Richmond Race Ranks As One Of The Best, For Many Reasons

RICHMOND, Va. – The Wonderful Pistachios 400 at Richmond International Raceway was the most entertaining race of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season for many reasons.

It lived up to its billing as a potentially emotion-charged event featuring some edgy drivers. It was also described as a race in which competitors with nothing to lose would entertain fans by taking chances, which they did.

It was characterized, often, as a race that would magnetize our attention because it would determine the starting field for the Chase.

And it was what it has always been: A race conducted on a tough short track that provides singular challenges to competitors. As they attempt to meet those challenges, anything can happen.

Saturday night at Richmond, it did.

Before it was half complete, the race looked like a demolition derby. It was supposed to be conducted by 43 of the best drivers in the world but to many it looked like they failed to show up and were replaced by amateurs.

Perhaps the numerous wrecks, and resulting caution periods, were simply coincidental. But it’s more likely hard racing fueled by daring and even desperation caused them.

It’s a given that for cars to get three abreast at Richmond is to invite disaster. It happened regularly.

Chase scenarios changed with almost every passing lap.

Early in the race it appeared the “playoff” hopes of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin – and even Clint Bowyer’s slim chances – were dashed. All three were involved in accidents.

The cars of Earnhardt Jr. and Hamlin were thoroughly beaten up. In fact, over the radio a disgusted and frustrated Earnhardt expressed his anger over his battered car’s performance.

While he was doing that, durned if he wasn’t involved in two more accidents. They were with Travis Kvapil. Kvapil whacked Earnhardt Jr. to create the first and the second? Well, suffice it to say it was payback from the Hendrick Motorsports driver.

Earnhardt Jr. might have been frustrated for another reason. As he toiled just to hold his position in the back of the pack, Brad Keselowski, the man who could oust him from the top 10 in points, raced his way into the top 10 – and then into the top five.

For a long time Earnhardt Jr.’s hold on a Chase starting spot was tenuous. The last thing his anxious fans wanted to see was their favorite driver fail in the last race before the “playoffs” begin.

But as the race progressed, Keselowski faded and Earnhardt Jr. – who benefited from three “lucky dog” scenarios that allowed him to regain three lost laps – moved up a handful of positions.

When the race was over, Keselowski was in 12th place, Earnhardt Jr. 16th. Earnhardt Jr. held on to his top-10 position and eked into the Chase.

Keselowski is in as a “wildcard” entry by virtue of his three victories on the season.

Meanwhile, Hamlin, normally a force at Richmond, which is his hometown track, was not a factor, at least as far as victory was concerned.

He persevered to finish ninth and he also made the Chase – as the second and final “wildcard” selection.

For a time, it seemed Bowyer would buck the odds. He was 14th in points going into the race and had virtually no chance to make the Chase.

To do so, first, he had to win. He tried hard as he moved into the top five. But he, too, came up short as he finished 22nd.

As did David Ragan, who also had to win to move into the top 20 in points and made the Chase field with two victories on the season. Ragan also raced into the top five.

But at the finish he was in fourth place and out of the Chase – barely. It was a solid effort.

As if the ever-changing Chase scenarios didn’t make Richmond galvanizing enough, five-time champion Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch got into it again – not once, but twice.

After their run-in, confrontation and name-calling in Pocono, while virtually everyone figured Johnson and Busch wouldn’t have dinner together, they thought the case was closed.

Not so. At Richmond, Busch locked up his tires and slid into Johnson, who hit the wall. Johnson later deliberately clipped Busch’s rear end to cause both of them to spin.

Johnson completed 362 of 400 laps and finished 31st. Busch came home in fifth place. The name-calling continues and folks are eager to see what the two might do over the final 10 races of the season.

Kevin Harvick won the race to earn the second seed in the Chase. The top position went to Kyle Busch, sixth place at Richmond.

The three drivers in the most danger of not making the Chase prior to Richmond did indeed make the “playoffs” – but not, as said, before some very anxious moments.

Tony Stewart, who finished a comfortable seventh at Richmond, Earnhardt Jr., and Hamlin are all in. Stewart is the ninth seed, Earnhardt Jr. 10th and Hamlin 12th, behind Keselowski.

There were times during the Richmond race when it appeared not all of them would advance and would be overtaken by the prodigious efforts of others.

