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What to watch for in Sunday night’s Richmond NASCAR Cup race

RICHMOND, Va. — NASCAR Cup teams return to Richmond for the 135th time Sunday night. This is the first of two consecutive short track races and another opportunity to secure a playoff spot.

Here’s a look at three things to watch for in today’s race (7 p.m. ET on Fox):

MORE: Richmond starting lineup

1. Short track struggles

William Byron has two wins this season, yet he is not overly confident heading into this race and Martinsville. The reason is the lack of success at short tracks in past seasons.

Crew chief Rudy Fugle highlighted those struggles after Byron won last weekend’s race at Circuit of the Americas, saying: “We have not been good at Richmond. We have not been good at Martinsville. We need to be.”

Byron has made 11 starts at Richmond since moving up to Cup full-time. He has two top-10 finishes and one top five. His average finish at Richmond in the Next Gen era is 14.75 with only one finish inside the top 10.

Kyle Busch confronted Christopher Bell on pit road after the Cup race at COTA.

“It’s just one of those places we go to that we just don’t have an idea of how it’s going to go,” Byron said Saturday. “So anytime you go to a track and you don’t really have a notebook that you feel confident on — we’ve had some good races here, but we’ve never shown up here knowing that we can run an easy top 10 or compete for a win.

“And not that we go anywhere thinking it’s going to be a cakewalk, but you go to certain tracks and know that you have a great notebook, like going to COTA or going to Watkins Glen. I feel like (Richmond) is one of those places where we’re still trying to build that solid notebook.”

Byron said he seeks improved performance and “boring consistency” at those tracks. He explained Saturday that he doesn’t want to have a good week followed by some bad weeks. Byron wants to stack some third-place finishes, fifth-place finishes, top tens and laps led.

Delivering a steady performance at Richmond will be one of Byron’s goals.

Though Byron does not expect the new short track package to disrupt his team Sunday night, he said that he will be able to pass cars if he has speed.

“I think we maybe overestimated the difference (with the package) there at first, so honestly we’re just trying to do the same things and just adapt to whatever the handling issues are,” Byron said.

“A lot of people have asked me ‘Is it easier to pass? Is it harder.’ I don’t really care; I just want my race car to go fast.”

Top Picks for the NASCAR Cup Series race at Richmond.

2. The start of an important stretch

Toyota has already achieved success this season with both Denny Hamlin and Christopher Bell celebrating wins. According to Toyota drivers, the success needs to continue over the next two months.

“I think we’re all hypersensitive about where we’re at,” Bubba Wallace said. “I think like Denny said in a meeting, ‘The next five, six races are set up for Toyota, so don’t fumble.’”

This stretch of races starts with Richmond and continues with Martinsville, Texas, Talladega and Dover. After that is Kansas, the track where Toyota has won all four Next Gen races.

For Wallace, this stretch is critical as he tries to return to the playoffs. He has wins at Talladega and Kansas. He won the pole at Texas last season and led 111 laps before finishing third.

The importance of the stretch is increased by the first six races this season. Wallace started the year with back-to-back fifth-place finishes. He has since finished 15th or worse in the four races leading into Richmond.

“After race four, we were having a come to Jesus meeting,” Wallace said. “So we don’t care that it’s early. It’s the same start as I’ve always had and I said I didn’t want that.”

3. A winless streak

Ford drivers have failed to win a race this season. Ryan Blaney’s win at Martinsville last October marks the last time a Mustang reached victory lane.

This isn’t entirely out of the ordinary in the Next Gen era. Ford drivers Joey Logano and Blaney may have won both championships since NASCAR changed cars but there have been multiple stretches since 2022 where Ford went seven races without a win.

As Brad Keselowski said Saturday, he believes that Ford has over-delivered in the Next Gen era considering the lack of overall speed. They have won some races, celebrated two championships and Austin Cindric’s Daytona 500 win.

“I think there’s a lot to be proud of there, but certainly we’d like to be in a spot where week over week we’re the fastest cars as a manufacturer and kind of dominating races,” Keselowski said.

“That’s not where we’re at today. I don’t think we fully realized the potential of the car when we switched over to the new Dark Horse Mustang. I suspect that we’ll start to realize that potentially in the next couple of months.”

Will Richmond be a track where Ford snaps its current winless streak? This is possible considering that Keselowski and teammate Chris Buescher combined to lead 190 laps in last summer’s race at Richmond. Buescher won while Keselowski finished sixth.

“I feel like we’ve been really strong — not very strong in qualifying but we weren’t very strong in qualifying last year either,” Keselowski said. “But our practice run was one of the best and I think that bodes well for us.”