NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bowles Thinks Out Loud For Matt: 2011 Wonderful Pistachios 400 at Richmond

The Key Moment: Kevin Harvick caught a late caution, creeped in front of Jeff Gordon on pit road, then held off an assault by Cheez-It Crackers (err, Carl Edwards) to win one of the most bizarre short track races in recent memory.

In A Nutshell: The almanac says a full moon over Richmond happens tonight. That, my friends, would be the second in 72 hours. Need I say more?

Dramatic Moment: At times, we were at Kardashian-like levels. Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch sure lit the night on fire, trying to wreck each other out although the No. 48 clearly got the short end of that stick. But perhaps the biggest drama happened eight laps in, when Clint Bowyer lost it under David Reutimann, spun and collected nearly a dozen drivers. Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were among the victims, Chase contenders forced to sweat it out with cars more suited for your local junkyard the rest of the race.

The last few laps between Edwards and Harvick were heated, too. But unlike half of his jacked up competitors, Edwards laid off the bumper this time and raced the No. 29 clean to the finish.

What They’ll Be Talking About The Water Cooler This Week

Blame it on the Chase, blame it on simmering feuds; heck, blame it on Snooki bringing her Jersey Shore drama to Richmond. No matter the cause, at times this race looked, for better or for worse like your local demolition derby. A record 15 cautions left the Cup cars sometimes searching for rhythm, a combination of “bubble” drivers pushing too hard with others letting loose having already clinched postseason spots. It all added up to a sparks-flying, push-and-shove affair throughout where you should keep a running list of the rivalries that flared up. Three stick out that could resurface later, in particular because there are no teammate or manufacturer ties: Marcos AmbroseBrian Vickers, Earnhardt Jr. – Travis Kvapil, and Johnson – Kurt Busch.

There are varied opinions on Johnson – Busch, but let’s be clear going forward: The No. 48 team has its biggest Chase distraction yet. Kurt has made it known, through his actions the past two months he’s willing to rough up Johnson whenever the opportunity arises; while I’m skeptical that equates to “in Johnson’s head,” the infamous comment he later tried to take back, that’s a very difficult obstacle for the five-time champ. For years, that’s the one area he’s stayed squeaky clean, winning titles without the Dale Earnhardt Sr.-ish Intimidation factor where someone was unafraid to bump him anyplace, anytime, for any position. So now, as Busch clearly has no intentions of changing that tune… how will Johnson change his?

Busch, of course has his own problems after not one but two confrontations with NASCAR reporters after the race. I’ve expanded on that scenario in a separate column; the short version? He crossed the line, owing both Joe Menzer and Jenna Fryer apologies for his actions. Busch may not like how on-track dramas get blown out of proportion; I get it. But that doesn’t give him the license to universally decide what fans want to hear about, nor the liberty to threaten physical assault towards a member of the press. As for Fryer, Busch moving towards a female reporter, then physically ripping a transcript out of her hands crosses the line of professionalism. The fact he tried to deny something he clearly said, on national television no less is just… bizarre, confusing, (fill in other “weird” adjective here). There’s no other way to describe it.

The rumors surrounding Harvick’s merger/closure of his operation will run rampant for months to come. But the question that remains from it is if Harvick can’t compete with the Cup teams running “minor league operations,” who can? Here was a guy who won multiple Truck championships and a Nationwide owner’s title against the likes of Roush Fenway, Joe Gibbs Racing, and the other big heavyweights over in Sprint Cup. Never overly reliant on Cup owner Richard Childress, KHI had built its own successful chassis business, paired with an A+ marketing team that kept collecting sponsors in an era where their favorite place to go is the trash bin. Even now, the two Nationwide cars have all but eight races sold for 2012… but it was also getting progressively harder to get those deals done. Add in a lawsuit, continued struggles to get the No. 33 of Ron Hornaday Jr. funded over in Trucks and you wonder whether part of the reasoning for this decision is like selling stock – deciding when to cash out at the right time. Hey, if Rusty Wallace can go out near the top as a driver there’s no reason owners can’t do the same.

One other quick thought on KHI’s demise: that was supposed to be a future Cup team. Now, with their departure – and JR Motorsports seemingly destined to stay in Nationwide forever – where are the new Sprint Cup owners going to come from? KHI closing, along with Red Bull is sending a message – regardless if true – that there’s a permanent erosion of NASCAR’s middle class. Who’s going to come in, pump some money into a team and stop the contraction before it’s too late?