That’s one reason the Wonderful Pistachios 400, nearly always an exciting event on the challenging short track that is Richmond, was more riveting than ever – and one of the best races of the year.

No Doubt, Keselowski Shows Signs Of Stardom

We’ve seen this before in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing.

A young, unheralded driver comes along and accomplishes things not expected him. His achievements are so great and so startling that, in our eyes, he transforms quickly.

Instead of a youngster who someday might be great he becomes a veteran who is now familiar and a proven success.

In seasons past, such drivers had names like Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Tim Richmond, Davey Allison and, yes, Jeff Gordon.

And now there’s Brad Keselowski.

Keselowski was thought of by many – a great many – as a developmental driver, one who, with the proper experience and nurturing, might become a driver worthy of the ride he has at Penske Racing.

As far as “developmental” goes, Keselowski seems to have gone well past that.

In his last four races, the 27-year-old driver from Rochester Hills, Mich., has won twice, finished second once and third another time.

What is mind boggling is that he has achieved this enviable streak of success while driving on a broken left ankle, which he suffered in a wreck at Road Atlanta just before the Pocono race in early August – which he won.

His rise into the competitive stratosphere continued Saturday night when he won the Irwin Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway to earn his third victory of the season – second among all competitors – and almost certainly earned at least a “wildcard” entry into the Chase.

Keselowski, who won a fuel mileage race in Kansas in June, has shot to 11th in points, just 21 points behind struggling Tony Stewart and, with his victories, is No. 1 among “wildcard” contenders.

The other driver who ranks among the top 20 who has a victory is Denny Hamlin, who is 13th in points, finished seventh at Bristol and has endured a mediocre season.

Keselowski was steady throughout the Bristol race and made his winning move as the laps wound down.

Under caution on lap 413, Keselowski pitted and came out in second place alongside Martin Truex Jr., who pitted for two tires only.

Keselowski got a jump on the restart and passed Truex Jr. on lap 421 and pulled away.

“Man, I used to watch guys like Dale Earnhardt and Tony Stewart win this race,” said an enthusiastic Keselowski. “This is a race of champions. Some pay more and some have more prestige, but this is the coolest one of all.”

Before Pocono, Keselowski ranked 21st in points with the lone victory at Kansas – out of Chase consideration.

But over the course of the next four races, he has climbed 10 positions in the standings and evolved into the hottest driver of the Cup circuit – something virtually no one expected.

“We’re just a team that starts to click and believe in each other,” Keselowski explained. “We’ve just made good adjustments to our car over the last few months.”

A 27-year-old driver from Rochester Hills, Mich., and a member of a racing family, Keselowski began NASCAR competition in the Camping World Truck Series in 2008, the same year he ran a couple of Sprint Cup races for Rick Hendrick.

He won at Talladega in 2009 in a wild finish with Carl Edwards while driving for James Finch, thereby giving the journeyman team owner is first Cup victory.

But most considered Keselowski’s victory at the 2.66-mile Alabama track, known for unusual finishes, nothing more than a fluke.

Roger Penske put Keselowski to work in 2010. The driver won the Nationwide Series title and competed in 36 Cup events. It took him 32 races to get his first top-10 finish, but he did earn his first career pole position at New Hampshire.

As mentioned, Keselowski was viewed as Penske’s developmental driver, a subordinate to veteran Kurt Busch, the 2004 champion.

Now, perhaps, the perception has changed. Keselowski is presently out-performing Busch, who, nevertheless, has a win and is comfortably among the top 10 in points with an eighth-place.

Busch appears destined to make the Chase, which means the odds are good both Penske cars will be in NASCAR’s “playoff.”

Stewart finished 28th at Bristol and is in danger of failing to make the Chase. If he loses his lead over Keselowski or Clint Bowyer (who, at 12th, is only a single point out of 11th), he’s out.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is ninth in points, 18 ahead of Stewart with two races remaining before the Chase begins. While it’s still not certain if he’ll qualify, his position in certainly more secure than Stewart’s.

With a couple weeks to go, the Chase scenario remains uncertain. The only drivers who are assured starting positions are Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards, who rank from first to fourth, respectively, in points.

Where he was once considered a long shot to make the Chase field, Keselowski is now a long shot only to NOT make it.

