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Did You Notice? Stewart’s Sabotage, Ragan Rattled, Bowyer’s Cheap Shot & Richmond Beauty

Did You Notice? How much better the racing was at Richmond when just a handful of cars were racing for points? All over the track on Sunday, it looked like drivers were shot out of a cannon, released from the shackles of having to calculate what’ll happen if they play it safe and run 17th. From Tony Stewart’s spirited bid for a win to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s spinout of Kyle Busch, the action on this 3/4-mile short track had fans on their feet all race long. Yeah, this track is conducive to great racing… but I don’t feel like there was this type of A+ competition back in May. No question about it, this 400-lapper was one of the best runs of the season to date.

With that in mind, let’s do a simple case of addition. No championship concerns + multi-groove short track = great racing. Points racing + aerodynamic-heavy racetrack = single-file parade. Hmm… I wonder what the problem could be? I just can’t figure it out…

Did You Notice? That even with all that said, the CoT is such an ill-handling racecar Stewart was still struggling to even get into position to swap the lead with Jimmie Johnson. Even at a short track, this thing still handles like a 300-pound gorilla having a heart attack ‘round every corner.

Did You Notice? Speaking of Stewart, he’s spent the past seven days fighting off comparisons to his more belligerent former self? That Rolling Stone article set the tone for September, in which Smoke was painted as an egomaniac who’s worried about little more than women and fast cars. Then, on Sunday evening, he let out a little post-race frustration, angry at a third runner-up finish in his last six weeks on tour. For this one, Stewart blamed his pit crew, who lost him the lead during the final series of pit stops with 28 laps remaining. Not surprisingly, crew chief Greg Zipadelli didn’t take to that too well; the two had words, and Stewart wound up sitting on pit wall like a kindergartener that’d been sent to time out.

But before you’re ready to write Stewart off as a 2008 version of his former self, I think you better hold on a minute. That Rolling Stone article mentioned nothing of the man’s many charitable endeavors, and many of those quotes appeared taken out of context. Off-color jokes are nothing to sneeze at, but it seemed like at several points in the article, it’s clear Stewart was hardly being serious. As a journalist, I smelled a man on a mission to paint this veteran a certain way – and he found enough quotes to support a pre-conceived “theory” he proved with flying colors. As for the Stewart – Zipadelli squabble, I think their relationship is strained, but far from severed. After all, it was Zipadelli calling out the No. 20 crew for some poor stops as recently as California, and even the casual fan has noticed how much they’ve struggled over Stewart’s usually sizzling summer.

THOMPSON: TONY STEWART RUDE, CRUDE AND ONE OF THE BEST

Here’s the bottom line: Stewart and Zipadelli are in a position with nothing to lose, have the best equipment in the business, and are running better than they have all season long. If there’s a darkhorse to challenge Busch, Carl Edwards and Johnson in this Chase – Stewart is it. His entire team just has to realize it and jump on board… but that’s not an easy task in itself.

Did You Notice? The spirited drives by both Busch and Edwards at Richmond? Both drivers faced adversity for different reasons: Busch wrecked off Dale Jr.’s rear bumper, while Edwards had a flat tire under green. Those circumstances trapped both drivers midpack, stripping them of a chance to win and leaving them little to no reason to keep going. After all, a 15th- or 30th-place finish wouldn’t make a difference for either, as both had clinched the first and second seed in the Chase no matter what. But instead of packing it in, each driver gave 110%, coming home with top-15 finishes and making statements that their teams are capable of handling adversity. These were admirable runs for two men who gained critical experience should the same type of problems befall them over the next 10 weeks.

Did You Notice? The rather strange way in which David Ragan handled his post-race interview at Richmond? One of the first things he said after exiting his car was, “It just seemed to turn a corner – sometime after lap 100 there, we didn’t have any speed.”

Umm, David… wouldn’t that be because you wrecked sometime around lap 123? The 22-year-old said they’d have to “bring the car back and see what went wrong.” Maybe it’s just me, but isn’t it kind of hard to get speed out of your car when it’s in pieces? Everyone makes mistakes and spins out on their own sometimes – but wouldn’t you think that’s on you, not the setup?

With that said, both driver and crew did a remarkable job of remaining in contention with a car that had slammed the outside wall at 100 mph. But when all was said and done, Ragan lost it on the track and cost himself a Chase bid… it’s as simple as that. All this talk about missing the setup is just hogwash – Bowyer was a dead duck if Ragan’s car was 100%.

Also, our own Matt McLaughlin had expertly pointed out Ragan insulted the Wood Brothers during the course of the weekend. Several fans were wondering what happened – and I also missed it – so I asked him to provide the info for this column. Here’s what he told me:

During the first pit sequence, Ragan was trying to exit his pit as Bill Elliott [in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford] was just arriving to enter his directly ahead of the No. 6 team’s box. Because of that, Ragan had to pause briefly. His crew chief uttered a mild expletive, at which point Ragan commented, “Don’t worry about it, they’ll be a lap down soon.”

