycle of green-flag pot stops with just over 50 laps remaining.
Busch, who led 39 laps, was the leader before the pit cycle. After the cycle completed, though, Trex had an eight-second lead that Hamlin cut into over the course of the remaining laps.
Hamlin’s lead of nearly half the race began at the initial green flag, even though he was not the pole official sitter. Series points and wins leader Kyle Larson was the pole sitter of record but had to drop to the back for the start of the race because of two pre-race inspection failures. Truex moved up to join his teammate on the front row for the green flag and got out front of Hamlin when the flag waved but was promptly penalized with a pass-through penalty for jumping the start.
“The first three laps I ran and then had to go to the back — that was a tough one to swallow,” Truex said. “I knew I wasn’t the control car, but I let the 11 [Hamlin] nose out ahead a little bit, there, but, then, he spun the tires. What am I supposed to do, there? Am I supposed to stop in front of the field? I don’t know. I think that was kind of a bad call, a bad decision, because there is nothing I could do about it. Luckily, we were able to overcome it. When those things happen, that’s all you can do. Focus forward. These guys stuck with me. They didn’t get mad. We all just kept our cool and we were able to come home with a W.”
Reigning Cup Series champion Chase Elliott was the best among non-JGR drivers, finishing fourth after leading 58 laps. In addition to his top-five, Elliott was the only non-JGR driver to run up front for more than 10 laps. He led early in the second stage before sliding through his pit box during a green-flag pit stop around lap 185 and backed up his car with the jack under it, breaking the jack.
“I’m super proud of our effort,” Elliott said. “Our entire Kelley Blue Book team did a great job preparing for this week and, then, coming and executing a really fast car. I’m really proud of that. I hate our incident on pit road happened. I don’t know what I would have done any different. I guess let him [Ross Chastain] go is a safe thing, but it’s so close and always hard to tell kind of when they’re going to get done on the left side. I hate that. I thought I was long in the box and backed up out of a precautionary measure, but yeah, I hate that. I know that Kyle [Busch] and Martin were really fast, there, at the end. I’m not sure if we would have had anything for them, but I sure would have liked to have found out.”
Joey Logano rounded out the top-five. Other top-10 finishers included Ross Chastain in sixth, Larson in seventh, Kevin Harvick eighth and Ryan Blaney in 10th.
“The #18 [Kyle Busch] kind of had his problems, so maybe we finished one spot better. Not a bad day. To go to Bristol and know that we’re locked in is nice. We’ll try to be aggressive and get a win this week.”
The yellow flag waved five times in the race, only twice for on-track incidents. The first caution for an on-track incident came on lap 41 when Kurt Busch hit the wall because of a cut tire.
“I was just impressed with our speed and the way we unloaded and [the speed] we had in that first 30-lap run,” Busch said. “After the pit stop, something in the left-rear wasn’t right. The guys said they got the tire tight. They made an adjustment and there was no rub and the left-rear let go. I just radioed to them how loose the car was. Something happened with that left-rear. It let go. It let go of our points and it let go of our whole season right now. I don’t know what we’re going to have to do at Bristol other than win. Hats off to everybody at Ganassi. Family, I’m alright. But that left rear took off on me and now we’ve got to dig out of this hole and give it our best. Thanks to Monster. Thanks to Chevy and Ganassi. It kind of sucks.”
The other incident also started with a tire issue — a blown right-front tire for Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. on lap 250.