Danny Peters · Monday September 2, 2013
ONE: Fireworks at Richmond
After an enthralling Labor Day weekend race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, we’re off to one of the best tracks in NASCAR for a Saturday night under-the-lights short track showdown. Once the checkered flag waves after 300 miles and 400 laps of intense racing, we’ll know, once and for all, the composition of the final field of 12 for this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.
A few years back I conducted an informal survey of favorite tracks among the staff of Frontstretch.com and Richmond finished third behind Darlington and Bristol; our erstwhile former race recapper Matt McLaughlin describing the circuit as: “Perhaps the perfect race track configuration, a short track with enough room for multi-groove racing.”
The key to the race, especially for those still looking to cement their berths in the big dance, will be staying out of trouble as unscheduled pit stops can put drivers down multiple laps in a hurry. But with more than a few wheelmen needing to throw the proverbial caution to the wind, expect fireworks aplenty all night long. What makes it even better is that there’s likely to be a full house. NASCAR under the lights at an epic short track with a full house roaring on the field: Sounds like a recipe made in heaven. I, for one, can’t wait.
TWO: Could This Be Kyle’s Year?
Few drivers divide opinion quite like Kyle Busch. He has his loyal cadre of fans, but there’s a sizeable contingent that think he’s little more than a petulant pest who crumbles every time the pressure is really on.
This year, though, I have a feeling things might be a little different and I’m backing Busch to make a sustained push for the Championship for the first time in his 10-year, 318-race career.
Sunday night’s win was the first time since his inaugural victory at Auto Club Speedway in 2005 that Busch has won a race in September – he’s never won a Cup race in October or November. And once again, it was solid work from his pit crew (who have been together for six years) that saw Busch take the green flag in P1 for the final decisive 21 laps of the race. On the night Busch didn’t have the best car – former teammate Joey Logano had that honor – but when it counted teamwork got it done. In Victory Lane we saw a different side of Busch too, when he stopped to acknowledge a retiring staffer.
“One other friend of mine from the Nationwide Series this is his last weekend this weekend, Bill Whelan, with the NASCAR officials and 75-years-old,” said Busch. “Been around for a long time. We love you Bill and we’re going to miss you, man.”
Timing is everything in NASCAR. And Busch, for the first time in a while headed into the Chase, looks like he has that elusive quality at the perfect moment.
THREE: Lame Duck Harvick: Not So Much
At the start of the season there were plenty of commentators (myself included) who expected Kevin Harvick to struggle mightily through his final year with Richard Childress Racing – the only team he’s ever known in his Cup career – ahead of his 2014 move to Stewart-Haas Racing.
But Sunday night’s 9th place finish secured Happy a berth in the Chase and another shot at a maiden championship for the irascible driver and his legendary owner.
“Obviously we’re happy to be in the Chase. Our day wasn’t very good. Our car was just terribly tight all night long and drove nothing like it did in practice,” said Harvick post race. “But all in all, it’s been an okay season so far and obviously you want to put yourself in position to race for the championship and everybody has done a good job doing that.”
Harvick, don’t forget, won the first race of the year at Richmond so don’t be surprised if he starts the Chase on the back of some positive momentum and a third win on the year. Whether he can parlay it into a first Cup title remains something of a long shot, but given the expectation levels coming into 2013, don’t rule it out quite yet.
FOUR: The Champ Needs a Hail Mary
It was another tough night for the reigning champion Brad Keselowski who finished 35th after his engine went sour on lap 243, while he was leading the race. Sitting in 15th place, some 28 points out of 10th place and without a win on the season, Keselowski needs a perfect ten of an evening at Richmond to stand any chance of making the Chase and defending his crown. Post race, the champ was sanguine.
“What can you do? You can sit here and be mad and stomp your feet and be a jerk about it, but it just broke. That’s racing. It’s kind of been the story of our year.”
And with only seven top-5’s and 11 top-10’s and 201 laps led, that’s a fair point. What has been missing in 2013 is the metronomic consistency that saw him race to a maiden title in 2012. Given the way his teammate Joey Logano has run this season, it doesn’t seem to be the engine switch from Dodge to Ford power plants is the issue, either. So as of now, the Blue Deuce is on the outside looking in; he’ll need not just a great run at Richmond but also plenty of help from other drivers.
I’ll leave the last word on this point to the champ: “I’m reserved to this being a test and I love challenges and this is gonna be one helluva challenge.”
FIVE: Truex Jr. Guts It Out
A huge shout out to Martin Truex Jr. who gritted and gutted his way to a stellar 3rd place finish: his sixth top-5 of the season. Driving with a broken wrist sustained in a wreck at Bristol Motor Speedway last weekend, Truex’s fine finish sees him 13th in the overall standings, 15 markers out of tenth place, but more importantly in the second of the two wild card spots, five points up on nearest rival Ryan Newman.
While his place in the Chase it still far from secure, it was, all told, an excellent evening for the NJ native not least given his NAPA-blue cast started to crumble as the race wore on.
“A good night. It could always be better. It could always be worse, too,” said Truex. “Proud that we were able to fight through it tonight. I was in pretty large amounts of pain there tonight, so glad it’s over with.”
Now, it’s on to Richmond where Truex finished 17th in May. He’ll likely need a better finish than that this weekend but don’t bet against it. The kid’s got NAPA Know How.
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