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The Best Seat at the Track, The Best View on the Net!
April 30th, 2012
Volume V, Edition LXXIV
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by Jeff Wolfe
Several teams found ways to lose Saturday night's Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Raceway.
But as has become a rite of spring at the Virginia track, Kyle Busch found a way to win. Busch won his fourth straight spring race at the 3/4-mile oval, a 24th career victory that came partly because he and his team didn't make a crucial mistake in the final stages of the 400-lap race. After a strong pit stop put the No. 18 out front, Busch pulled away on the final restart of the night and easily held off Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Tony Stewart. But Lady Luck helped out, too. Leading just 32 laps, it was a shocking turn of events for the No. 18 team; until a final caution for debris with 12 laps left, Busch was two seconds behind Stewart and seemingly destined for second place.
"Wherever that last caution came from, that was the saving grace, just the luck of the day, and put us in the right position there coming down pit road behind Tony," said Busch, who broke a tie with Richard Petty for the most consecutive spring victories at Richmond. "The guys did a fast pit stop, got us the lead off pit road, which was a huge advantage, just being able to give me the control of the restart and not have to wait on Tony or cause myself to spin my tires or what have you and get behind.
"So it really helped me out, and once I got out front, I knew I had ten laps. I could abuse the heck out of that thing and drive it for all it was worth and didn't have to save any tires."
That fifth and final caution with 14 laps remaining was a losing proposition for Stewart. He had led 72 consecutive laps at that point and had a comfortable lead on Busch when the yellow flag was waved, apparently for what was believed to be a water bottle on the backstretch.
"That's what it looked like to me," Stewart said. "I mean, it was out of the groove. It had been sitting there for eight laps."
Busch admitted the finish might have been different if not for the final yellow flag.
"No, I was losing half a tenth to a tenth on every lap to what Tony was doing up there," Busch said when asked if he could have closed the gap under green. "No catching Stewart without that caution."
NASCAR, according to sources claimed there was a piece of sheet metal on the backstretch. But in terms of the race outcome, the caution cannot be taken back; and when it happened, the leaders all came in for tires and Busch's crew was better than Stewart's. Busch's No. 18 team had a stop of 12.4 seconds while Stewart's team appeared to have a slight delay on the right front, causing a stop of 14.9 seconds.
"We gave it away on pit road," Stewart said. "We've got some work to do on pit stops. I don't know what happened on that last one. I'm a little ticked off about that right now."
Stewart wasn't the only driver to leave in a bit of foul mood. Carl Edwards appeared to have the dominant car on the night, leading 206 laps and looking to win his first race of the year. But after a confusing caution on lap 311, coming in the middle of green flag stops Stewart was listed as the leader, while Edwards was in second place... or so everyone thought. A miscommunication somewhere between NASCAR and Edwards' spotter, Jason Hedlesky, left Edwards' No. 99 team thinking it had the lead.
Since Edwards took off on the restart to easily beat Stewart, who appeared to spin his tires, NASCAR penalized Edwards for beating the leader to the line and also for starting before reaching the designated restart box. Edwards' crew chief, the normally calm Bob Osborne argued vehemently with NASCAR officials about the penalty, but to no avail.
"I was on the outside and thought Tony Stewart was the leader on the inside," Edwards said. "NASCAR told my spotter about three seconds before the restart that the 99 was the leader. They put us on the scoreboard as the leader and I realized I was at a disadvantaged position on the outside and NASCAR made a little mistake. I got the best start I could and Tony didn't start or spun his tires and NASCAR black flagged us. I don't know why they black flagged me. I don't think it is right and I don't agree with it."
Stewart, however, thought there was no question that his No. 14 car was out front.
"Well, we were the first one to line up and we were the leader on the board," he said. "So, I don't know how much clearer it could be that we were the leader. If that was the case, then they should have put the caution out and given him the opportunity to choose the lane that he wanted. It's a miscommunication between upstairs and the drivers."
For the record, the lap before the restart Edwards crossed the line in front of Stewart, triggering electronic scoring that put the No. 99 on top of the scoring pylon. It's unknown why NASCAR allowed this switch to happen, even under caution if the No. 14 was actually the leader of the race.
Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 was a third contender, but his shot at a first win of the season ended not because of a miscommunication, but because of a missing tire carrier during pit stops on that same caution. The tire was rolled all the way across the pit box, a violation of NASCAR rules that put Johnson in the back of the pack for the final 100 laps. He did rally for a sixth-place finish, but left Hendrick Motorsports stuck on 199 total victories.
"Stuff happens, it's racing," Johnson said. "The good news is we had a very fast race car. I certainly wish we didn't have that mistake."
After Busch, the top 5 ended up being Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Stewart, Denny Hamlin, and Kasey Kahne. Johnson, Clint Bowyer, polesitter Mark Martin, Brad Keselowski and Edwards rounded out the top 10. Attendance was listed at 88,000 fans, and there were five caution flags for 31 laps.
While Earnhardt's winless streak is now at 138 races, he is just five points behind leader Greg Biffle, who finished 18th. Earnhardt never really had a chance to win until late, but everyone else's mistakes still couldn't give him just that little extra speed he needed underneath the No. 88 Chevrolet.
"We were running about fifth all night, and just got lucky on that restart to be on the inside and get a couple spots," Earnhardt Jr. said of his runner-up positioning. "We just kind of got lucky there at the end on a couple things to gain a couple extra spots. But we ran good. We were terrible last year at this track and I really like running here, and I just was curious as to why we weren't performing as well. So it feels good to run all right here."
The front of that pack might have had a different look if not for so many mistakes. Instead, it had quite the familiar look, in the spring anyway, with the No. 18 car in Victory Lane once again and giving Busch another happy birthday week.
"I guess being the last week of April, first week in May, birthday week, it's always kind of fun, too," said Busch, who will turn 27 on Wednesday. "I won here on my birthday two years ago and coming up on another birthday. Every time I come to Richmond in the spring its really good, but yet I feel really bad because I'm getting older."
Next for The Sprint Cup series is a return to Talladega Superspeedway for the Aaron's 499. Coverage starts with a special full hour edition of FOX's Pre-Race Show at Noon EDT (11 AM CDT), with actual race coverage starting at 1 PM.
Jeff Wolfe is a Contributor for Frontstretch.com. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tracking the Chase: Biffle's Lead Shrinks With Poor Finish
by Jeff Wolfe
Greg Biffle had been the model of consistency in the first eight Sprint Cup races of the season, including a win at Texas two weeks ago, giving him a solid advantage in the overall point standings. However, Biffle had his first disappointment of the season Saturday night at Richmond with an 18th-place finish. The No. 16 was never in contention, falling a lap behind early and never so much as sniffed the top 10.
That, coupled with Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s second-place finish, has put Biffle's lead at five points heading into Sunday's race at Talladega. Earnhardt Jr. picked up two spots as did third-place Denny Hamlin, who is now just nine points back after a solid top-5 performance at his hometown track. Matt Kenseth sits fourth, while the biggest loser in points on the night was Martin Truex, Jr. He dropped from second to fifth in the standings after a 25th-place result. However, he is just 22 markers behind Biffle.
Jimmie Johnson now sits sixth in points, followed by Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, and Ryan Newman. Richmond winner Kyle Busch, who is now in 11th, 73 points back owns the first "wild card." But one driver trying to reach the top 10 fell back Saturday night. Joey Logano, who came into the race 12th in the standings, dropped three spots to 15th with a 24th-place performance. It's looking like a victory for the No. 20 will be needed for Chase contention.
The good news, bad news finish of the night went to Jeff Gordon, who ran 23rd. The good news is he picked up a spot in the standings to move up to 17th. The bad news? He missed a golden opportunity to make a jump with Biffle's poor finish. Plus, with Busch's win Gordon would need to be at least 13th to have a shot at the second "wild card," assuming he can pick up a victory during the rest of the Cup Series season.
Another gainer in the standings was Brad Keselowski, the final "wild card" who is now 13th. He moved up two spots with a ninth-place finish.
Standings: 1) Greg Biffle 338, 2) Dale Earnhardt, Jr. -5, 3) Denny Hamlin -9, 4) Matt Kenseth -10, 5) Martin Truex, Jr. -22, 6) Jimmie Johnson -24, 7) Kevin Harvick -25, 8) Tony Stewart -31, 9) Carl Edwards -51, 10) Ryan Newman -60.
