The Frontstretch: Bowles Thinks For Matt: Richmond-2 Race Recap And Analysis by Thomas Bowles -- Monday September 12, 2011

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Bowles Thinks For Matt: Richmond-2 Race Recap And Analysis

Thomas Bowles · Monday September 12, 2011


The Key Moment: Kevin Harvick caught a late caution, creeped in front of Jeff Gordon on pit road, then held off an assault by Cheez-It Crackers (err, Carl Edwards) to win one of the most bizarre short track races in recent memory.

In A Nutshell: The almanac says a full moon over Richmond happens tonight. That, my friends, would be the second in 72 hours. Need I say more?

Dramatic Moment: At times, we were at Kardashian-like levels. Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch sure lit the night on fire, trying to wreck each other out although the No. 48 clearly got the short end of that stick. But perhaps the biggest drama happened eight laps in, when Clint Bowyer lost it under David Reutimann, spun and collected nearly a dozen drivers. Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. were among the victims, Chase contenders forced to sweat it out with cars more suited for your local junkyard the rest of the race.

The last few laps between Edwards and Harvick were heated, too. But unlike half of his jacked up competitors, Edwards laid off the bumper this time and raced the No. 29 clean to the finish.

What They’ll Be Talking About The Water Cooler This Week

Blame it on the Chase, blame it on simmering feuds; heck, blame it on Snooki bringing her Jersey Shore drama to Richmond. No matter the cause, at times this race looked, for better or for worse like your local demolition derby. A record 15 cautions left the Cup cars sometimes searching for rhythm, a combination of “bubble” drivers pushing too hard with others letting loose having already clinched postseason spots. It all added up to a sparks-flying, push-and-shove affair throughout where you should keep a running list of the rivalries that flared up. Three stick out that could resurface later, in particular because there are no teammate or manufacturer ties: Marcos Ambrose – Brian Vickers, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – Travis Kvapil, and Jimmie Johnson – Kurt Busch.

There are varied opinions on Johnson – Busch, but let’s be clear going forward: The No. 48 team has its biggest Chase distraction yet. Kurt has made it known, through his actions the past two months he’s willing to rough up Johnson whenever the opportunity arises; while I’m skeptical that equates to “in Johnson’s head,” the infamous comment he later tried to take back, that’s a very difficult obstacle for the five-time champ. For years, that’s the one area he’s stayed squeaky clean, winning titles without the Dale Earnhardt, Sr.-ish Intimidation factor where someone was unafraid to bump him anyplace, anytime, for any position. So now, as Busch clearly has no intentions of changing that tune… how will Johnson change his?

Busch, of course has his own problems after not one but two confrontations with NASCAR reporters after the race. I’ve expanded on that scenario in a separate column; the short version? He crossed the line, owing both Joe Menzer and Jenna Fryer apologies for his actions. Busch may not like how on-track dramas get blown out of proportion; I get it. But that doesn’t give him the license to universally decide what fans want to hear about, nor the liberty to threaten physical assault towards a member of the press. As for Fryer, Busch moving towards a female reporter, then physically ripping a transcript out of her hands crosses the line of professionalism. The fact he tried to deny something he clearly said, on national television no less is just … bizarre, confusing, (fill in other “weird” adjective here). There’s no other way to describe it.

The rumors surrounding Kevin Harvick’s merger/closure of his operation will run rampant for months to come. But the question that remains from it is if Harvick can’t compete with the Cup teams running “minor league operations,” who can? Here was a guy who won multiple Truck championships and a Nationwide owner’s title against the likes of Roush Fenway, Joe Gibbs Racing, and the other big heavyweights over in Sprint Cup. Never overly reliant on Cup owner Richard Childress, KHI had built its own successful chassis business, paired with an A+ marketing team that kept collecting sponsors in an era where their favorite place to go is the trash bin. Even now, the two Nationwide cars have all but eight races sold for 2012… but it was also getting progressively harder to get those deals done. Add in a lawsuit, continued struggles to get the No. 33 of Ron Hornaday, Jr. funded over in Trucks and you wonder whether part of the reasoning for this decision is like selling stock – deciding when to cash out at the right time. Hey, if Rusty Wallace can go out near the top as a driver there’s no reason owners can’t do the same.

One other quick thought on KHI’s demise: that was supposed to be a future Cup team. Now, with their departure – and JR Motorsports seemingly destined to stay in Nationwide forever – where are the new Sprint Cup owners going to come from? KHI closing, along with Red Bull is sending a message – regardless if true – that there’s a permanent erosion of NASCAR’s middle class. Who’s going to come in, pump some money into a team and stop the contraction before it’s too late?