His accomplishments over the last month have indicated to many that he has the potential to become NASCAR’s next superstar – especially since he’s performed so well and courageously under circumstances that might have forced other competitors to the sideline.

Although he’s shown signs that it will happen, we don’t yet know if Keselowski will indeed become another Allison or Gordon.

All we do know is that the potential is certainly there. Keselowski has indeed shown us that – and in no small measure.

Brickyard A Critical race: Nationwide A Mistake

No doubt that the Brickyard 400 is an important race this season. This race will weed out more contenders for a Chase berth. Nationwide at the Indy Speedway is not a good idea. 50,000 people in the stands looks like 5,000 at a track Indy’s size.

Stewart Haas Victory Might, Just Might, Indicate A Corner Is Turned

It’s probably been suggested that what we saw in the Lenox Tools 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway is the kind of thing Hollywood used to grind out with its grade-B movies.

You know the formula: The hero gets down and a bit out but in the end he rises to the occasion and overcomes. All is well – the end and roll credits.

OK, New Hampshire’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race might not have been all that, but you have to admit it was something Hollywood might have come up with.

Ryan Newman won the race to earn his first victory of the year while his teammate, Tony Stewart, finished second, giving Stewart Haas Racing a sweep.

Funny thing, but one-two is the way they started. Newman won the pole and Stewart completed the front row.

That a pole winner actually goes on to win a race is something that doesn’t happen often at all. For the fastest one-two qualifiers to finish an event in that order is downright rare.

I can assure you that the last thing on Newman’ s and Stewart’s minds is how historically unusual the results at New Hampshire were. The two drivers were simply thrilled that it all happened the way it did.

It could not have come at a better time. For them, and Stewart Haas, the race was a needed tonic.

Newman was very pleased to finally notch a victory, his third at New Hampshire, and greatly improve his chances for a place in the Chase.

Stewart might not have won – and he remains winless this year – but his run eases, if just a bit, concerns that he might not make the Chase. He’s slightly better off now than he was a week ago.

I would venture to say Stewart also hopes it will shut up those in the media who have constantly questioned him about his mediocre season.

More on that later.

Newman’s victory elevated him from a precarious ninth in points to eighth. Yes, that isn’t a big leap but the win gives him a valuable insurance policy.

The top 10 in points seven races from now will make the Chase. Under NASCAR’s new policy, two “wildcard” entries will be claimed by two drivers with the most wins outside the top 10 but inside the top 20.

The win makes Newman a stronger bet to make the “playoff.”

Stewart still does not have the benefit of a victory and remains in 11th place in points after New Hampshire. He now has the same number of points as 10th-place Denny Hamlin (570). Hamlin, however, does have a victory – and thus the edge, as of now.

Stewart should be pleased with that but he’s probably even more pleased that his team gave such a strong performance when it was needed.

“This is huge,” said Stewart, who has already won two championships. “I mean, it’s huge. It’s no secret we’ve been struggling this year. But it really shows me the depth of the people we got in our organization. It’s been one of the weirdest years as far as just weird things and bad luck happening to both Ryan and me.

“Our guys at our shop just keep plugging away, they keep working, they keep their chins up. That’s probably what I’m most proud of. It’s easy when things are going right. But when times are tough and you have a day like today, you see how your organization battles. That shows the character of what Stewart Haas Racing is about, what our people are like.”

Newman led 119 of 301 laps and, despite some concerns otherwise, managed to avoid running out of gas before he took the checkered flag for his 15th career victory.

But he, too, acknowledged that race was not only beneficial to him, but also to Stewart Haas.

“I’m just really proud for us as an organization,” he said. “From my standpoint personally, it’s great to win. We had fought so hard over two and a half years to get (sponsor) U.S. Army in victory lane.

“From my standpoint, it’s just a great day. We backed up what everybody said we couldn’t back up, that was our qualifying effort on Friday. I had won three for 46, now four for 47.

“We put it on them today. We’ll relish this moment and figure out what we did right so we can keep doing it.”

Stewart, who became principal owner of the team in 2009, no doubt hopes he, Newman and the organization can indeed keep doing it. Then questions about their mediocrity will certainly cease.

Make no mistake, the Columbus, Ind., native is quite fed up such queries and made that known at New Hampshire.

At his weekly press conference at the track – he was late – Stewart knew what was in store. He’d heard it all before.

