NASCAR: 2021 Federated Auto Parts 400 preview, predictions

NASCAR: 2021 Federated Auto Parts 400 preview, predictions
The playoffs continue on Saturday. Photo via: Wiki Commons.

The NASCAR Cup Series heads to the Commonwealth of Virginia this week for the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway. This race is number two of three in the first round of the playoffs as each of the 16 drivers look to extend their season. This track is probably the tamest of the three in this round, so it will be important to get a good finish here before one of the wildcard races at Bristol next week. Richmond is a track that usually features a lot of side-by-side racing and long green flag runs, as there were only two cautions for accidents in the spring. Look for many crew chiefs to use pit strategy to play a role in the results.

Last week, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson battled it out all the way to the final corner in one of the best finishes of the season. On the last lap of the race, Kyle Larson decided to go full-throttle all the way in turn four and ride the wall in a last-ditch effort to pass Hamlin, but to no avail as Hamlin picked up his first win of 2021.

While Larson and Hamlin came out pretty well, the same couldn't be said for most of the playoff field, ten drivers were involved in accidents including Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, and Alex Bowman. It was Kyle who got himself into trouble though. In stage one, Busch moved down on Austin Dillon and crashed in turn two. It wasn't until after he got to pit lane where the real trouble began. Entering the garage area, Busch plowed through most of the orange cones at the entrance and nearly ran over multiple crew members. Because of this, Kyle was fined $50,000. Many thought the penalty was not nearly as severe as it should have been, some even called for a suspension which would have crippled his championship chances. While I agree that the move was incredibly stupid and some sort of action was needed, I believe a suspension would have been too harsh.

On the other side of the Busch gene pool, Kyle's brother Kurt had an excellent showing after coming home sixth. This team continues to quietly impress as he scored 44 points by finishing in the top ten in both stages. He is becoming quite the dark horse to really do some damage and make it out of the first round. Kurt will be one to watch, come Saturday.

There were headlines aplenty off the track as rumors are now swirling that two new tracks will be added to the 2022 schedule, one of those tracks being World Wide Technology Raceway in St. Louis, a short track staple among the Midwest. This was certainly a big announcement, but what really grabbed most people's attention was the possibility of a Cup Series race at the LA Coliseum! The race would take the place of the Clash at Daytona as the cars will run a short-track configuration. This will be quite the experiment as this hasn't happened since the 1950s when they raced at Solider Field. If they make this work, it will be a marvel of engineering. I look forward to hearing more about this in the coming months.

For now the focus remains at Richmond Raceway and the favorite to win this week has to be Kyle Larson. After last week's performance, he will be starting from the pole come Saturday and this is a track he's fast at as he's led 129 laps over the past three races here. Despite all the speed he's had at Richmond, he still has yet to score a victory there, but I have a feeling that could all change this week. Look for Larson to punch his ticket to the next round with a victory this weekend.

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Allen had high praise for Diggs. Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images.

Impersonal as it might seem to have their dynamic on-field relationship end with an exchange of phone texts, Bills quarterback Josh Allen made it clear on Thursday how much receiver Stefon Diggs meant to him during their four seasons together in Buffalo.

Allen made no mention of Diggs’ mercurial temperament or the occasional sideline flare-ups by expressing only praise in his first opportunity to discuss his now-former teammate being traded to the Houston Texans earlier this month.

“Just thanking him for everything that he did for me, and (I’ll) always have a spot in my heart for him. I’ll always love that guy like a brother. And I wish him nothing but the best,” Allen said, in disclosing what he texted to Diggs. “My lasting memory of Stef will be the receiver that helped me become the quarterback that I am today.”

Brought together in March 2020, when Buffalo gave up a first-round draft pick to acquire Diggs in a trade with Minnesota, the duo went on to re-write many of Buffalo's single-season passing and scoring records, and lead the team to four straight AFC East titles.

Diggs, now 30, also brought an inescapable sense of drama with him in raising questions about his commitment to the Bills and whether his tight relationship with Allen had soured.

A day before being traded, Diggs posted a message, “You sure?” on the social media platform X in response to someone suggesting he wasn’t essential to Allen’s success.

Whatever hard feelings, if any, lingered as Buffalo opened its voluntary workout sessions this week were not apparent from Allen or coach Sean McDermott, who also addressed reporters for the first time since Diggs was traded.

“Stef’s a great player, really enjoyed our time together. Won a lot of games and he was a huge factor in winning those games. We’ll miss him,” McDermott said. “You never replace a player like Stef Diggs, and we wish him well.”

Allen turned his focus to the future and a Bills team that spent much of the offseason retooling an aging and expensive roster.

Aside from trading Diggs, salary cap restrictions led to Buffalo cutting respected center Mitch Morse, the breakup of a veteran secondary that had been together since 2017, and the team unable to afford re-signing No. 2 receiver Gabe Davis.

“I don’t think it’s a wrong thing or a bad thing to get younger,” said Allen, entering his seventh NFL season. “I think it’s an opportunity for myself to grow as a leader. And to bring along some of these young guys and new guys that we’ve brought in to our team. And that’s an opportunity, frankly, that I’m very excited about."

Despite the departures, the Bills offense is not exactly lacking even though general manager Brandon Beane is expected to target selecting a receiver with his first pick — currently 28th overall — in the draft next week.

Receiver Khalil Shakir enters his third year and tight end Dalton Kincaid enter his second following promising seasons. Buffalo also added veteran experience in signing free agent receiver Curtis Samuel and Mack Hollins.

While Beane acknowledged the Bills lack a true No. 1 receiver, he noted there’s less urgency to fill that spot now than in 2020 because of how much the offense has developed under Allen.

“Now that Josh has ascended to the player he is, is that a requirement? I don’t think so,” Beane said.

Diggs’ role also began diminishing in the second half of last season, which coincided with Joe Brady replacing Ken Dorsey as offensive coordinator. Brady placed an emphasis on adding balance to a pass-heavy attack and getting more receivers involved, which led to an uptick in production for Shakir and Kincaid.

While Diggs’ numbers dropped, Buffalo’s win total increased.

With the Bills at 6-6, Diggs ranked third in the NFL with 83 catches, seventh with 969 yards and tied for third with eight TDs receiving. Buffalo then closed the season with five straight wins in which Diggs combined for 24 catches for 214 yards and no scores.

”(Diggs) meant a lot. You look at the statistics, they don’t lie,” Allen said, in referring to Diggs topping 100 catches and 1,000 yards in each of his four seasons in Buffalo. “I don’t get paid to make changes on the team. I get paid to be the best quarterback that I can be and try to lead the guys on this team.”

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