Conspiracy theory of the Week: Wasn’t it strange a Richard Childress Racing car, 80 laps down and out of Chase contention (Paul Menard) caused the race’s final caution with a harmless spin – just when it looked like Gordon, not Harvick would win his fourth race and earn a top seed for the Chase?

It’s too bad we had a wild and crazy race the one year Chase bids were all but locked up heading in. Sure, at one point around halfway you had Brad Keselowski running top-5 while Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was 25th. But the No. 2 car never had a chance to win, the only way he could really have put that extra pressure on his former mentor. Ditto for Denny Hamlin, whose No. 11 Toyota was knocked out of contention for the win by Lap 8 but never had to sweat it with Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, and to a lesser extent Jeff Gordon the dominant cars.

I know the ten-year anniversary is over, but NASCAR (and the NFL, for that matter) did a classy job of honoring what happened on that tragic day. Bravo. And if you haven’t seen our 9/11 tribute Newsletter, please check it out because we’d love to share your personal experiences and what you’ve learned that we can take away from that terrible tragedy…

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

On-track, it was Jimmie Johnson that got the worst of the contact between him and Kurt Busch. But after the second wreck, on Lap 246 designed to knock out the No. 22 car it was Johnson who wound up spending an extensive amount of time on pit road. Mr. Busch? He recovered enough to end the night a solid fifth.

Brian Vickers, looking for a ride next season certainly didn’t plan on adding another wreck-related DNF to his resume – especially one where he was the innocent victim. Guess Marcos Ambrose will no longer be a reference? The No. 83 car blocked the No. 9 for almost a full lap, on-track shenanigans that left Vickers temporarily parked in the NASCAR garage. He ended the night 33rd, and to make matters worse no one even cared once Johnson-Busch wound up the big story.

Jeff Burton, like so many other times this season had a top-10 car early at Richmond only to see it slip away. Making a rare green-flag pit stop on this night, Burton was caught by the Busch-Johnson crash that trapped him at the back of the lead lap. Stuck in 18th, driving hard to make up the gap a flat right-rear tire added insult to injury and totaled the Caterpillar Chevy. He wound up 29th, midpack in an RCR contingent that also saw Bowyer (22nd) and Menard tear up sheet metal. Calling Austin Dillon…

On any other night, a top-5 finish would be wonderful for David Ragan but when a win would have gotten the No. 6 car in the Chase, it left a sour taste in his mouth. With so much on the line, postseason, sponsorship, future employment you’ve got to wonder why Drew Blickensderfer didn’t slap two tires on a car already running fifth to get it out front. I know it would have been tough to stay there, but in a year where track position is everything? How can you not try?

Robby Gordon, already start-and-parking due to lack of funds, may change his future strategy to pulling it in the first lap. Suffering damage in not one, but two accidents the No. 7 was toast by Lap 51. Ditto for Scott Speed, whose No. 46 car finished dead last after getting swept up in that 11-car crash on Lap 8.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Don’t count Dale Earnhardt, Jr. among those drivers who want to eliminate the sport’s free pass. In the past three races alone, he’s used it a total of five times to salvage a sinking Chase bid. At times, it looked like Earnhardt was trying to sabotage himself Saturday night, frayed nerves on the radio combined with an ugly tete-a-tete with backmarker Travis Kvapil. Frankly, the fact he wound up 16th is nothing short of a miracle… but in the end, crew chief Steve Letarte got what he wanted. Earnhardt is in his first Chase since 2008, driving a conservative style and in a position where there’s nothing to lose.

Denny Hamlin also needed a free pass to get his lap back, seemingly down for the count after the No. 11 was junked during the Bowyer wreck on Lap 8. But while never a factor for the win, he worked his way from 40th into the top 10 by Lap 250 and wound up finishing a solid ninth.

Kyle Busch rotated on and off the lead lap after an early, unscheduled stop for what he thought was a loose wheel. But in classic “new Kyle” fashion, by the checkered the No. 18 Toyota was sitting sixth.

