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Richmond takeaways: No. 48 team’s winning call harks back to Dale Jr.

Another week, another agonizing near-miss for Denny Hamlin, who dominated much of the Toyota Owners 400 but was again denied a win -- this time by Alex Bowman, who held off the No. 11 after a restart with 12 laps to go.

Before teaming with Alex Bowman in 2018, Greg Ives spent the first three years of his career as a NASCAR Cup Series crew chief working with Dale Earnhardt Jr.

It was a lesson about Richmond with Earnhardt that Ives used to help guide Bowman to Sunday’s win.

“Going back to something I learned with Dale here, I think we were running top five, top eight, something like that,” Ives recalled. “We had an adjustment late. It worked okay, but didn’t work quite exactly how we wanted.

“He didn’t yell at me, but he advised me on some of the things that this track did in the last 50 laps.”

Early on Sunday, Ives decided to “trial” those pointers during the the first adjustments to Bowman’s car following a Lap 30 competition caution.

“I didn’t think it was anything magical,” Ives said about those adjustments. “I just thought it was the right direction. Put that in our memory bank and go from there. Know that we did make adjustments based on (Bowman’s) comments and what he thought on the short run.”

Bowman’s long run speed had been much better than his short run speed Sunday. The former enabled him to get to third place when Kevin Harvick crashed to bring out a caution with 19 laps to go.

It was time for Ives to put what he learned at the start of the race to use.

“I would say, majority of the time, these races come down to restarts at the end of the race with a handful of laps to go,” Ives said. "... You have that adjustment in your mind that you’re going to use. Until it happens, you never know it’s going to work.

“That’s probably where the guys think the gamble comes from, especially when we have such a good car. But we didn’t have a good car in the circumstance that we needed to make adjustments to it. Otherwise, we were just going to struggle on the restart, probably finish third or fourth.

“If we’re sitting sixth maybe, but we’re sitting there third, have the ability to make an adjustment, allow us to take advantage of - shift our strength of our car towards the front of the run versus the end of the run.”

Bowman retained third coming out of the final pit stops and got the preferred inside lane coming to the restart with 12 laps to go.

Having been poor on short runs, Bowman focused on saving a top-five finish. Instead, he rocketed past Joey Logano and then Denny Hamlin for the winning pass with 10 laps to go.

On what exactly Ives did to his car to make that happen, Bowman replied: “I don’t have a clue.”

“I didn’t see a wedge wrench go in it, so I would say air pressure stuff,” he went on to guess. “Which is typically your go-to for short run versus long run stuff. It sure woke it up, that’s for sure.”

It wasn’t a clean race for Bowman, Ives and the No. 48 team, which had to overcome those short run woes and a pit road penalty for an uncontrolled tire during the Stage 2 break.

But for Ives, it made the outcome all the more rewarding.

“If we just cruised, lapped the field, cruised to a huge victory, I probably wouldn’t be as satisfied as I am right now for us to have fast cars, to battle through some adversity that we’ve been fighting, to go out there and continuously be a team, a team that doesn’t point fingers, but locks arms and go out there and get a win,” he said.

“Not once did Alex come on the radio with any other thing other than, ‘Hey, we’re going to go pass some more cars.’ That’s what I’m most proud of. That’s what real teams are made of.”

Vote of confidence for Chase

NASCAR Cup Series Toyota Owners 400

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA - APRIL 18: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, drives during the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway on April 18, 2021 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

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Bowman’s win on Sunday means that reigning Cup Series champion Chase Elliott will be the last Hendrick Motorsports driver to get a victory this season.

William Byron was the first to strike at Miami. He was followed by Kyle Larson the following week at Las Vegas.

But just as Elliott himself wasn’t concerned with his performance entering Richmond, neither was HMS general manager Jeff Andrews coming out.

“As far as the (No.) 9 team, (crew chief) Alan (Gustafson), Chase, we have the utmost confidence in those two guys, in that team,” Andrews said. “Really, all the same players that were on that team last year. You go through these spells where they’ve had good runs. Look at last week, they had a really good car last week. Came up a little bit short.

“It’s not been that the performance hasn’t been there. I think more we’re looking for a little bit of the consistency. Nobody is going to work harder at it than Alan Gustafson and that team.”

On Sunday, tight handling caused Elliott to fade to 17th at the end of the first stage. He had somewhat better performance in the second stage, but could only get to 12th by that stage’s conclusion.

That would be where Elliott finished the race. It’s his fifth result outside the top 10 in nine races this season.

But Andrews senses a potential turnaround for Elliott and the No. 9 team. The next four weeks of the Cup schedule includes Talladega (2.66-mile superspeedway), Kansas (1.5-mile oval), Darlington (1.366-mile egg-shaped oval) and Dover (1-mile concrete oval).

