Coming into Saturday night’s race at Richmond, the talk of the weekend was Denny Hamlin and his hometrack. With the 2010 championship runner-up mired in a mediocre campaign, 17th in points and a relative non-factor thus far into 2011, it was do-or-die for the No. 11 team. This weekend ultimately would define where 2011 went for Jimmie’s toughest challenger. Not only that, the spring race at Richmond would start to tell the tale of that second weekend in September, a preview of who would have a loaded gun when the Chase field would ultimately be decided on Virginia’s capital bullring.
In the end, when it came to Hamlin and RIR, there were very few surprises. Hamlin ran like gangbusters on his home track, leading 38 laps and finishing a strong second. And as for Richmond, Joe Gibbs Racing dominated, with Kyle Busch winning and the team combining to lead 273 of the 400 laps run. Jimmie Johnson had an unremarkable race, yet still pulled a top 10 finish out of the evening by race’s end. And of course, tempers flared. The feud of the night went to longtime combatants Ryan Newman and Juan Pablo Montoya; after contact between the two drivers on lap 106 sent Montoya’s No. 42 car into the backstretch wall, heavily damaging the rear end of the polesitter’s car, the temperamental Colombian retaliated on lap 236, tagging the No. 39 entering turn 3 and sending the Rocketman into the fence. Newman was seen post-race making a b-line for the NASCAR hauler while Montoya and his PR representative were seen high-tailing it out the infield tunnel on a golf cart.
That’s short-tracking. That’s RIR. But while Hamlin, Busch and Johnson all did what was expected of them under the lights, the frontrunners of the Chase conversation either carrying on business as usual or getting back on the track everyone knows they’ll be on, Richmond did more to shed light not on the Chase, but the Cup regulars on its bubble or outside its spectrum all together. Good and bad, 400 laps at Richmond put three months of racing into much clearer perspective, a clean picture emerging from a carnage-filled event.
For some, Richmond proved to be the ultimate new lease on life. With both the immediate and long-term future of Daytona 500 champion and Ford Racing phenom Trevor Bayne in serious jeopardy as the 20-year-old remains hospitalized with an unknown ailment, David Ragan could not have picked a better time to deliver his first top 5 finish since the fall Talladega race of 2008. The Georgia short-track ace (Ragan is an ARCA and Nationwide Series winner on the bullrings) carried the flag for Roush Fenway Racing to a fourth place finish, agonizingly close to victory with the top 3 finishers in front of him all nearly running out of fuel in the closing laps. It’s terrible to think of any driver out there cashing in on Bayne’s misfortune, but Ragan’s season and career prospects got a much needed shot in the arm.
Another team learning a thing or two about shots in the arm would be that of Tommy Baldwin Racing, which after over two full seasons of Cup racing with limited sponsorship secured enough backing from Golden Corral to contest the remainder of the 2011 season slate. Team owner Tommy Baldwin was visibly confident that his team was ready to deliver for their new found corporate partner after Dave Blaney was a contender for the win two weeks ago at Talladega, telling Frontstretch prior to qualifying on Friday that “our short track program is a lot closer to where it needs to be than most people think.” Those words proved prophetic, with Blaney cashing in on a lucky dog and storming to a 13th place finish, the best short track result ever for the TBR No. 36 team and equaling the best finish in team history (Steve Park finished 13th for the team at Daytona last July). Baldwin has made it clear to his team that they’re working every day from here on out to secure their sponsors for 2012, and they raced like it on Saturday. What’s more, Blaney locked the team into the field at Darlington next weekend, breaking TBR into the top 35 in owner points.
But while the little team that could in Baldwin’s bunch was busy delivering on the promise that Golden Corral saw in the operation, there were plenty of big-time operations going the exact opposite direction as NASCAR approaches its all-star break. Despite winning the pole on Friday, the only headlines Earnhardt Ganassi Racing ended up making from the drop of the green when it counted were those that stemmed from Montoya hitting the wall…or somebody else. With Jamie McMurray running an irrelevant 18th, what was supposed to be a breakthrough night for Montoya instead disintegrated into the latest outburst of a driver with a lengthy rap sheet. Denny Hamlin may have been a hypocrite making the post-race comments he did, but it’s hard to argue with the remark that “every time Montoya has damage, you see who did it, they usually end up getting racked.” Ryan Newman was reminded of that the hard way, losing a sure-fire top 10 finish.
Montoya was hardly the only driver to suffer from a meltdown this evening. Just as the EGR camp finds itself on a downward slide after winning the Daytona 500 and four races as an organization in 2010, the same can be said for Penske Racing after Kurt Busch dominated Speedweeks back in February. Busch again struggled with his car and found trouble over the course of the event, with a three-wide situation coming off of turn 4 on lap 290 involving his No. 22, David Reutimann and Marcos Ambrose caving in a fender on Busch’s Dodge. It was only two laps later that teammate Brad Keselowski spun for the second time of the evening, flattening both of his right side tires to the point that the No. 2 car would no longer roll. The situation of Keselowski looking like an overwhelmed rookie and Busch’s frustration of recent weeks carrying over even the recent bye weekend led the 2004 champion to observe that Penske “looked like a monkey fucking a football.”
But for all of Busch’s frustration, Penske’s disaster paled in comparison to the damage the final 100 laps inflicting on Michael Waltrip Racing. With Martin Truex Jr. battling for the lead and David Reutimann comfortably in the top 10 on lap 280, Saturday looked every bit like the weekend MWR would finally return to the form that led Truex to leave DEI and that won David Reutimann the race at Chicago last summer.
120 laps later, Reutimann limped home to finish 31st while Truex, on the heels of a 27th place result, fired his entire pit crew. In the lap 301 “big one,” Reutimann was caught up in a backstretch melee that all stemmed from Matt Kenseth cutting across Clint Bowyer’s nose not two laps after a restart. Disaster struck twice for MWR on lap 371, with Truex forced to pit with a tire going down. The No. 56 was then immediately penalized for a lug nut that fell off the left front wheel (crew chief Pat Tryson noted over the radio that the team’s tire changer was dealing with a broken stud). Nonetheless, Truex was irate, screaming “you’re all fucking fired, every last one of you” to his crew as he served his penalty. To add insult to injury though, Truex visibly sped leaving pit road, forced to serve another penalty that killed any chances of salvaging a decent result. Post-race radio chatter from the No. 56 team consisted of little more than Truex blasting his crew and Pat Tryson occasionally acknowledging him. For a team that’s been as snakebitten as Truex’s squad, it’s hard to imagine so venomous a tirade doing anything but rubbing salt in the wounds.
Leaving Richmond, the Chase conversation looks very much like it did heading into the weekend. Joe Gibbs Racing still has a stranglehold on NASCAR’s short tracks. Denny Hamlin, yes, can still wheel a race car. Jimmie Johnson can still make something out of nothing and leave smiling with a top 10 finish.
But for many in the middle of the pack on back, Richmond did in fact prove to be a defining weekend. David Ragan delivered on a weekend where Ford’s new gun was forced to the sidelines. Tommy Baldwin Racing proved every bit ready to handle their new found sponsor dollars. And Penske Racing did indeed resemble a member of the ape family doing something unmentionable to an inanimate object. Two seasons diverged at Richmond, and both roads ended up being followed by a number of teams in the Cup garage. Much was learned this Saturday night.
Even if it wasn’t about the Chase.
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