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.

Bowyer Just Might Let It All Hang Out At Richmond

RICHMOND, Va. – It might be fun watching Clint Bowyer race tonight in the Wonderful Pistachios 400 Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Raceway.

Speaking of pistachios, RIR has a way of attracting unique sponsors, like Wonderful Pistachios and Crown Royal. Now THAT is an appealing combination.

Back to Bowyer. The native of Emporia, Kan., said during his press conference in RIR’s media center that, as far as race strategy goes, well, there is none.

In the position he’s in, both competitively and with the Richard Childress Racing team, there is no reason for it. It’s time to let it all hang out.

“Strategy, hey, it’s full speed ahead,” Bowyer said. “Hopefully, we’ll stay up front and lead all the laps and win the race.”

Uh, Clint, that ain’t original. Heck, every driver hopes for the same thing.

But in Bowyer’s case it’s all a reflection of what he thinks he must do at Richmond, and elsewhere, given the circumstances.

First, his chances of making the Chase aren’t good, which is saying it nicely. Even Bowyer jokingly admits that for him to rise from 14th in points into the top 10 – which is where he must be to enter the “playoffs” – is almost an impossible task.

“Yeah, we had an interesting situation where we had all the scenarios here,” Bowyer said with a smile. “Some mathematician is getting very smart in all the scenarios that he worked out for a press conference yesterday.

“Kasey Kahne and I were laughing. Basically, if everybody fell over dead before the race except for two cars and Kasey was able to beat them, then he was in.

“And then if half of them fell over dead and I won, then I was in.”

By the time Bowyer finished describing this “scenario,” he was laughing – and so were the media present. It was darn good material.

It was also accurate. Bowyer stood at least a mathematical chance of making the Chase until he was knocked out of the race at Atlanta – he finished 36th – after a crash with Juan Pablo Montoya.

Of course, Bowyer was unhappy with Montoya, whom he blamed for the fracas that essentially scrapped his chances for the Chase.

But he was more philosophical at Richmond.

“At the end of the day with the Juan thing, it was a racing deal,” Bowyer said. “There was a lot of frustration there and there was a lot on the line.

“Unfortunately, the guy that had nothing on the line, I felt he could have backed off and give a guy that had everything to lose in that situation a break.

“That’s where my frustration was. But it was my fault. I knew who I was racing with and I pushed the envelope and got bit.”

Also, rumors are building that Bowyer’s tenure with Childress is coming to an end. Even Childress admits it’s not likely a renewal deal with Bowyer is going to be struck. The team’s major sponsors are not returning for 2012.

Bowyer has been linked to Richard Petty Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing.

If it is indeed the end at Childress for Bowyer, it’s only logical that he makes it as palatable as possible. That translates into going all out to win one or more races.

“If I don’t stay it would be heart-breaking; a tough deal,” Bowyer said. “That’s family to me and it means a lot to me. I don’t forget where I was standing when I got a phone call to give me this opportunity and change my life.

“But the world goes on. You have to make decisions and those are performance-driven, business-driven, life, family, everything. It is a lot of decisions you go through and everybody goes through those in life. Us racers are no different.”

Bowyer admits it would have been ideal if his situation with Childress had long since been resolved. But since it is not, and he may have to drive for another team, that doesn’t mean his efforts to win should be any less.

“It’s tough in today’s world and you’ve got to be tough as well,” Bowyer said. “The pressure is off now. Now we can go. We can go out and contend for wins for the rest of the season. Sometimes it’s more fun to race under those circumstances.

“It just wasn’t our year. We didn’t do a good enough job and it’s up to us to cap off the season well. Just because you’re not part of the Chase doesn’t mean you don’t go out and try to end the season on a positive note.

“That’s important to me, it’s important to the race team and it’s important to the sponsors.”

He may be out of the Chase (maybe not if some folks keel over) and about to undergo a career transition, but it doesn’t lessen Bowyer’s confidence in himself.

“This isn’t the end of the world,” he said. “There’s a lot of future left in me. I believe in this sport and hopefully it’s right.

“To be honest with you, I’m looking forward to the weekend.”

And I suspect more than a few are looking forward to how hard Bowyer races tonight, the chances he might take and what may result.

After all, the pressure is off.

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.

 

Richmond Lore: Rudd’s Heartwarming Victory In 1984

One of the most improbable and heartwarming victories in the history of Richmond International Raceway came on Feb. 26, 1984.