When asked to assess his season as a driver and an owner, he said, curtly:

“Same as we did last week and the week before. We’re not where we want to be and we’re working on it.

“I am frustrated because I keep having to answer the question. Are you happy when things aren’t going the way you want? Makes you frustrated, doesn’t it? So, yes, we’re frustrated.”

Stewart Haas might be turning the corner. Stewart has always been known as a driver whose performance level rises with the temperature.

However, this season things have been a bit reversed. Stewart led laps and compiled finishes good enough to put him first in points after three races. It’s been a struggle since.

And Stewart asserts the questions he’s asked always remain the same.

Really, though, how could he expect them to change until he finally reached victory lane?

Or, with teammate Newman, turn in a significantly improved performance that might, just might, indicate Stewart Haas has indeed started to heat up just in time?

Road Racing In Sprint Cup-The New Bristol

Were you to ask a NASCAR fan 5 years ago what they thought about the road races that NASCAR runs you would have by and large gotten a negative answer. The front-running opinion would have been that it’s boring and processional. No more. Nascar’s history has seldom been without a road race on the schedule with good reason. Bill France, Sr. liked it, he saw it as a way to make inroads into the Western United States and he knew most of the sports car racers of the day. In fact, he drove a Ferrari at Daytona one year, presumably for fun.

In the mid 1970’s it was unusual not to see what we called “Road Course Ringers” in the mix and up front. Now it’s Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon and all of those you might not have expected. It isn’t news that they enjoy it. But what about the fans?

If you were a fan of Bristol, as were we all, you saw bumping, beating and banging–you know, “Rubbin is Racin”. Since the repaving of that iconic little track that sort of enthusiasm hasn’t been seen. The drivers like it, but overwhelmingly the fans don’t. Road racing has taken its place.

The last two seasons from Sonoma to Watkins Glen have produced some of the most exciting door to door, bumping, pushing and temperature raising racing that NASCAR has to offer. How did this happen? NASCAR is more competitive than it’s ever been in its history. Sponsors expect a championship or at least an entry ticket to the big show, The Sprint Cup Chase. The points system is now such that a team must grab all they can in the beginning of the season because certain tracks, or styles of racing, have lent themselves to be unpredictable. Those styles would be road racing and restrictor plate racing. The teams simply don’t have a true handle or more often than not a strategy that survives the first shot. It’s a slugfest.

In road racing there is indeed a strategy and that is track position, fuel and tire management and, this is the best one, anger management. If you look at the races from Sonoma and Watkins Glen what you see is a group of about fifteen road course experts that would truly push their Granny off a cliff to be up front. That’s racing.

These races now represent a means to an end, it just depends on what your agenda may be. Are you trying to survive the event in order to preserve points? That won’t work anymore. Are you desperately in need of a win? That would include practically the whole field, particularly those who have to win to have any chance of making the Chase

. Truth is some of the drivers have to punch above their weight to stay near the front to gain precious points while the others, anyone from 7th in points down to

20th, have to Banzai their way to the front come hell or high water.

If this type of racing sounds familiar it should. It’s what Bristol used to be.In keeping with the corporate directive that NASCAR should be a family friendly sport, what could be more enjoyable than sitting on a nice hill overlooking the track, having a picnic with your family and watching 43 cars try to push each other out of the way? It’s comfortable, it’s exciting, no one runs away in a NASCAR road race and the skill required is easily seen by the fans. When’s the last time you could say that about Fontana?

If NASCAR drivers truly want to be considered the best in the world, they have to be able to navigate virtually any type of track. NASCAR has made great gains on the global stage, it’s time to bring the core fans to the party.

 

Earnhardt “Pissed Off” With Martin’s Driving


Dale Earnhardt Jr. was squeezed into the wall by Martin in the closing stages of the Michigan 400 NASCAR race yesterday. Earnhardt blew a tire and flattened the side of Earnhardt’s car. Denny Hamlin took his second win this year shuffling the points. http://www.motorsportsunplugged.com

Hamlin Does What We Thought He Would Do – At Last

A smattering of observations after the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400 (now that’s a helluva name) at Michigan International Speedway.

