After laughing off a rumored crew chief swap earlier in the week, J.D. Gibbs was all smiles sitting in the Richmond International Raceway media center following Saturday night’s race. The team president was sitting next to race winner Kyle Busch, who had just given Joe Gibbs Racing its fifth straight win at the track. “That wasn’t that big a deal,” said Gibbs. “I think anytime, we haven’t been running like we’re used to running, so that’s a concern. It was nice to put it to bed. Our guys did get a kick out of it.”
They got a kick out of it and then kicked the you-know-what out of the field. Not only were they able to save enough fuel for the end, they dominated with Busch leading 235 of the 40 laps and Hamlin out front three times for 38 more laps. There were other leaders throughout out the night – seven drivers led more than 10 laps – but few had anything for the No. 18 and No. 11.
A string of late race cautions stacked the field up and put a number of drivers on varying pit strategies. That allowed Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Greg Biffle to start ahead of Busch and Hamlin on the final restart of the evening on Lap 315. Restarting on the outside in fourth, Busch made a strong move on the outside into Turn 1 to go three wide and battle for the lead going into Turn 3.
Getting past Burton for the lead, Busch never looked back as he bobbed and weaved his way through traffic. Thanks to the quick restart, Hamlin was never able to catch his teammate and challenge for the win.
“Once you commit yourself to where you’re going, you pretty much got to stick with your gut, do what you got to do to get through there,” Busch explained.
“He was just so good on restarts,” Hamlin said of his teammate. “He was making up a lot of ground and once he got out front, he kind of set his own pace and that’s something that’s very important on this race track. Once you get out front, you can set your pace and set how hard you want to run. Congratulations to them. They worked real hard on their short track program. Obviously, a one-two finish is good for everyone.”
As Busch and Hamlin stole the show, Kasey Kahne sealed off a strong run by coming home in the third spot. Coming off knee surgery, Kahne earned his best finish of the 2011 season.
“The track was so slippery with this tire that we were all just babying the throttle throughout the race runs,” Kahne said. “I thought that’s when we were probably our best was on the longer runs. We weren’t quite good enough for the Gibbs cars. They were really good tonight. It was still a good run. The guys did a great job and it was nice to get a top-5.”
Staying quiet for much of the evening, David Ragan was once again to capitalize on a fast car and solid run to finish in the fourth position. Fast for much of the year, Ragan has struggled to finish well, with four finishes of 22nd or worse and two DNFs. Running outside the top-15 for the majority of the race, the Roush Fenway driver was able to pit late, catch a few breaks and be there at the end.
“We had a bad pit stop the first run and got behind a little bit,” he said. “We had to fight and get the lucky dog. Our team never gave up. Our UPS Ford was fast. Fast cars can find their way to the front. We were fortunate not to have any yellows that last run because our car was really good on long runs. I am proud that we were able to get the finish that we needed.”
Teammate Carl Edwards rounded out the top-5 and heads to Darlington with a nine point lead over Jimmie Johnson. Pitting with Ragan late in the going, Edwards was hoping the Gibbs teammates would run out of fuel and they would be sitting in the catbird seat.
“We were hoping we were in the right position there,” Edwards said. “David Ragan took fuel, we had fuel. I thought those guys were going to run out. I didn’t think they would be able to make it, but that is the way it goes. We are still leading the points and we have stretched it out a little bit, which is great. We will go to Darlington and race hard there for 500 miles. I think that feeling of fifth here tonight will be replaced with the points lead feeling in a little bit, and that will feel better. I had a fun night though.”
Talladega winner Jimmie Johnson struggled the majority of Saturday night’s race, running a lap down the majority of the race. However, thanks to a number of late-race cautions, Johnson was able to first get his lap with the free pass. When the cautions kept coming, varying pit strategies allowed the No. 48 to work their way back into the top-10 and finish the night eighth.
“We got a good finish out of it, but it was a long, long night,” Johnson said. “Hats off to the team for not giving up, for sticking with it and staying after it. We got the car semi-competitive and then finally got some strategy and finally got back on the lead lap and we went from there. So frustrating night but a good points night.”
Clint Bowyer, AJ Allmendinger, Johnson, Tony Stewart and Brian Vickers rounded out the top-10.
The night definitely had its share of highlights along with the strong Gibbs performance.
Ryan Newman and Juan Pablo Montoya continued a feud that seems to be dragging on since Montoya’s Sprint Cup Series debut at Homestead in 2006. The two made contact exiting Turn 2 just over 100 laps into the race. Montoya was sent into the outside wall and suffered heavy damage to the rear of the car. After starting on the pole, Montoya’s day was ruined and he made it a point to try and make Newman’s just as bad.
Over 100 laps later, Newman – running eighth – moved past the lapped car of Montoya. As the pair headed into the third corner, Montoya drove into the back of the No. 39 and sent him spinning into the outside wall.
Clearly a retaliation move, Newman told his crew over the radio he would take care of Montoya after the race. However, following the race Montoya was quick to exit his car and leave the track before Newman even had a chance to park his ride. Instead of heading to the Ganassi hauler, Newman and crew chief Tony Gibson made a visit to the NASCAR hauler.
“We were running solidly in the top-10, but when Ryan got hit, that doomed any chance of a top-10 or top-5 finish,” Gibson said. “It was an unnecessary hit and we’re not happy about what happened. We will battle on and get the results that we deserve for our Army Strong Soldiers.”
Exiting the hauler, Newman simply said, “I was intentionally crashed and it ruined our day.”
With just under 100 laps remaining in the race, a number of strong cars were taken out when Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon got together on the backstretch. Running two and three wide, Kenseth was turned into the left rear of Gordon’s No. 24. The contact sent Gordon sliding hard into the inside wall, in which he hit flush with the driver side. The wreck also collected David Reutimann, Jamie McMurray, Mark Martin, Kurt Busch, Paul Menard, Clint Bowyer and David Gilliland.
While it ended the day for Gordon, the hard hit also knocked the wind out of the veteran driver. The area of the wall the No. 24 made contact with had no SAFER barrier and was unforgiving to Gordon.
“I must have hit the corner of that inside wall. Again, I wish they had a SAFER barrier there. I seem to be able to find the ones without the SAFER barrier,” Gordon said. “I know. I don’t know what it is. I’m not trying to teach anybody anything. I really am not. I think it is pretty well known we need SAFER barriers everywhere. You think it is a short track and everything but man, I hit a ton and hit right on the corner where you don’t want to hit. It definitely got my attention. That is for sure. It rang my bell.”
Next weekend, the series heads to the Lady in Black, Darlington Raceway. Carl Edwards leads the standings by nine points over Jimmie Johnson, with Kyle Busch, Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman, Kenseth and Tony Stewart rounding out the top-10.