Worth Noting

  • Winner Kevin Harvick led more laps in this race (202) than he had during the rest of the season combined (130). Keep in mind he had three victories coming into this race; “The Closer” led a total of nine laps in those events.
  • Carl Edwards (second) has back-to-back top-5 results for the first time since Michigan and Sonoma in June.
  • Jeff Gordon (third) has three consecutive podium (third or better) finishes for the first time since Fall, 2007.
  • David Ragan (fourth) had his best performance on paper since winning Daytona in July.
  • Kurt Busch (fifth) has back-to-back top-5 finishes for the first time in 2011. Wonder why he’s so cranky?
  • Denny Hamlin (ninth) has three straight top-10s for the first time since the 2010 Chase.
  • Brad Keselowski (12th) had his worst result since Loudon in July.
  • Casey Mears (17th) had his best finish of the season with the No. 13 Germain Racing Toyota – just weeks after additional investor money came on board. Coincidence?
  • Dave Blaney (19th) had his best result since Richmond in May.
  • Stephen Leicht (24th) was the best “rookie” performer in the race. In fact, he had the best result of his two-race Cup career; the last start was in Pocono back in July, 2006 driving for now-defunct Robert Yates Racing.
  • Paul Menard (34th) hasn’t finished better than 10th since winning at Indianapolis.
  • Joey Logano (35th) in a weird twist has just one top-10 finish (5th at Watkins Glen) since Carl Edwards announced his flirtation with Joe Gibbs Racing was over (thus seemingly confirming Logano would keep his ride in 2012).
  • Give this one to the Bowtie Brigade. Not only did Chevy snap a five-race winning streak for Toyota at Richmond, but they claimed five out of the top-10 finishing spots. Two Fords, two Toyotas and a lone Dodge rounded out the top 10.

What’s The Points?

In the world of “meaningless victories,” Kyle Busch has earned the 2011 “regular season” Cup championship, ekeing out Jimmie Johnson by three points. (Maybe he’ll claim that puts him one step closer to Richard Petty’s seven titles?) Carl Edwards was third in the standings, followed by Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, and Matt Kenseth who were all within one race’s reach of rising to the top. Looks like we’d have one barnburner of a title chase in store…

But wait! Clearly, a six-driver battle won’t keep you entertained so NASCAR has blown up the standings, reset them for the real Chase and left a dozen drivers – nearly one-third of the starting field – championship-eligible. In Busch’s case, at least it’s small consolation he remains the top seed on the strength of his four victories. However, Kevin Harvick, with his Richmond triumph is tied alongside; both will start the Chase with a boost to 2,012 points.

Jeff Gordon, the lone driver to take three 2011 checkered flags stands third in points at 2,009. Then, it’s Kenseth, two trips to the Winner’s Circle earning him a total of 2,006. The real logjam comes behind them, a four-way tie for fifth that includes Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, and Ryan Newman. Each has visited Victory Lane once, good enough to earn a single three-point bonus and leave them all tied with a total of 2,003.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Tony Stewart, Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin round out the Chase with 2,000 apiece. Those totals came in different ways: for Earnhardt and Stewart, they earned their Chase position on points but remain winless during a rollercoaster regular season. In Keselowski and Hamlin’s case, they earned the 11th and 12th playoff spots through the sport’s new “wild card” rule, their victories (three and one, respectively) sneaking them in the field. But NASCAR maintains that “wild card” competitors don’t get any type of bonus points to start – simply qualifying is considered bonus enough.

Back in the pack, the race for “Mr. Irrelevant” in 13th finds A.J. Allmendinger in front by 12 over Clint Bowyer. Read those ten times over, please, because we’re not supposed to mention those names after Homestead unless A) They wreck a Chaser; B) They win a race; C) They berate a reporter, flip a competitor, make mention of another driver’s wife’s firesuit or have Juan Pablo Montoya threaten legal action against them; D) All of the above.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six pack an instant classic) – We’ll give this one a solid five cans. The constant on-track action, combined with flared-up rivalries left this one a must-see at a track that’s always one of NASCAR’s best. But there were times, especially midrace where either Harvick or Carl Edwards drove off into another time zone.

Next Up: The ultra-exciting, super-competitive Chase gets its start in … Chicago-land? That’s like saying they’re holding this year’s Super Bowl in Casper, Wyoming where the halftime act will be local band Cowboy Bill and his harmonica. So let’s click our heels like Dorothy in Oz, close our eyes and go, “There’s no place like a rivalry… there’s no place like a rivalry…”

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Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
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Carl D.
09/12/2011 08:40 AM

I was glad that Carl Edwards didn’t win the race… not that I don’t like him, but that Cheez-It/Kelloggs car was waaay too ugly to sit in victory lane.

I kind of like the new “Wreck me and I’ll wreck myself trying to wreck you back” Jimmie Johnson. If he keeps that up we won’t have to worry about having to call him “six-time”. Otherwise, he’s still the favorite; I don’t care who is in his head.

Bobby Labonte got a top-20 finish. Yes, the moon was indeed full.

09/12/2011 11:00 AM

Carl Edwards would have won this race hands down, EXCEPT he has a idiot for a crew chief! This dope should be shown the door!! What a stupid call!!

09/12/2011 11:11 AM

Starting the Chase in the number 3 media market in the country, and 2nd largest media market they race in, if you count Fontana as being in the LA market, is like playing the Super Bowl in Casper, Wyoming? HUH? Tom, would you care to amplify on that a little bit? Chicago isn’t maybe a little bigger and has maybe a little bit more to offer then, say Loudon, New Hampshire? Come on, Tom, you strayed way far from the pack on that comment.

