By Cole Cusumano
In what could only be summed up as a pleasant revelation, Richmond Raceway gradually reverted from what appeared to be the accustomed norm into some semblance of its historic past with an unpredictable and adrenaline-fueled finish.
All appeared to be going as expected in Virginia. Joe Gibbs Racing rollicked around their three-quarter-mile playground, tormenting the field for 79-percent of the Toyota Owners 400. Hometown hero, Denny Hamlin, foreseeably established himself as the standard of excellence leading 207 laps and being equipped for the long-run at a track that notoriously plays into that trend.
It wasn’t until an organic caution flew for the first time in 620 laps dating back to the Fall of 2019 the mold was broken and other competitors were able to muster strength to challenge the Toyota stable.
Brad Keselowski was able to benefit from a timely judgement call by crew chief Jeremy Bullins to linger on track during green-flag pit stops when the yellow was displayed. Hoping for continual catastrophe like the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race that preceded it didn’t pay off, as no stoppages came within Stage Two and Hamlin towed his Toyota teammates to an effortless segment sweeping victory.
At this point, the monotonous green-flag racing weighed heavily on both fans and drivers, seemingly hypnotized by tedious rhythm. It felt unless barring a flurry of incidents or a miracle, Hamlin or Martin Truex Jr. were destined to emerge victorious.
With laps dwindling down, we got just that.
Frontrunners Kyle Busch and Truex succumbed to costly pit penalties during late-green-flag stops inside of 100 and 50 laps to go, respectively, which enabled Joey Logano to capitalize. The No. 22 team got their Mustang equipped for the long-run after chasing the car all day and put the 2018 Champion in position to surpass Hamlin with 55 remaining.
For the first time all day there was intensity and intrigue. While Logano got by Hamlin, he was never able to pull away with the variable of traffic playing a contributing role. The No. 11 was glued to the bumper of the Penske Ford each passing lap, and with a storied history between these two titans, it felt like we were being primed for a classic battle for the ages coming down to the wire.
Suddenly, momentum was snatched inside 19 to go with only the second natural caution in almost two years. The inclination of being robbed of a wild finish starts setting in with the imminence of pit stops looming.
The stars outwardly aligned with Hamlin and Logano sharing the front row on the final restart. To everyone’s shock, sparks didn’t fly between the rivals, but we were blessed with arguably an even more memorable finish, courtesy of the emotion and unpredictability of Alex Bowman.
The new face of the No. 48 hung tough all day inside the top-10 and made continual strides to be in contention for the victory, although no where close to the level the Gibbs cars or Logano displayed throughout the event. However, signs were there as he had been able to rebound back to the top-five despite a pit road penalty for removing pit equipment. The final restart, though, there seemed to be an unshakable force providing extraordinary speed underneath the hood of the Camaro, and that talk before of a “miracle” being needed to take down Hamlin came to fruition.
While the feasible reason for the insane restart would be high air pressure in the tires, you can’t discredit the feeling of additional passengers aboard the No. 48. Over the offseason, crew member Rowdy Harrell and wife Blakely passed away tragically in a car accident.
Bowman was immediately brought to tears on the frontstretch as he emerged from underneath his helmet and dedicated the victory to his fallen friends. He cited Harrell as the glue of the crew and the one everyone rallied behind. Declaration in the form of triumph spelled closure and redemption in Virginia.
Ultimately, this served as the best and most memorable outcome at Richmond since 2016. Although the product and lack of serious strategy made this race appear stale in the opening two stages, the closing 50 laps were some of the best we’ve seen at the three-quarter-mile track in about a decade.
Lost in the madness, Bowman is now the eighth different winner in 2021 and this should provide a heightened sense of urgency in the remaining 17 regular season races. With adrenaline and emotion hitting a new peak since the Daytona 500, there may not be a better place we could be heading to than Talladega Superspeedway next weekend.