Wild Cards: Kyle Busch, 1 win, 11th in points; Brad Keselowski 1 win, 13th in points.
Race Winners: Matt Kenseth (Daytona), Denny Hamlin (Phoenix, Kansas), Tony Stewart (Las Vegas, Fontana), Brad Keselowski (Bristol), Ryan Newman (Martinsville), Greg Biffle (Texas), Kyle Busch (Richmond).
Tracking The Top 35: Don't Look Now, But No. 10 On The Bubble Again
It was a few weeks ago at Martinsville that David Reutimann, driving the No. 10 car, was at the center of controversy; he stayed on the track with an ailing car to try and keep Tommy Baldwin Racing inside the top 35 in owner points, which guarantees it a spot in the next race. Well, after Saturday night's showdown in Richmond, the No. 10 car fell back one spot in the point standings and is now 35th again. The good news for Reutimann and team owner Tommy Baldwin is that there is a 21-point lead over the No. 33 vehicle owned by Joe Falk, making it fairly certain they'll have a "locked in" position after next week's race at Talladega. Why is that important? Danica Patrick returns to Cup racing the following week, attempting to qualify that No. 10 car at Darlington Raceway.
The No. 38 driven by David Gilliland had mechanical problems Saturday night; time behind the wall left him dropping two spots in the standings to 31st after finishing 36th. However, he still has a 35-point lead on the 36th-place vehicle; Falk's car has struggled since being bought from Richard Childress Racing. Stephen Leicht drove it to 35th on Saturday night, the last car running that did not spend any in-race time inside the garage.
The No. 83 car driven by Landon Cassill moved up to the 34th spot after a 20th-place finish Saturday. The run was Cassill's best of the season for the young BK Racing outfit.
Here's your owner point standings around the all-important cutoff:
29) BK Racing (No. 93 - Travis Kvapil), 38 points ahead of 36th.
30) Front Row Motorsports (No. 34 - David Ragan), 37 points ahead of 36th.
31) Front Row Motorsports (No. 38 - David Gilliland), 35 points ahead of 36th.
32) FAS Lane Racing (No. 32 - Reed Sorenson), 31 points ahead of 36th.
33) Tommy Baldwin Racing / Stewart-Haas Racing (No. 36 - Dave Blaney), 27 points ahead of 36th.
34) BK Racing (No. 83 - Landon Cassill), 11 points ahead of 36th.
35) Tommy Baldwin Racing / Stewart-Haas Racing (No. 10 - David Reutimann), 21 points ahead of 36th.
36) Richard Childress Racing / LJ Racing (No. 33 – Stephen Leicht), 21 points behind 35th.
37) Inception Motorsports (No. 30 - David Stremme), 44 points behind 35th.
38) Robinson-Blakeney Racing (No. 49 - J.J. Yeley), 47 points behind 35th.
39) Front Row Motorsports (No. 26 - Josh Wise), 58 points behind 35th.
40) Wood Brothers Racing (No. 21 - Trevor Bayne), 60 points behind 35th.
Jeff Wolfe is a Contributor for Frontstretch.com. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
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Secret Star Of The Race: The Best Run You Never Saw
The last time we talked about Paul Menard at Richmond, it was for all the wrong reasons. Last Fall, his late-race spinout in the grass, after falling many laps behind for an earlier wreck was suspicious at best, intentional at worst in a move that could have decided the Chase. That caution, allowing teammate Kevin Harvick to close the gap on Jeff Gordon and make a late-race pass for the win swung three crucial bonus points.
This time, it was Menard's No. 27 crew stealing the spotlight, jawing with Jimmie Johnson's team and then helping point out a penalty that doomed the No. 48 car's chances to win. But in the midst of As The Pit Road Turns, Menard's actual on-track performance was completely lost in the shuffle. Finishing 13th, on the lead lap this driver conquered his biggest weakness: only two of his 19 career top-10s have come on short tracks, including a giant goose egg at the ¾-mile oval. It's a run made all the more impressive considering Menard's primary car was demolished in a crash during Friday's practice; instead of folding, the team focused hard and put together a setup and strategy that worked.
