A night that opened seemingly poised to have a dramatic impact on the 2011 Nationwide Series title chase ended up being more of the same: the Cup drivers stealing the show. Carl Edwards dominated early, but Kyle Busch in the end used strength on pit road to muscle out front late and take home the checkered flag. Together, those drivers led a combined 234 of 250 laps, with Busch holding off Edwards and an upset bid by Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. early in the final run. Ryan Truex and a surprising Kenny Wallace rounded out the top-5 finishers.
Stenhouse was again the class of the title contenders on this Friday evening, but both Elliott Sadler and Reed Sorenson averted what had the potential to be disastrous weekends. Sadler and his No. 2 team now face an uncertain future with the morning’s announcement that Kevin Harvick, Inc. will not be fielding race teams of any kind in 2012, while Sorenson’s No. 32 bunch also faced distraction as rumors ran wild amongst pit crews in the NNS garage that the No. 32 was going to take out the No. 31 after their scuffle in Atlanta. In the end, though, Sadler and crew delivered a top-10 performance without showing any lack of focus; meanwhile, Sorenson did the same without trading paint with teammate Justin Allgaier.
That all adds up to a bit of a stalemate moving forward. Leaving Richmond, Stenhouse maintains a 16-point lead over Sadler for second place in the standings, with Sorenson now 45 markers back in third.
*Kyle Busch* wasn’t happy with his car and he won the race. That being said, maybe it’s a good thing that all *Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.* could harp on during his post-race remarks was just how much of a struggle his No. 6 team had with their Mustang over the course of the day on Friday. For all the handling problems they started with, a top 5 “recovery” was a pretty impressive accomplishment for that type of open discontent with their setup. The night saw Stenhouse a fixture in the top 5, able to challenge for the win with Kyle Busch in the final green flag run, and extend his championship points lead heading into Chicagoland – an intermediate oval where Roush Fenway Racing shines. Most teams would kill to have those kind of “struggles.”
*Elliott Sadler* wants a Nationwide Series win at Richmond so bad. How bad? Bad enough that he was able to vividly recall being wrecked out of such a victory back on the final lap…back in 2005…in the media center Friday afternoon. Well, he didn’t get that win, but given all the tumult surrounding KHI on this Friday, a sixth-place finish that wasn’t a fluke is about as good as could be asked for. Sadler and team didn’t miss a beat, and while losing ground in the title chase they managed to keep Stenhouse and Co. in sight heading into the final eight races of the season. They’re still lurking, and lived to fight another day… even if KHI didn’t.
*Ryan Truex* was rushing simply to take the green flag for this race after electrical issues kept the No. 20 from rolling off the starting grid on time. Forced to line up 42nd, Truex much resembled the car’s regular driver in Joey Logano, mowing down the competition at will until cracking the top 15. From there, the progress got much more methodical (and was again aided by that JGR pit road muscle)… but it kept coming. When all was said and done, Truex delivered a fourth-place result that was the first top 5 someone other than Logano has scored wheeling the No. 20 car since Denny Hamlin’s runner-up performance at Darlington back in May. Forget all about Atlanta; this was Richmond, mere days later and the two-time East Series champion was in true form under the lights.
*The underdogs* shined as well at this short track, handling trumping horsepower to give them opportunities to cash in on lead-lap runs. *Mike Bliss* came home 12th, his third top 15 in the last four races for the Tri-Star Motorsports No. 19 team as they continue to build momentum heading into Fall. But perhaps the best, most impressive performance was delivered by *Kenny Wallace:* he scored his first top-5 finish since 2008 carrying the colors of longtime backer Federated Auto Parts. The result was Herman’s best at Richmond since 1999.
*Jason Leffler’s* return to his normal No. 38 ride didn’t go according to plan, as lap 80 all but destroyed the team’s Chevrolet. After getting a good jump and going three-wide with Kevin Harvick on a lap 79 restart, the easily agitated “Happy” tagged Leffler entering turn 3, sending the No. 38 back-first into the retaining wall. Leffler and crew got back out and finished 178 of the laps to record a 29th-place result, though more notable was Leffler’s revenge that played out later in the going. Brake-checking Harvick when the two came into contact, Leffler played a huge role in triggering contact between Harvick and Trevor Bayne that spoiled a top-5 result for the No. 33 squad. It was a temperamental night for a driver who had reason to be frustrated; earlier this week, he was told to seek other employment opportunities as Turner Motorsports will not retain his services for 2012.
*Blake Koch* was the first driver to have his night ruined at Richmond, and more specifically the first to have it ruined by Aric Almirola. The No. 81 car, trying to simply make laps was spun into the inside wall coming down the frontstretch of all places. Koch endured a heavy impact approaching turn 1, forcing the team behind the fence for repairs after the damaged car dropped fluid all over the track. Koch finished 39 laps down in 27th.
The second driver to fall victim to the No. 88 was one *Brian Scott,* who has seemingly found every way possible to wreck the No. 11 car in 2011. Stacked up after a lap 146 restart, Scott ended up getting squarely bumped and spun entering turn 3 in a crash that caused terminal damage to his JGR Toyota. Even with the hefty $6 million Scott ponied up to be able to drive for JGR this season, one can’t help but wonder just how much more of this wreckage the fabricators will be able to keep up with…even if the constant trouble isn’t of Scott’s making.
