Hot tempers, beating and banging, and language that could make a sailor blush … and that was just Kurt Busch!
While Busch was using vulgar analogies to describe his racecar and Martin Truex Jr. was firing his pit crew, Kyle Busch was up front dominating and clinching the victory for the third straight spring race at Richmond International Raceway. Meanwhile, Ryan Newman was threatening Juan Pablo Montoya within an inch of … the NASCAR hauler, and Jeff Gordon was again reminding NASCAR which tracks need to install S.A.F.E.R barriers. Sounds like just another short track race to me.
Oh, and there was also a Nationwide Series race on Friday night, but bringing that series up always seems to distract everyone from the race itself (see: Mirror Driving).
Busch has obviously been “hot” all season through all three series, so let’s take a look back through the rest of the field this past weekend in Richmond and see who deserves a mention:
*David Ragan* – If you’d have told me Ragan would warrant a position in the “hot” spot this season, I’d have pointed and laughed at you with one hand while writing yet another positive piece on his Nationwide Series teammate Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. with the other (Note: Previous sentence typed with BOTH hands). No offense meant to Ragan, but I had failed to be impressed for all but a few shining moments in his career.
However, Ragan has quietly put together a solid string of top-10 finishes, finishing in the top 10 in three of the last four races and earning his first top-5 result of the season in Saturday night’s race in Richmond. The short track hadn’t exactly been kind to Ragan in the past either, with only one previous top-5 finish to Ragan’s credit back in 2007. His previous five starts at the track had turned into ho-hum 23rd, 24th, 33rd, 23rd, and 32nd-place endings, respectively.
UPS has a contract with Ragan and Roush Fenway Racing through the end of the season, and four races ago it looked like Ragan was giving them little reason to re-sign. Even a challenge for the Daytona 500 victory went awry with a botched restart, a moment that went from possibly defining his career to just another unimpressive statistic added to his resume.
Ragan is largely the “other driver” at RFR, with teammates Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth already scoring a victory this season and sitting 1st and 9th in the points, respectively. With RFR’s improvement to 2010-2011 well documented, it looked like Ragan was running out of excuses for his lackluster performances. Now, Ragan is putting down numbers that are getting harder and harder to ignore.
*Elliott Sadler* – Sadler has been living proof this year that sometimes taking a step back in your career will give you the boost you need to take two steps forward. It’s not an approach very much welcomed by most in the industry since the ultimate goal is to make it to the Sprint Cup Series, but in an industry as competitive as NASCAR sometimes you’ve just gotta do what ya gotta do.
Sadler moved from Richard Petty Motorsports in the Sprint Cup Series to compete full-time for Kevin Harvick Inc. in the Nationwide Series over the offseason, and so far the move has paid dividends. Sadler currently sits second in points, six points back from leader Justin Allgaier. Compare that to last season when after nine races in the Sprint Cup Series, Sadler was a distant 29th in points and had yet to finish any higher than 18th. Yeah, it was that bad.
However, Sadler began running some Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series last year for KHI, laying down some impressive finishes and even posting his first victory in any of NASCAR’s three national series since 2004 when he grabbed the win in the inaugural Camping World Truck Series race at Pocono Raceway. Now he’s looking to make a solid run for the Nationwide Series championship, and may even be able to grab a victory or two before the 2011 season is out.
Yes, even with the Cup Series drivers taking over. Seriously.
*Honorable Mention:* Denny Hamlin (won his “Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown” charity race on Thursday, dominated and won the Nationwide Series race on Friday, and finished second to teammate Kyle Busch in the Sprint Cup Series race)
*Kenny Wallace* – Wallace was undoubtedly the underdog performer of the race in Friday night’s Nationwide Series race, running in the top five for most of the night and even challenging for the lead. In fact, Wallace was on average running in the fourth position and never ran any worse than 14th.
Unfortunately, fuel mileage was not on his side on Friday night. Wallace pitted under green with 14 laps to go and wound up with a disappointing 13th place finish.
To be fair, the finish wouldn’t have been as disappointing had Wallace not shown such a strong car throughout the race. With virtually everyone crying out that the Nationwide Series needs its own identity, it was encouraging to see a Nationwide Series regular putting up such a fight.
Wallace is competing full time for RAB Racing with sponsors University of Northwestern Ohio (UNOH), Federated Auto Parts, and Family Farmers behind him, and currently sits ninth in points 58 points back from leader Justin Allgaier.
The three time Nationwide Series Most Popular Driver, the “Hermanator”, is actually starting to move towards being known more for his racing abilities than his antics on the SPEED Channel … which is what he’s wanted all along.
*Kasey Kahne* – Kahne’s third-place finish in Saturday’s Sprint Cup Series race was a break in a long line of miserable finishes, finishing outside of the top 20 in Talladega, Texas, and Martinsville.
Kahne’s move over to Red Bull Racing from Richard Petty Motorsports hasn’t exactly spelled “success” this year, though he has one more top 10 finish than teammate Brian Vickers (Kahne has 4, Vickers has 2).
