Critics of last week’s angry race car mob at Talladega took issue with the fact that almost every entry had a shot at the lead and the win. They labeled the event as contrived, pro wrestling-like entertainment where restrictor plates, not racing, kept everyone within an arm’s length. Three green-white-checkered finishes and numerous wrecks in the waning laps only fueled the detractors’ fire.
Well, if ever an elixir was brewed to soothe their heartburn, Saturday night’s race at Richmond was it.
The evening started with Kyle Busch, lately not the dominant force in Sprint Cup that NASCAR has grown used to, starting from only his sixth career pole (that number is surprisingly low) and leading 221 of the race’s first 229 laps. Yet even though the No. 18 filed down the number of lead-lap cars faster than NASCAR was looking for someone to throw a hot dog wrapper onto the track, Busch’s advantage over the other dominant cars of the night in Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton never seemed insurmountable.
Turns out it wasn’t.
After grabbing the lead from Ryan Newman, who took only two tires to the leaders’ four before a lap 176 restart, Busch wasn’t able to pull away like he did in an early, nearly 150-lap green-flag run. To quote Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers flicks, “It seems like the tables have turned, Mr. Powers….”
The handling on Busch’s Toyota suddenly went south, allowing Burton a chance to lead his only laps of the night by lap 230. Then, the second Jeff in the front five, one by the surname Gordon, chased Burton down and assumed the point for much of the second half of the race, while Busch gave up several more positions. That’s right. You read it here. There were green-flag passes for the lead long after a restart! And this doesn’t include the plethora of two- and sometimes three-wide racing through the pack during much of the event.
Through it all, the younger Busch and Co. never gave up. A couple of timely late cautions bunched and shuffled the field, allowing the No. 18 car to pit and get adjusted by crew chief Dave Rogers and the M&M’s team. Fresh rubber wound up making the difference, with Busch charging from sixth to second as the night’s final caution flew. Starting to Gordon’s outside for the final green flag, Busch powered ahead and wrested away the lead he felt he deserved after leading so many laps earlier, claiming his first checkered flag of the year in another frenetic finish. Behind him, Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin made contact at the finish line, spinning a couple of them while adding excitement for everyone watching what once was the Pontiac Excitement 400.
Saturday night’s race is proof that NASCAR needs more tracks like Richmond. The .75-mile configuration is long enough to seem fast and allow for multi-groove racing, but short enough to allow for some sheetmetal shoving and the short-track feel that enthralls many. And although the lead changes were few and far between (12, the lowest total of the season), the dominant cars of the evening stayed within reasonable distance of the leader. Other cars in the pack also were able to gain on each other, as the handling either came or went away on their machines.
Yes, there were faults with the racing at Richmond. The night’s second and third caution flags allowed the many lapped vehicles to take the wave-around, bolstering the lead-lap car total from eight to about 30 just before the race’s midpoint. While the wave around rule keeps cars from lining up ahead of the leader and gives a reprieve to teams that missed the setup for a long green-flag run, it also eliminates the work of the dominant car that put a lid on their evening. In Saturday’s race, the debris caution on lap 155 came just after Busch broke more than a sweat putting then-points leader Jimmie Johnson a lap down (dispatching the conspiracy theorists now) as well as several other quality drivers. 22 cars brought into contention by stray pieces of debris? That’s gimmicky. Busch thought so, too, having some choice words about the rule with his crew during that caution period. But at least it happened early in the race, so these cars weren’t stealing a last-second finish inside the top five; instead, they got a second wag at adjustments that could get them closer to lead lap speed. This did work for early ailing cars like Marcos Ambrose and Martin Truex Jr., who snatched top-10 finishes out of what should have been runs of 20th or worse.
Fortunately, the difference in speed between the cars of Busch, Gordon, Burton and Harvick made up for the wave-around downside at Richmond. The speedy quartet was able to roll away from the madness behind them and eventually put on a great battle for the lead in the closing laps. The fastest two cars in Busch and Gordon battled for the race win, as there were no green-white-checkered finishes to shuffle them from contention. Racing purists should be satisfied with the low carnage, few gimmicks and green-flag passing Saturday.
With that said, I’m sure the critics will still find a way to whine. Some of the Goldilocks and the Three Bears porridge crowd that complained about the 88 lead changes and 29 leaders at Talladega as being too much will say that Richmond’s race saw too few leaders, with a wave-around rule that let too many cars back into contention. What a contradiction. The truth is, Saturday’s race was not memorable; it was solid and consistent. The numbers may not show it on paper, but overall it was a pleasant contrast to the bland racing NASCAR fans have been spoonfed too often over the past few years.
Many leaders, many lead changes, many crashes and many finishes filled the Talladega post-race headlines. Richmond’s race saw 12 lead changes amongst eight leaders, five crashes and no green-white-checkered finishes. Talladega’s laps push 190 mph on a 2.66-mile track, while Richmond’s are less than 130 mph on a .75-mile surface. The tracks are nearly polar opposites, but on back-to-back weeks both produced great, exciting races in their own way.
In such a critical time for NASCAR, it’s great to see that competition step up and deliver, whether critics believe it or not. Hopefully, consistent finishes like these will begin to turn back an oily, negative tide that has been lapping on their shore for several years. It’s clear the first step in any mess is to make sure you stop making it; and for now, at least, the bleeding appears to have stopped.
Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Speedshop racing show with host Captain Herb Emory each Saturday, from 12-1 p.m., on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com. Doug also hosts podcasts on ChaseElliott.com and BillElliott.com.