*Josh Wise* was the true underdog story of the “Dash for Cash” racers this weekend, and more so that he’s now shopping for a new ride in 2012 with Danica Patrick laying claim to the No. 7. A late-forming deal with Key Motorsports’ No. 40 team kept Wise in the seat heading into Richmond, but his night was almost as short-lived as the team’s fleet of three start-and-parks that also took the green flag. Wise was done after only 69 laps this Friday, the No. 40 unable to maintain oil pressure and never seriously putting him in contention from the drop of the green. Finishing 33rd, his worst result since an early-race wreck at Las Vegas in March he suffered his first DNF since Talladega this Spring. Wise has only one race remaining in the No. 7 this season, his JR Motorsports finale and will have to avert any more weekends like this one if a 2012 ride is to be in the cards.
*Trevor Bayne* was about as angry as one will ever hear him on his radio after a lap 211 crash totaled his Mustang, a car that may have been the fastest in the field. And though Bayne’s ire could have easily been pointed directly at Kevin Harvick, who blatantly wrecked him in retaliation after the two made contact exiting turn 2 that same lap, it was instead frustration that his No. 16 pit crew again had lost them track position to a degree that they could not recover. Running in the top 5, Bayne’s crew had a disastrous pit stop during a cycle on a lap 160 yellow flag that dropped the No. 16 to the back of the top 10… and left it to deal with a myriad of traffic. The end result was another wrecked race car for Bayne, who’s quickly starting to learn what it felt like to be Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. in 2010. Yet another Daytona 500 winner facing a cursed season to follow…
*Underdog Perfomer of the Race: Jeremy Clements.* One week ago at Atlanta, Clements and his No. 51 team had their strongest run of the 2011 season, finishing 14th at Atlanta on the lead lap in form that hadn’t been seen from their squad since the days of the old car in 2010. That, it turns out, was thanks to reasons other teams get to take for granted: sponsorship money, enough to purchase sticker tires to make it a full race distance at Atlanta, along with running the team’s best race car. Well, both the money to buy a full allotment of stickers and the team’s best race car were not present at Richmond… yet this group still came home 14th, equaling Clements’ career-best result on a short track. It hasn’t been easy, that’s for sure, but slogging their way through an arduous first full-time campaign on the Nationwide Series circuit is finally showing results for a team that has long been among the stronger independents in the NNS garage. The top-10 finishes the team was aiming for, high-end goals considering the start of 2011 now seem easily within reach by November.
– Start-and-parkers occupied 10 of the 43 starting positions in Friday’s race, taking home $113,674 in purse money.
– Cup regulars won Friday’s race, scored 3 of the top 10 finishing positions, occupied 6 of the 43 spots in the field, and took home $139,863 in purse money.
344 of 1,152 starting positions occupied (29.9%)
$7,368,854 dollars won
23 of 27 trophies collected (85.2%)
*The Final Word*
* Things are not well in the Turner Motorsports camp. Reed Sorenson was as blunt as any driver this weekend when asked about relations with Justin Allgaier following their latest dust-up in Atlanta, to which he replied “things haven’t changed” and implying that he had had no talks with his teammate trying to do damage control. Allgaier, meanwhile, could be seen visibly cutting the No. 32 car slack whenever they were close on the track Friday evening. The tension here in this stable is so thick, it could be cut with a knife.
* Interesting piece of radio traffic over the scanner prior to dropping the green flag. A crewman for the No. 75 team was communicating with other Rick Ware Racing personnel that he was being told by track security personnel to get out of the pit box. Only problem is, the race hadn’t started, and the No. 75 car hadn’t parked yet. A misunderstanding? Maybe. But a more realistic explanation would be that NASCAR is making pit road plans based around the start-and-park cars getting their gear and asses out of the way. Still don’t believe they actively encourage start-and-park as a practice?
* This whole “Dash for Cash” promotion by Nationwide was a great idea, seeing as how it was one of the few things in the Series done that actually puts more money into the pockets of series’ regulars. But without drivers having to win, or for that matter having a prayer of winning, to score the big dollars, it loses a lot of luster and interest. Even Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who won $100,000 courtesy of the program, said verbatim “I wanted to be excited about winning the Dash” in describing how frustrating it was to lose to Carl and Kyle again while finishing third.
* Both competitors and NASCAR personnel alike seemed caught off-guard by the all but complete lack of post-race questioning from media at the track. Here’s a hint…how many freaking ways can you write “two big league heavyweights beat the little guy into submission?” Try putting college football writers on 12 consecutive weeks of writing about the Alabama Crimson Tide playing the Alabama A&M’s of the world and see how many questions those players get asked.
* The demise of Kevin Harvick, Incorporated is a story that truly rocked the Nationwide Series garage this Friday… and those teams are still going to exist in some form. The impact that such a development will have on the Truck Series will be even more profound, but as a whole this closing is a brutal hit for NASCAR’s lower-level series to endure. And while there are certainly factors of a personal nature that led to the shuttering of the premier non-Cup organization in stock car racing, make no mistake that the prospect of NASCAR ownership dimmed in the eyes of many with the events of Friday morning.
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