"Everything that could go wrong went wrong," said the driver about the events leading into Saturday night's race. "We had a really fast car and wrecked it. We didn't have much time with the backup car and qualified really terrible. Grant (Hutchins, team engineer), Slugger (Labbe, crew chief) all the guys got together last night and came up with some changes to do to the car overnight and this morning and it worked. This is the second best car I've ever had here. The first we wrecked on Friday. Thirteenth isn't something to write home about, but after the weekend that we had, it is a good finish."
Menard should be a tad more optimistic. Nine races into 2012, with nearly all his worst tracks in the rear-view mirror he sits 14th in points, 29 behind Ryan Newman in 10th and with welcoming Talladega on the horizon. Could last year's upset winner at Indianapolis eke out another surprise, this time down in Alabama? Score one there, at Michigan in June or even at the Brickyard again this July and this consistently underrated driver is very much in the thick of Chase contention. – Tom Bowles
STAT OF THE WEEK: 80%. That's the number of Sprint Cup cautions that were competition-based or caused by "debris" in the last three races (eight of ten). What were the lone exceptions? One-car spins by Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch at Kansas and Richmond, respectively in which both cars kept going without a problem. Even Jeff Burton's bout with the wall Saturday night initially didn't cause a yellow flag; it took a few laps before officials felt there was enough debris on the track to put out the safety car. It's a percentage that takes clean racing to a whole new level; but with Talladega on the horizon, it's also one that should change in a big way this coming Sunday. – Tom Bowles
TODAY ON THE FRONTSTRETCH:
Matt McLaughlin's Thinkin' Out Loud: Richmond-1 Race Recap
by Matt McLaughlin
The Big Six: Questions Answered After The Capital City 400
by Amy Henderson
Pace Laps: BumperGate 2012 - The Aftermath, 'Calling' It Like It Is And Indy Pairings
by the Frontstretch Staff
Q: The 1987 Winston 500 is best known for the high speeds and Bobby Allison's scary crash into the catchfence on Lap 21. However, Darrell Waltrip's day was effectively ruined despite not even being involved in the crash. What happened?
Check back Tuesday for the answer, here in the Frontstretch Newsletter!
Q: In September, 1997, the late Kenny Irwin, Jr. made his Winston Cup debut at Richmond from the front row and earned a top-10 finish. For whom did he make his debut, and where did the equipment likely come from?
A: Irwin's No. 27 Tonka Ford was fielded by David Blair Racing, a team that was purchased from Junior Johnson during the 1995 season. By 1997, the team had been struggling without a full-time sponsor in the series for 18 months and was running a part-time schedule. Irwin had already procured a contract to drive the No. 28 Texaco/Havoline Ford full-time for 1998 and needed to get some Cup experience prior to the start of his rookie season, so Robert Yates Racing sought out David Blair's operation to put Irwin in the seat. Sponsorship for these races came from Action Performance and a number of different toy brands (Tonka, Nerf, GI Joe, etc.). These cars were all later released by Winner's Circle, Action's budget-priced brand.
Coming Tomorrow in the Frontstretch Newsletter:
-- Top News from Kevin Rutherford
-- Sitting In the Stands: A Fan's View by S.D. Grady
-- This Week's Topic: Travis Wants To Beat The Girls?
-- Links to your favorite Frontstretch articles, and more!
Coming Tomorrow On The Frontstretch:
5 Points To Ponder by Bryan Keith
Bryan's back with plenty of storylines that will have you thinking hard about racing this Tuesday.
Who's Hot / Who's Not in Sprint Cup Presented by StarCoach Race Tours: Richmond-Talladega Edition by Brett Poirier
With nine races in the books, Brett looks at what trends are developing in NASCAR's two top series and which drivers are doing great, and who simply aren't.
The Yellow Stripe by Danny Peters
Danny returns with another thoughtful commentary looking ahead to Talladega.
Couch Potato Tuesday by Phil Allaway
This past weekend, the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series each competed at Richmond International Raceway. Meanwhile, the Izod IndyCar Series took their third trip to Sao Paulo, Brazil. Were the race telecasts for these events up to snuff? Find out in this week's edition of the TV Critique.
We'll have a special guest stop by on a weekly basis to discuss the technical aspects of our sport.
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