Among those four tracks, Darlington is the only one where Elliott doesn’t have a Cup win.

“We still have a lot of racing to do here, a lot of good tracks coming up,” Andrews said. “Excited to go to Talladega next week. It’s been a good track for them. Then back to some of the mile-and-a-half stuff. We’re looking forward to that, as well.”

Penalties cost MTJ, Kyle Busch

NASCAR Cup Series Toyota Owners 400

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA - APRIL 18: Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Auto-Owners Insurance Toyota, drives during the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway on April 18, 2021 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

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Pit road gaffes dashed shots at a win on Sunday for both Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch.

For a while, it seemed Truex would again battle Hamlin for a win after besting him the previous week at Martinsville. Truex led over 100 laps during the first half of the race and was running second prior to his green flag pit stop at Lap 294.

But Truex was penalized for speeding and forced to pass through on pit road. He managed to stay on the lead lap, but with roughly 100 laps to go and Hamlin and Logano as stout as they were, the penalty was a killer.

“Driver screwed up our chances there for sure,” said Truex, who rallied to finish fifth for his fourth top five of the season.

With Truex out of contention, Busch sought to put himself in position to go after Hamlin and Logano. After starting the final stage in fifth, Busch climbed to third when he made his final green flag stop with 58 laps to go.

But as he dove toward pit entrance, Busch failed to get all four tires on his No. 18 Toyota below the commitment box and drew his own pass-through penalty that knocked him off the lead lap.

Busch claimed the free pass off the Harvick caution, but was unable to get higher than eighth at the finish.

“The car didn’t start off well, but (crew chief) Ben (Beshore) and the guys kept adjusting on it, and we got it a lot better,” Busch said. “There at the end, you try to get all you can on and off pit road to have a shot at the win, and I just came in there too hard and got the commitment box.”

Almirola, DiBenedetto get needed boost

NASCAR Cup Series Toyota Owners 400

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA - APRIL 18: Aric Almirola, driver of the #10 Smithfield Ford, drives during the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway on April 18, 2021 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

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Aric Almirola and Matt DiBenedetto finally notched their first top-10 finishes of the season Sunday. Almirola finished sixth to lead Stewart-Haas Racing, while DiBenedetto finished ninth for the Wood Brothers.

The result was especially needed for Almirola, who’s been emblematic of SHR’s struggles. The 2020 playoff driver suffered three DNFs and six finishes of 20th or worse in the first eight races before Sunday.

Finishing 12th in the first stage and 10th in the second stage, Almirola continued his steady drive to fifth when teammate Kevin Harvick suffered a tire failure and crashed with 20 laps to go.

Almirola retained that position following pit stops and moved up to fourth off the restart with 12 laps to go. But trying to stay in the top five took a toll.

“I really battled for fifth there at the end, but burned up my tires on the outside in the process,” he said. “Finally, a solid day for our Smithfield team. Everyone did their part, and we were mistake-free today. We showed what this team is capable of today. Let’s fire it up and keep it rolling.”

As for DiBenedetto, he and the No. 21 team began the season poorly but had stabilized recently with four consecutive top-15 finishes entering Richmond.

He was 18th at the end of Sunday’s first stage. But during the first round of green flag stops in the second stage, he caught a break. He was one of six drivers who had not yet pitted when Ryan Newman spun on Lap 141 to bring out the caution.

That effectively put DiBenedetto in and around the top 10 for the rest of the race.

He finished sixth in the second stage. Later, he just missed out on the free pass position prior to Harvick’s caution but got to return to the lead lap with a wave-around. He retained ninth place throughout the 12-lap run to the finish.

DiBenedetto was glad to finally have his team’s growing consistency pay off with a top 10.

“We couldn’t even look at (the bad finishes) and say they were self-inflicted - it was just kind of bad circumstances,” he said. “So, something that was out of our control - not as bad a luck as Aric Almirola, but it just goes to show between him and I and kind of the rough starts to the season that sometimes things have to go your way.

“And as easily as that momentum can be pretty bad, it can flip around and we haven’t even really had smooth races until today, but we’ve still been climbing up in the points. It just shows the strength of our team ... digging out of that hole and doing what I’ve known all along that we’re more than capable of as a team.”

Twenty-six full-time Cup drivers have scored at least one top-10 finish this season. A 27th driver, Jamie McMurray, finished eighth in a one-off at the season-opening Daytona 500.

Full-timers still looking for their first top 10 of the season include Bubba Wallace, Cole Custer, Chase Briscoe (rookie), Anthony Alfredo (rookie), Quin Houff and Josh Bilicki.