Kahne’s third-place finish at Richmond over the weekend was his first top five finish of the season, leading 29 laps and having one of the strongest cars of the night aside from the Joe Gibbs Racing duo of Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin.
To be honest, I expected more out of Kahne this season, a driver who won six races back in 2006 and has 11 total career victories.
Red Bull Racing isn’t exactly a Hendrick Motorsports level team, the powerhouse that Kahne will be racing for next week, but if Kahne can get consistent top-10 results at RBR he should be able to get them anywhere, right?
*Honorable Mention:* Josh Wise (grabbed his second top-10 result of the season in Richmond with a sixth-place finish)
*Jeff Burton* – I’m not sure which is more embarrassing: The fact that one of last year’s Chase contenders and driver of one of NASCAR’s powerhouses is currently 20th in points, without a top-10 finish or the fact that he’s getting beat by Paul Menard.
Yes, _THAT_ Paul Menard. The Paul Menard that is sponsored by his father’s company. The Paul Menard that has been a running joke in NASCAR since he first entered the circuit. The Paul Menard that has two top 5s, three top 10s, and is sitting 15th in points. That Paul Menard.
There aren’t many excuses for Burton at this point in the season. As mentioned above, teammate Menard has had a stellar start to the year as compared to previous years, and Richard Childress Racing’s other two drivers are competitive as well. Kevin Harvick already has two victories this season and is fifth in points, while Clint Bowyer has been fast, has 5 top 10s, and is seventh in points. So what’s up with Burton?
Well don’t look at me! If I recall, four cars didn’t exactly work out very well for RCR before, and maybe the No. 31 car was left hanging when resources were spread too thin. It’s interesting to say the least since Burton just re-signed with the team, but what choice did Burton have exactly? It’s not like any top tier rides are available, and unless someone like Stewart-Haas Racing or Joe Gibbs Racing decide to add an extra team—thus spreading _their_ resources thin—Burton made a good choice in staying right where he is.
*Chris Buescher* – Kudos to Buescher for hanging tough in the face of adversity. On Friday night, Buescher—cousin to Camping World Truck Series driver James Buescher—subbed for Trevor Bayne in Richmond, who is being hospitalized in the Mayo Clinic for symptoms thought to be related to an insect bite contracted last month. Though Bayne has since tweeted that he thinks the symptoms are unrelated to the insect bite, Buescher was left to take over Bayne’s ride which has already earned some impressive numbers this year.
Buescher finished 17th, and was two laps down to the leader at the conclusion of the race.
The finish may not have been a Bayne-esque result, but it was impressive enough for the driver in his debut Nationwide Series race. He was clean, consistent, and 17th isn’t all that bad considering the fact that only five cars finished on the lead lap.
The finish dropped the No. 16 machine two spots in the owner standings to 12th, and the team is now 69 points out of the lead. Skipping the race also cost Bayne two spots in the standings, putting him seventh and 45 points out of the lead.
Buescher may not have turned a lot of heads on Friday night, but I can guarantee you one thing: Jack Roush noticed. Keep an eye out for this young driver
*Honorable Mention:* Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (finished 21st in Richmond, his second finish outside the top 20 in the last three races)
*Jamie McMurray* – Remember the dude who cried in Victory Lane in last year’s Daytona 500 and followed it up with a win in the Brickyard 400 and the fall race at Charlotte? Remember how he won over the hearts of fans with his emotional wins and by being an all around nice guy?
That guy was Jamie McMurray, and so far in 2011 is nowhere to be found. Other than winning the pole at Martinsville earlier this year and finishing seventh, McMurray has yet to finish any higher than 18th (twice: Daytona and Richmond) and is mired back in 24th in points and 128 points out of the lead.
Heck, even his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing teammate Juan Pablo Montoya is making more noise with his two top 5 finishes and, oh yeah by the way, his infamous temper (just ask Ryan Newman!).
I can’t help but wonder if 2010 was just a fluke or if McMurray and team have just lost their mojo.
*Kelly Bires* – After starting and parking for the first four Nationwide Series races this year, Bires was absent from the series until Friday night’s race at Richmond. In mid-April, Joe Gibbs Racing announced that Bires would compete in two races for them—Richmond and Chicago—with sponsor International Comfort Products providing funding.
Bires took full opportunity of the advantage on Friday night and came home with a top 10 finish.
Bires was, in fact, the _ONLY_ caution for the night, spinning in turn four on lap 124 and finishing out the evening in 30th, 8 laps down.
I almost feel bad for Kyle Busch, who was forced to sit on the sidelines and endure a night without racing. I’m not intentionally trying to make that sound overly-dramatic either. He emphasized several times how much he _HATED_ not competing in the Nationwide Series race. Sure, it didn’t hurt him any, but a bored Kyle Busch isn’t necessarily a good thing.
Either way, hopefully Bires will take better advantage of an opportunity in JGR equipment in Chicago and maybe earn himself some more non-start-and-park rides.
*Honorable Mention:* Matt Kenseth (since his win in Texas, has finishes of 36th and 21st)
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