On that day, Ricky Rudd drove through the pain of a beaten and bruised body to win the Miller High Life 400. He sustained his injuries in a frightening crash in the Busch Clash at Daytona two weeks earlier.

Given his injuries Rudd should have never raced at Richmond. Fact is, if the race had been held today, NASCAR would not have let him.

But that he did compete, and won, brought Rudd immeasurable respect from fans, fellow competitors and media alike.

It’s not that Rudd hadn’t earned respect beforehand.

When he first broke into NASCAR Winston Cup competition in 1975, Rudd was an 18-year-old, curly-haired, baby-faced kid from Chesapeake, Va. For folks to see a driver like him was highly unusual over three decades ago. It’s pretty much commonplace now.

Rudd raced for his family-owned team, which, as you might suspect, wasn’t on solid financial ground.

After a couple of seasons, Rudd’s racing efforts dwindled and reached a point where they would cease altogether if funding could not be found.

Rudd caught a break, if briefly. Fellow Virginian Junie Donlavey, a long-time team owner from Richmond, hired Rudd to drive for him in 1979.

The association lasted only a year and Rudd was back on a part-time schedule in 1980.

In 1981, Rudd was hired by DiGard Racing Co. to be Darrell Waltrip’s replacement.

Waltrip hadn’t been happy with his association with DiGard for some time but could not break his contract. He finally bought it out so he could race for Junior Johnson.

Rudd was also caught in the iron web that was a contract, created by DiGard’s president, Bill Gardner.

Rudd toughed it out for two years. He didn’t win a race, but did capture three pole positions.

Then in 1982, Rudd again caught a break, this one more significant. He became Richard Childress’ driver and the man who replaced Dale Earnhardt.

In 1981, Earnhardt left Rod Osterlund’s team after Osterlund sold out to J.D. Stacy. Earnhardt wanted no part of Stacy. He, and sponsor Wrangler, thus joined Childress for the latter part of the season.

At the end of the season, Childress knew that he didn’t quite have the tools to enable Earnhardt to win – and told the driver so.

Earnhardt and Wrangler moved to Bud Moore’s Ford team.

To stay in existence Childress had to find a competent driver and a sponsor. He got both in Rudd and Piedmont Airlines.

Over two seasons, 1982-1983, Rudd and Childress won two races, had13 finishes among the top five and 27 among the top 10. They also won six pole positions.

History has since recorded that those two seasons were turning points in both Childress’ and Rudd’s careers.

Then, in 1984, something happened that hadn’t happened before or since.

Wrangler agreed to shift its sponsorship back to Childress, with whom Earnhardt would reunite.

At the same time, Wrangler agreed to retain its backing of the Moore team, for which Rudd would drive.

At the start of 1984, Wrangler sponsored two teams. The drivers had simply switched rides.

Now, that was darn unusual, to say the least.

The Busch Clash at Daytona – a race reserved for pole winners only – was held on Feb. 12, a week before the Daytona 500. It was the first race for Rudd in the Moore Ford.

Rudd completed just 15 laps before he slid along the short chute coming out of the fourth turn.

Plowing through the grass his car caught an air pocket and flipped violently seven times.

Not long after the incident it was reported that Rudd was bruised but otherwise not badly hurt.

That was not the case.

He had suffered a concussion and severely injured ribs. His eyes were so swollen they had to be taped open in order for him to race in the Daytona 500.

Which, remarkably, he did – and finished seventh.

That would not have happened today. NASCAR would not have allowed Rudd to compete. In 1984, however, it had no idea of the extent of Rudd’s injuries – or at least it took the word from “officials” that the driver was OK.

Rudd showed up at Richmond with blackened, bloodshot eyes. He had been provided with a flak jacket to protect his ribs. Given he had sustained a concussion, he probably had a bad headache.

But there was no doubt he was going to race.

Rudd bided his time for most of the event. But in the closing stages he charged forward to pass Waltrip with 20 laps to go. Rudd won by 3.2 seconds.

Fans cheered Rudd’s astonishing achievement loudly. There were 28,000 of them – nearly a full house at Richmond at the time.

It proved Rudd might be diminutive in size, but he was huge in courage and determination.

He went on to have a very successful career that ended in 2007.

Later in 1984, after NASCAR belatedly received all the details about Rudd’s injuries, the sanctioning body instituted a policy to medically examine all drivers involved in wrecks to assure they would be ready to race the next week.

It’s been refined, of course, but the policy stands to this day.

 

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