** Think is more than fair to say that most of us figured Denny Hamlin would have won a race by now – especially Hamlin.

After all, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver won eight races and nearly captured the Sprint Cup championship last year. As the season began, he was cast in the role as a driver who might end Jimmie Johnson’s five-year reign as champ.

Instead, Hamlin was winless entering the Michigan race and overcame a rough start to rise to 12th in points.

Hamlin was frustrated by his performance so far this season and he said so. But he also felt that Gibbs’ recent performances were evidence the team was on the verge of victory.

“In the last six or seven weeks, we’ve been as good as anyone,” Hamlin said. “Feels good to get a win after sneaking up on everyone.”

It seemed he sneaked up, somewhat, on the field at Michigan. His crew worked on his Toyota all day and, with some key adjustments, he worked his way to the front and took the lead on pit road with just eight laps left in the race.

After his team got his car tightened up, Hamlin made his way forward and emerged in second place after he pitted during a caution on lap 162.

Carl Edwards took the lead on the restart and stayed there, with Hamlin in tow, for the next 29 laps.

When Dale Earnhardt Jr. clipped the wall on lap 191, which brought out a caution flag with just eight laps remaining, Hamlin won the race off pit road.

He held off Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch, who finished second and third, on the restarts.

With his first victory of the season, Hamlin rose three positions in points, to ninth. He’s also firmly in contention for one of the two Chase “wildcard” positions should he not finish among the top 10 in points following Richmond in September.

“It’s so tough because you know you belong in the top-10 and you deserve to have a Chase spot, but the results don’t show for it,” Hamlin said. “So, for us, it’s good to kind of get over this hump, get our first win of the season and hopefully it’s the first of many.

“You have to pay attention to the points. If you’re not points racing at this point you’re not paying attention to the obvious, because with this new format you either got to win or you’ve got to be inside that top-10.”

The Michigan finish was Hamlin’s sixth among the top 10 this season. It was also his second consecutive victory in the spring race and his seventh top-10 finish in 10 races at the track.

Hamlin gave credit where it was due – to his team.

“Mike (Ford, crew chief) just kept working on this car,” Hamlin said. “At times we had a 10th-place car and at times we had the best car. We just didn’t get it all put together until right there at the end.

“I just can’t thank this whole team enough. Awesome pit stops – they are the ones that got me out in front on that last restart and that’s what we needed to win.”

Carl Edwards remains first in points with his fifth-place run and is now 20 points of Kevin Harvick, who finished 14th.

Earnhardt Jr. remains third in points despite a 21st-place finish following a late-race altercation with teammate Mark Martin. The finish was Earnhardt Jr.’s first outside the top 20 this year

Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson, a pre-race favorite, lasted only a handful of laps before he spun and broke the sway bar on his Chevrolet.

The Hendrick Motorsports team repaired the car but there just weren’t enough cautions for him to make up the lost ground. His 27th-place finish pushed him from second to fifth in points.

On the other hand, Paul Menard qualified ninth and finished fourth for his third top-five finish in 2011, the most in his career.

And in 13 starts this season, Landon Cassill hadn’t finished higher than 24th until he came home 12th at Michigan driving for Phoenix Racing.

 

The All-Star Race: Hype Wasn’t Reality, But That’s Not New

A few notes about the NASCAR Sprint Cup All Star Race:

 

** As usual, the race was hyped as a “dash for cash,” “checkers or wreckers,” and even “payback time,” because of its format.

As you know, the race is not about points. It’s all about money – at least $1 million to the winner – and is tailored to end with a 10-lap “shootout” finish, one in which drivers, supposedly, will take all manner of chances to win.

On paper it sounds good. And, admittedly, there have been some all-star races in the past in which a driver surprised everyone over the final 10 laps and pulled off an upset victory.

There has also been some closing-lap mayhem – plenty of it, in fact.

Not this year, however. It a race decidedly devoid of virtually everything for which it’s hyped, Carl Edwards pulled away over the final 10 laps to win easily and earn $1.2 million.

“Checkers or wreckers?” No one got close enough to Edwards to crash him. Hey, the Roush Fenway driver did it to himself.

After his victory, as he plowed through the frontstretch grass, the front end of his Ford dug into the sod, hit a drainage port and nearly turned over.

The car was severely damaged. Edwards was embarrassed but still entertained the crowd – a very large one, by the way – with his victory backflip and a dash into the grandstands with the checkered flag. He posed for photos with fans as the theme from “Flipper” (you read that right) played over the public address system.

