In a Nutshell: Carl Edwards dominated early. Kevin Harvick dominated late. But in the end, it was a familiar sight at the front of the field: Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 Toyota in Victory Lane, with neither one of the drivers above cashing in.
Instead, it was Denny Hamlin – who ran third for nearly the entire race – that snookered the field. Taking four tires when the leaders stayed out on a late caution, Hamlin capitalized on that extra speed to score a memorable win in the Lipton Tea 250. The win was Hamlin’s first victory at any level at the Richmond International Raceway, a mere 15 minutes from his home of Chesterfield, Va.
“This is my biggest accomplishment as a racecar driver so far in my career, even bigger than all the Cup victories,” said an excitable Hamlin after the win. The win was the 27-year-old’s first Nationwide Series win of the season and sixth of his career. It was also the fifth consecutive Nationwide Series win for Joe Gibbs Racing, and the third straight for the No. 20 team.
Harvick, who led 98 laps and was in position to score his first Nationwide Series win with his own team, was a sitting duck for Hamlin with old tires. Edwards also fell victim to staying out late, but cut Clint Bowyer’s points lead down to only nine markers.
Who Should Have Won: Harvick. Harvick has owned the Richmond International Raceway in the Nationwide Series, with three wins and 10 top-10 finishes in 14 starts coming into Friday’s race. Harvick was openly optimistic coming into the event, acknowledging that he needed a strong run for sponsor Rheem to get more funding for both his cars and that of development driver Cale Gale. The driver/owner then backed up his words with action, proving to be a force to be reckoned with; the No. 33 Chevrolet ran in the top three for the race’s entirety, leading a total of 98 laps. Harvick’s pit crew also demonstrated tremendous improvement, getting the car out quick on every stop. Only pit strategy kept Harvick from his first Nationwide Series win as a driver/owner.
Mike Bliss has completely changed the fortunes of Phoenix Racing in only a few short weeks. The No. 1 car has found an extra gear since the driver took the wheel in April, and Bliss was running times as fast as the leaders throughout the latter portions of Friday’s race. Though burned by a late-race decision to stay out instead of taking tires, Bliss still scored an eighth-place finish – his third consecutive top 10 – and moved into the top five in Nationwide Series points, the best of any series regular. It’s not the first time this season that Bliss has lost a shot at a short-track win late in the running; he was running fifth at Bristol and was the fastest car in the field when rain ended his run early.
Steve Wallace has shown much-improved patience on the racetrack, and his finishes in the series are finally starting to reflect that. On Friday night, Wallace ran clean and smooth on the treacherous Virginia short track, moving into the top five late in the race and scoring an impressive fourth-place finish. The run marked Wallace’s second top 10 – and career-best finish, for that matter – in the last three races, marking the best run of good fortune the RWI No. 66 has had in years.
The only blemish on Wallace’s stellar run occurred after the race was over when Kyle Busch, angered over late-race contact with Wallace’s No. 66, went after the 20-year-old; Wallace grabbed Busch by the helmet in response and nearly sparked an altercation. Busch was clearly unhappy afterwards, expressing his displeasure in several post-race interviews; however, Wallace’s actions appeared justified considering his rival’s vocal insults and the fact the last-lap contact itself appeared to be “just one of those racin’ deals.”
Better Luck Next Time
Kelly Bires saw another strong run go by the wayside late in the running this weekend. After moving into the top 15 with less than 100 laps to go, the JTG Racing development driver began suffering from both an inexplicable tight condition and irreversible brake problems. The tight condition made the car virtually impossible for Bires to drive competitively, leaving him and his No. 47 team with a disappointing 20th-place finish.
Jeff Green and Key Motorsports’ return to the Nationwide Series didn’t go as planned. Though Green won the first major battle of the weekend by qualifying solidly for the race at Richmond, the 2000 Series champ never made much noise at the front of the field, dropping out after 162 laps with electrical problems and finishing a distant 38th.
Busch had a miserable day. After struggling with a poor-handling racecar all evening, Busch finally found the handle late in the running and ended up challenging for the win before settling for a third-place finish. Busch also was the victim of a vicious hit from the bumper of Wallace on the race’s final lap.
Sound sarcastic? It should. Anyone who has argued that Busch has matured this season was left looking foolish Friday night; instead of enjoying an impressive third-place finish, Busch made a mountain out of a molehill by going after Wallace, who not only made just incidental contact, he even gave the position he earned back to the No. 32 car on the race’s final lap. Better luck to Busch? Hardly. Grow up.
Underdog Performer of the Race
Mark Green’s 22nd-place finish was nowhere near as impressive as his top-five run at Talladega last week, but it still capped a very solid weekend for his No. 70 team at ML Motorsports. Coming off their best ever NASCAR finish as a team (ML Motorsports won numerous races in ARCA competition), the No. 70 car was fast in practice and qualified fourth, Green’s best career qualifying effort at Richmond. The team, which doesn’t often run races on consecutive weekends, posted their best ever finish and qualifying effort in a span of two weeks, and brought both cars home in one piece in the process. They deserve a pat on the back.
“Purse Snatcher” Watch
10 of 43 starting positions in the Lipton Tea 250 went to Sprint Cup regulars.
131 of the 473 starting positions in Nationwide Series races this season have gone to Sprint Cup regulars.
Six Sprint Cup regulars finished in the top 10 of the Lipton Tea 250.
10 of 11 Nationwide Series races have been won by Sprint Cup regulars this season.
Five of the top 10 in Nationwide Series points are Sprint Cup regulars.
“I always said that circumstances were going to have to come our way for us to get a win here. It seems like we never win whether we have the best car or the worst car… when those guys decided to stay out and not take tires, I knew this was our race to lose.” – race winner Denny Hamlin
“That’s Rusty Wallace’s kid, so I’m not sure you’re going to be able to talk to him much and get through his head. But we’ll see. Probably I won’t [talk with him].” – Kyle Busch on whether or not he planned to speak with Steve Wallace later this week
“He’s just a big tall big-ear loser, I guess. Don’t know what his deal is. He just got mad because I got in the back of him. Rubbing is racing here at the short track. I was racing as hard as I could, got in the back of him a little bit. And that’s racing. Sorry.” – Steve Wallace on his late-race incident with Kyle Busch
Up Next: The NASCAR Nationwide Series heads to Darlington Raceway this Friday night for the Diamond Hill Plywood 200. Coverage from the “Lady in Black” begins on ESPN2 at 7 p.m. and MRN at 7:30.