Ouch… not good. Considering Ragan wasn’t even born when David Pearson was running circles around the field in the late 1970s, that’s not exactly the type of attitude you want to hear concerning one of the sport’s most legendary teams. Without teams like the Wood Brothers, there is no opportunity for Jack Roush… and perhaps none for Ragan, either.

Did You Notice? Since we’re dumping on Ragan, I admit, let’s mention this one point – the poor guy was slammed with a cheap shot courtesy Clint Bowyer’s love tap of Regan Smith in the final 100 laps. Seemed like a little bit of a dirty play on Bowyer’s part… Ragan’s car was fading, and he didn’t need to do that to ensure he’d come out on top.

Don’t tell me that was an innocent mistake… Bowyer looked like he knew just where to hit Smith, and exactly where Ragan was on the racetrack. Just as our NASCAR Sprint Cup Insider told me not too long ago (Big tease! Our new column debuts tomorrow) “When you want to move someone, guys at this level know how to do it without getting caught.”

Did You Notice? One final thing from the Chase battle this week. One of the underreported stories was Kasey Kahne’s plight on pit road all race long. Qualifying 14th due to this position in owner points, the No. 9 team watched in horror Sunday as two other Roush organizations – Jamie McMurray’s No. 26 and David Gilliland’s No. 38 – were further back in the field, enabling them to pick pit stalls both in front of and behind the No. 9. During the event, both McMurray and Gilliland then did everything possible to make Kahne’s life a living hell. By my unofficial count, Kahne lost at least 11 spots on pit road Sunday, as every time he came down pit lane he found himself with a tough exit based on the way the two cars parked around him.

As Kahne said himself after the race, his car handled so poorly it probably wouldn’t have made a difference. But the way Roush appeared to use this advantage is disconcerting at best, disgusting at worst – especially considering the Chase is comprised of just four organizations fielding three playoff cars apiece. How bad will this year’s team orders get? I don’t think we want to know to just yet…

Did You Notice? Well, Matt McLaughlin and I were on the same wavelength for one more thing this week. You couldn’t help but wonder about Johnson’s comment about Stewart in victory lane, one in which he referred to the future Stewart-Haas driver as his “teammate.” In case you’re wondering, Hendrick is supposed to be sending engine and chassis support over to the future Stewart-Haas Racing and nothing more – and as I’ve been told several times by their staff, that makes the organization a “separate entity.” Hmm… looks like Johnson made a boo-boo on this one!

Yeah, I hear your yelling from the gallery: if Stewart really is some sort of underground teammate to Hendrick, why not put him in the No. 5 car then? Ahh… great question. It was going to take more than just a top-notch ride to pull Stewart away from Gibbs – Chevrolet had to offer him some kind of ownership stake. So, if you’re the Bowtie Brigade, why wouldn’t you offer him 50% of a team whose owner is in jail, while leaving it under the Hendrick umbrella as some sort of “B” team where additional expansion in the form of other cars can occur over time? For example, what if Mark Martin has a bang-up season next year and wants to keep racing? No worries if you’re Hendrick… just send Landon Cassill or JR Motorsports’ Brad Keselowski to a third team over at Stewart-Haas. After all, Roush has Yates… all’s fair in this ownership consolidation war.

Did You Notice? The debris strewn all over Richmond? Between the drivers throwing out their water bottles and fans throwing their trash onto the track like it’s their home recycle bin, the inside wall was home to a pile of junk down the entire backstretch. For most of the race – and especially after the Junior – Busch wreck – NASCAR pretty much had the freedom to call a debris caution at will (although they chose not to).

Many writers have said this before, but the whole throwing trash on the track thing has just got to stop. There’s many ways in which you can show your frustration… you can yell, write a letter to the sport, or just don’t show up at the track in the first place. But if you’re going to go to the races, you’re going to have to follow the rules… I mean, how would you like it if you blew a tire because of some stupid guy throwing a beverage can out the highway while you’re going 75 mph? This stuff is dangerous, it’s silly, and it’s giving fans a bit of a black eye.

Did You Notice? The attendance for the Nationwide Series race at Richmond hovered somewhere between 50 and 100? Alright, so it was a little more than that… but I counted about five fans down the entire length of the backstretch grandstands. Five. Certainly 7:00 at night a few hours after a 1:00 Cup show isn’t the optimal time to reschedule the event; but you’d think a few more fans would stick around for that.

Along those same lines, most of the news apart from the Nationwide CoT test was somewhat discouraging. Smithfield Foods is ending their sponsorship of Team Rensi’s No. 25 after the season, and Germain Racing is also looking after GEICO decided to leave Mike Wallace. Sure, the pony cars could be a great new addition to the series… but what teams are going to be left to drive them?

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