09/12/2011 12:10 PM

Now that was what I call a race. NASCAR, are you listening? Rivalries, trading paint without hurting anybody, patch it up and get back out there, no fuel mileage finish, no imaginary debris cautions, getting laps back, cars passing each other on the track, spots made up on pit road or by staying out. Full moon Saturday night racing.

This is what NASCAR used to be like every week; this is what fans like to see. Give us more, please!

Bill B
09/12/2011 12:39 PM

What a rip. Jeff Gordon had that race won and then Menard (Harvick’s teammate) and many laps down spins out by himself and brings out a caution. Talk about suspicious.

Yes leaving Edwards out on the track on that lap 90 caution wasn’t too bright. Since he didn’t have enough gas, he would have had a terrible finish had Menard not caused that last caution.

09/12/2011 01:14 PM

Well, I’ve always considered the Busch brothers to be a little unstable. Listening to KuBu mangle the English language in his interview for years was kind of interesting, but trying to unsay things, well, that one takes the cake. He clearly said it – why the heck not go with it? After not being afraid to play rough with the 48 – which personally I think is the perfect way to get into Johnson’s head, now he wants to take it back?

Obviously I’m biased here, but it was just oh so convenient for Menard to spin out all by himself. At least he wasn’t dumb enough to say he did it on purpose on the radio like another driver did once upon a time.

So much for the simplified system — didn’t seem simple at all and just annoys me – a lot like the chase. I sure won’t be making a trip to Chicago – from what I’ve seen on TV, it’s just another track that produces boring races even if it is in one of the biggest media areas. Are da bears playing on sunday?

Carl D.
09/12/2011 04:00 PM

Regarding Kevin Harvick Inc. selling out to Richard Childress… I think most Nascar fans realize that the Nationwide Series is nothing more than a way for racing’s elite owners and certain cup drivers to stroke their egos. Personally, I’ve come to detest watching Busch & Edwards beat up on the true Nationwide teams week after week. For the long-term survival of the series, Nascar needs to:
• Severely limit the NNS starts for cup-level drivers;
• Not award any of the purse money to teams with cup drivers competing in the Nationwide races;
• Provide incentives to potential sponsors for the Nationwide series teams;
• Implement additional cost cutting measures for the Nationwide series teams.
Otherwise I just don’t think the series will survive.

09/12/2011 04:23 PM

Kyle Busch has earned the 2011 “regular season” Cup championship, ekeing out Jimmie Johnson by three points. (Maybe he’ll claim that puts him one step closer to Richard Petty’s seven titles?)

Now that’s funny… and probably true!

09/12/2011 04:53 PM

Menard spinning to cause a caution isn’t any worse than Johnson and Earnhardt blocking Harvick until Gordon could catch and pass him.

09/12/2011 05:37 PM

The only reason JJ retaliated was because he had nothing to lose. He is in the chase and his finish would not impact the next “season.” Not a JJ fan, but he knows what he’s doing.

09/12/2011 05:50 PM

Dale Jr. had a “ugly tete-a-tete with backmarker Travis Kvapil”? It was more like Travis Kvapil had an ugly tete-a-tete with BACKMARKER Dale Earnhardht Jr. Bowles did you even watch the race? Or were you too busy clapping for Dale Jr.? Dale Jr.just ran out of talent on that lap. Don’t think so? Na$crap didn’t even give Jr. the “Lucky Dog” pass, because HE caused the accident!

09/12/2011 05:53 PM

nascar not Menard(who was in infield) threw the last caution which gave Jr his 3rd lucky dog of the night, why no caution for the 51 car when he spun and was stopped on frontstretch?

09/13/2011 03:22 PM

Katie nailed it. That was good old fashion racing.

09/13/2011 08:52 PM

Watched RaceHub on Speed tonight and listened to Menard’s radio chatter…sure sounded like a planned caution to me….hope NASCAR was listening

09/14/2011 03:09 PM

wcfan nailed it. No caution for the 51, but the 27 goes for the exact same spin and the yellow comes out.

I think its great that the points are tight even before the reset. Makes Nascar look stupid for implementing the Chase once again.

Looks like ole 5 time is getting a little rattled going into the Chase. Hopefully the rest of the drivers see this and continue to try to rattle him.


Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

Did You Notice? ... Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
Did You Notice? ... Drivers Still Make A Difference... But Silly Cautions Don't
Did You Notice? ... NASCAR's Free Agent Lynchpin, Uncomfortable Reality And Gambling
Did You Notice? ... Toyota Trouble, Limping Into Action And Testing The Waters
Did You Notice? ... Keep On Asking, And You Will Receive A Qualifying Sigh Of Relief

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