Conspiracy theory of the Week: Wasn’t it strange a Richard Childress Racing car, 80 laps down and out of Chase contention (Paul Menard) caused the race’s final caution with a harmless spin – just when it looked like Gordon, not Harvick would win his fourth race and earn a top seed for the Chase?

It’s too bad we had a wild and crazy race the one year Chase bids were all but locked up heading in. Sure, at one point around halfway you had Brad Keselowski running top-five while Earnhardt Jr. was 25th. But the No. 2 car never had a chance to win, the only way he could really have put that extra pressure on his former mentor. Ditto for Hamlin, whose No. 11 Toyota was knocked out of contention for the win by lap 8 but never had to sweat it with Harvick, Edwards, and to a lesser extent Gordon the dominant cars.

I know the 10-year anniversary is over, but NASCAR (and the NFL, for that matter) did a classy job of honoring what happened on that tragic day. Bravo. And if you haven’t seen our 9/11 tribute Newsletter, please check it out, because we’d love to share your personal experiences and what you’ve learned that we can take away from that terrible tragedy…

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

On-track, it was Johnson that got the worst of the contact between him and Kurt Busch. But after the second wreck, on lap 246 designed to knock out the No. 22 car it was Johnson who wound up spending an extensive amount of time on pit road. Mr. Busch? He recovered enough to end the night a solid fifth.

Vickers, looking for a ride next season certainly didn’t plan on adding another wreck-related DNF to his resume – especially one where he was the innocent victim. Guess Ambrose will no longer be a reference? The No. 83 car blocked the No. 9 for almost a full lap, on-track shenanigans that left Vickers temporarily parked in the NASCAR garage. He ended the night 33rd, and to make matters worse no one even cared once Johnson-Busch wound up the big story.

Jeff Burton, like so many other times this season had a top-10 car early at Richmond only to see it slip away. Making a rare green-flag pit stop on this night, Burton was caught by the Busch-Johnson crash that trapped him at the back of the lead lap. Stuck in 18th, driving hard to make up the gap a flat right-rear tire added insult to injury and totaled the Caterpillar Chevy. He wound up 29th, midpack in an RCR contingent that also saw Bowyer (22nd) and Menard tear up sheet metal. Calling Austin Dillon

On any other night, a top-five finish would be wonderful for David Ragan but when a win would have gotten the No. 6 car in the Chase, it left a sour taste in his mouth. With so much on the line, postseason, sponsorship, future employment you’ve got to wonder why Drew Blickensderfer didn’t slap two tires on a car already running fifth to get it out front. I know it would have been tough to stay there, but in a year where track position is everything? How can you not try?

Robby Gordon, already start-and-parking due to lack of funds, may change his future strategy to pulling it in the first lap. Suffering damage in not one, but two accidents the No. 7 was toast by lap 51. Ditto for Scott Speed, whose No. 46 car finished dead last after getting swept up in that 11-car crash on Lap 8.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Don’t count Earnhardt Jr. among those drivers who want to eliminate the sport’s free pass. In the past three races alone, he’s used it a total of five times to salvage a sinking Chase bid. At times, it looked like Earnhardt was trying to sabotage himself Saturday night, frayed nerves on the radio combined with an ugly tete-a-tete with backmarker Travis Kvapil. Frankly, the fact he wound up 16th is nothing short of a miracle… but in the end, crew chief Steve Letarte got what he wanted. Earnhardt is in his first Chase since 2008, driving a conservative style and in a position where there’s nothing to lose.

Hamlin also needed a free pass to get his lap back, seemingly down for the count after the No. 11 was junked during the Bowyer wreck on lap 8. But while never a factor for the win, he worked his way from 40th into the top 10 by lap 250 and wound up finishing a solid ninth.

Kyle Busch rotated on and off the lead lap after an early, unscheduled stop for what he thought was a loose wheel. But in classic “new Kyle” fashion, by the checkered the No. 18 Toyota was sitting sixth.