For Edwards, the all-star race was “checkers AND wreckers,” but as far as many others were concerned, it was “boring and snoring.”

Normally, drivers do go somewhat bonkers in the special event and there’s usually plenty of crumpled metal to go around.

This time, there were just two unscheduled caution periods caused by two minor, one-car wrecks.

There were no frayed tempers, such as displayed last year when Denny Hamlin crowded teammate Kyle Busch into the wall during a fight for the lead, which prompted Busch to question the value of his teammate’s life.

There was, however, some good, hard racing among NASCAR’s top stars, such as Edwards, Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle and David Reutimann.

But when it comes to the all-star race, many folks think that’s just not enough. It’s not what the race is all about. They expect to see a free-for-all, a heavyweight slugfest with knockdowns aplenty.

And let’s be honest. That is exactly how the all-star race is hyped.

Hype did not become reality this year. But, in all honesty, that’s nothing new. We don’t always get what’s advertised.

 

** That said, there have been ongoing suggestions as to how the format of the all-star race might be changed so that it more often lives up to its billing.

These suggestions, offered by media and fans, started well before the race was over. That clearly indicated many observers weren’t pleased with what they saw.

The most prominent suggestions referred to shortening the race and eliminating episodes of what were called “momentum killers.”

The race was formatted thusly: It had a 50-lap opening during which there was a mandatory four-tire pit stop. There followed two 20-lap sessions. After the second, teams took a 10-minute intermission (with on-track running positions frozen) to make permissible changes to their cars.

Then followed another mandatory pit stop for four tires. This, ostensibly, would allow pit crews to play a role in the outcome. With fast, mistake-free work, they could advance their drivers’ starting position on the restart.

There followed the 10-lap “shootout.” In all, the race consisted of 100 laps.

The most prominent suggestions were to reduce the 50-lap opening segment; make it shorter so that drivers feel more urgency to get to the front rather than nurse their cars.

It was also mentioned that there is no need for the 10-minute intermission. It brings racing to a stop. Why not, some said, reduce the inactivity time? Simply throw a caution, require another pit stop and then restart the race – with cars aligned in the order they left pit road.

In a published report, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said that the 50-lap opening segment was too long and that the race would be better served if, overall, it was shorter.

“From a fans’ standpoint I think the first segment is too long,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Make the event a little shorter and make it a little more about the fireworks that the drivers provide in the event.”

Jeff Gordon, who has competed in the all-star race throughout all its mutations over the years, maintained that fewer cars and shorter segments are the answer.

“Let’s face it, it’s a 10-lap shootout,” Gordon said. “So it’s whatever process gets you to that 10 laps. The four different segments, to me, seem to be pulling and stretching things a bit.”

Gordon also favors the revitalization of the now-defunct inverted field created by a fan vote. It was put in place at least one segment before the final 10 laps.

“I thought that was pretty cool,” he said.

Other drivers, I’m sure, have their own opinions about the all-star race’s format.

Frankly, I can see where trimming some fat would help. An opening segment of 50 laps is too long – drivers have said they feel no sense of urgency and prefer to race calmly as they sort out their cars.

I also agree that the 10-minute intermission kills all racing momentum. Is it really needed?

But, to be honest, as far as NASCAR is concerned what I think doesn’t matter.

However, fan opinions do. I daresay the format of the NASCAR Sprint Cup All-Star race is reviewed every year. And we can assume the sanctioning body isn’t foolish enough to completely ignore its supporters’ views.

So if you feel the need, speak up. Change never comes for those who remain quiet.

 

Montoya Had Enough, So He Had At It

NASCAR’s Juan Montoya and Ryan Newman tangled twice at Richmond while Newman screamed foul. Every time a driver dumps somebody they apologize and say it wasn’t intentional. Montoya has had enough of it. His strikes back are intentional. http://www.motorsportsunplugged.com

Richmond: Thoughts On Busch, Montoya, Newman And A Bit More

A few random thoughts after the Crown Royal 400 at Richmond International Raceway:

** The 2011 Sprint Cup season is one-quarter over and, while it’s still too early to draw any real conclusions, some drivers whom we thought would be in the championship hunt, and aren’t, now have more pressure on them.

Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, Jeff Burton, Joey Logano, Greg Biffle and Jamie McMurray are some of the drivers who figured to rank among the top 10 by now, and thus Chase eligible, in many pre-season reports.

However, at present, Biffle ranks 14th in points and the others are 17th and beyond. It’s especially surprising to see Hamlin at 17th, given that he was considered the man who could potentially bring Jimmie Johnson’s string of five consecutive championships to an end.

A couple of tasks face these drivers. First, they have to start piling up decent finishes, and somewhat quickly. That, obviously, could lead to a rise in the point standings.

It can be done. Clint Bowyer provides ample proof of that. At Richmond, where he finished sixth, the Richard Childress Racing driver posted his fifth consecutive top-10 of the season. He has gained 17 positions in points in the last five races. He’s presently seventh in the standings.

But, while it can be done, what Bowyer has achieved isn’t routine in NASCAR. It’s the exception, not the rule.

Consequently, the aforementioned drivers, who will certainly do their utmost to match or better what Bowyer has done, can’t rely it alone.

That brings up an alternate strategy – which is to win.

With its revamped requirements for the Chase this year, the top 10 in points are eligible after 26 races. Also in the field are “wildcard” entries consisting of the two drivers ranked among the top 20 who have won the most races.

So if the mentioned drivers, not all of whom currently rank in the top 20, by the way, and several others not in the top 10 can win a race, that adds a measure of insurance.

Jeff Gordon, who is 16th in points, is the only driver outside the top 10 in points who has a victory (yes, Trevor Bayne is another but he is not eligible for the Cup championship). So at the moment, Gordon has an advantage.

Several others would, at the least, like to match it.

But if putting together a series of high finishes is an exception and not the norm in NASCAR, what do you think winning is?

As said, it’s early in the year and there’s time for any number of scenarios to play out.

What could prove to be a very exciting one for fans is for a few drivers, desperate to make the Chase as its start looms, throw strategy and caution to the wind and make an all-out lunge for victory.

It could happen. No, make that it will happen.

 

** Love him or hate him, Kyle Busch demands respect as a race driver.

His Richmond victory was the 21st of his young Cup career. He ranks third in NASCAR to achieve that many wins by the age of 26, behind Jeff Gordon (26) and Richard Petty (22).

That Busch won should not have been all that surprising. He now has won Richmond’s spring race three consecutive times, which ties him with Petty. Hamlin has won the other two races at RIR in the last three years, which gives Joe Gibbs Racing five straight victories at the 0.75-mile track – and eight overall.

Hamlin, incidentally, was the runnerup in the Crown Royal 400 and he dominated the Nationwide Series race on the previous night.

It’s not likely that Busch will ever be NASCAR’s most popular driver – but you never know. Wiseguy Darrell Waltrip was once, like Busch, called a jerk. But he was the fans’ choice twice in his career.

You don’t have to like Busch. But I think his talent should always be recognized, even if grudgingly.

** The incidents between Juan Pablo Montoya and Ryan Newman were not atypical of short-track racing.

First, Newman rubbed Montoya and sent him into the wall. Then, later in the race, Montoya did the same thing. Happens all the time.

The only difference was that while few chose to call Newman’s actions deliberate, there was little doubt about Montoya’s.

NASCAR warned both drivers about bad behavior and even told Montoya that if he got near Newman, his car would be ordered to its hauler.

Many media members felt the issue would spill over into the garage area, especially since the haulers of Montoya and Newman were parked almost alongside each other.

After the race there could be some good chin-to-chin action – or more. Hey, it’s happened.

Instead Montoya left the track without comment – a good move on his part. Newman went to the NASCAR hauler. He told the media he was going to ask the sanctioning body what it was going to do about all that happened.

In my opinion, that was another good move. If he did what he said he was going to do, Newman effectively put the ball into NASCAR’s court; for it to tell him, and all of us, how it is going to rule on the issue.

Had Newman and Montoya gotten into a scrap in the garage, NASCAR would have come down hard on both of them.

Had their entanglements on the track involved other cars, believe me, NASCAR would have acted swiftly.

As it is, it appears Newman stated his case to NASCAR and asked for a ruling. Smart move.

What will NASCAR do? If it hands out any punishment beyond probation I’d be surprised.

But NASCAR has surprised me many times.

 

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