Worth Noting

  • Winner Harvick led more laps in this race (202) than he had during the rest of the season combined (130). Keep in mind he had three victories coming into this race; “The Closer” led a total of nine laps in those events.
  • Edwards (second) has back-to-back top-five results for the first time since Michigan and Sonoma in June.
  • Gordon (third) has three consecutive podium (third or better) finishes for the first time since fall, 2007.
  • Ragan (fourth) had his best performance on paper since winning Daytona in July.
  • Kurt Busch (fifth) has back-to-back top-five finishes for the first time in 2011. Wonder why he’s so cranky?
  • Hamlin (ninth) has three straight top-10s for the first time since the 2010 Chase.
  • Keselowski (12th) had his worst result since Loudon in July.
  • Casey Mears (17th) had his best finish of the season with the No. 13 Germain Racing Toyota – just weeks after additional investor money came on board. Coincidence?
  • Dave Blaney (19th) had his best result since Richmond in May.
  • Stephen Leicht (24th) was the best “rookie” performer in the race. In fact, he had the best result of his two-race Cup career; the last start was in Pocono back in July, 2006 driving for now-defunct Robert Yates Racing.
  • Menard (34th) hasn’t finished better than 10th since winning at Indianapolis.
  • Joey Logano (35th) in a weird twist has just one top-10 finish (fifth at Watkins Glen) since Edwards announced his flirtation with Joe Gibbs Racing was over (thus seemingly confirming Logano would keep his ride in 2012).
  • Give this one to the Bowtie Brigade. Not only did Chevy snap a five-race winning streak for Toyota at Richmond, but they claimed five out of the top-10 finishing spots. Two Fords, two Toyotas and a lone Dodge rounded out the top 10.

What’s The Points?

In the world of “meaningless victories,” Kyle Busch has earned the 2011 “regular season” Cup championship, ekeing out Johnson by three points. (Maybe he’ll claim that puts him one step closer to Richard Petty’s seven titles?) Edwards was third in the standings, followed by Gordon, Harvick, and Matt Kenseth, who were all within one race’s reach of rising to the top. Looks like we’d have one barnburner of a title chase in store…

But wait! Clearly, a six-driver battle won’t keep you entertained so NASCAR has blown up the standings, reset them for the real Chase and left a dozen drivers – nearly one-third of the starting field – championship-eligible. In Busch’s case, at least it’s small consolation he remains the top seed on the strength of his four victories. However, Harvick, with his Richmond triumph is tied alongside; both will start the Chase with a boost to 2,012 points.

Gordon, the lone driver to take three 2011 checkered flags stands third in points at 2,009. Then, it’s Kenseth, two trips to the Winner’s Circle earning him a total of 2,006. The real logjam comes behind them, a four-way tie for fifth that includes Kurt Busch, Edwards, Johnson, and Ryan Newman. Each has visited Victory Lane once, good enough to earn a single three-point bonus and leave them all tied with a total of 2,003.

Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, Keselowski and Hamlin round out the Chase with 2,000 apiece. Those totals came in different ways: for Earnhardt and Stewart, they earned their Chase position on points but remain winless during a rollercoaster regular season. In Keselowski and Hamlin’s case, they earned the 11th and 12th playoff spots through the sport’s new “wild card” rule, their victories (three and one, respectively) sneaking them in the field. But NASCAR maintains that “wild card” competitors don’t get any type of bonus points to start – simply qualifying is considered bonus enough.

Back in the pack, the race for “Mr. Irrelevant” in 13th finds AJ Allmendinger in front by 12 over Bowyer. Read those ten times over, please, because we’re not supposed to mention those names after Homestead unless A) They wreck a Chaser; B) They win a race; C) They berate a reporter, flip a competitor, make mention of another driver’s wife’s firesuit or have Juan Pablo Montoya threaten legal action against them; D) All of the above.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic) – We’ll give this one a solid five cans. The constant on-track action, combined with flared-up rivalries left this one a must-see at a track that’s always one of NASCAR’s best. But there were times, especially mid-race where either Harvick or Edwards drove off into another time zone.

Next Up: The ultra-exciting, super-competitive Chase gets its start in… Chicago-land? That’s like saying they’re holding this year’s Super Bowl in Casper, Wyoming where the halftime act will be local band Cowboy Bill and his harmonica. So let’s click our heels like Dorothy in Oz, close our eyes and go, “There’s no place like a rivalry… there’s no place like a rivalry…”

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