_While talk of the Chase and its composite field dominated race coverage from the Richmond International Raceway this weekend, there was, as any other weekend, a battle of David vs. Goliath carrying on throughout the field. For as the big dogs of stock car racing were fighting for their playoff lives, others were struggling for improvement, relevance, and even survival. Was Richmond a weekend for the underdogs, or the latest bump in the road for the rest of the Cup field?_
*Score One for David*
Casey Mears and the No. 13 team went through a roller coaster weekend, even without experiencing serious troubles over the course of 400 laps Saturday. A top 5 car in Friday’s first practice session, Mears fell to 28th in happy hour, then qualified a disappointing 33rd despite going late in the order during time trials. Falling back in the pack nearly proved disastrous, with Mears suffering minor damage in the big wreck on lap 8 that saw half a dozen cars wad up after Clint Bowyer spun between turns 3 and 4. From there though, the marching was all forward for the No. 13 squad, with Mears winding up on the lead lap in 17th by race’s end. The result was the best of 2011 for the No. 13 team and Mears’ personal best since a seventh place run in the fall Charlotte race back in 2009.
Tommy Baldwin Racing’s second car hadn’t cracked the top 35 in either of the two races it qualified for in 2011 heading into Richmond, but putting primary driver Dave Blaney in the No. 35 proved to be a stroke of genius for the team. Blaney did just what he needed to on Friday in getting the car into the field, and with starting spot in hand the short track program the team prides itself on shone through just as did at Richmond back in May. Blaney battled the loose off, tight in the center condition that was commonplace through all echelons of the field under the lights, the No. 35 ended up coming home 19th, the best result for TBR’s second car since Daytona last summer and the first top 20 the organization has enjoyed since, well, Richmond four months ago.
That Blaney was so quietly and methodically able to put together the night he did proved the perfect counterpoint to the performance that youngster Stephen Leicht put together in the team’s flagship No. 36, as the former Yates and Childress prospect made waves in his first Cup start since 2006. Leicht earned some valuable TV time in cracking the top 15 in the middle runs of the race, and even making it as far as third playing tire strategy on a lap 313 restart. While the No. 36 faded late as a result with a loose condition that eventually dropped the team off the lead lap, Leicht’s 24th place showing in his return to big-time NASCAR turned a lot of heads. He definitely made the most of this second chance.
*Score One for Goliath*
It took all of one minute for Andy Lally to fall victim to short-track racing, with Mike Bliss’ front bumper sending the No. 71 into the turn 3 wall on lap 3, causing heavy damage to the rear end of the TRG Motorsports machine. Before the race even got going, Lally was forced behind the wall for extensive repairs. Though the team was able to return the car to the track, Lally’s night was nothing more than limping around. Finishing 32nd, the team lost ground on the No. 38 team in the battle for the final top 35 slot, and perhaps more importantly, Lally lost out on 400 laps of development seat time, instead logging laps in a wounded carcass of a race car.
As for Bliss, the same Richmond wall that he sent Lally spinning into came back to bite on lap 117, with a cut tire sending the No. 32 hard into the turn 2 fence. The damage to the No. 32 Ford proved all but terminal; Bliss would continue the race but ended up completing only 198 circuits before the engine expired. It was a rough ending to a rough day; FAS Lane Racing hadn’t experienced an engine failure since Talladega in the spring.
Just as Jason Leffler fell victim to Kevin Harvick’s bumper in the Nationwide Series race on Friday night for no apparent reason, Travis Kvapil ended up getting the boot from Dale Earnhardt Jr. on lap 153 after the No. 38 bumped the No. 88 heading down the frontstretch (never mind that video replays showed Jr.’s rear end out of shape right before Kvapil made the contact). It certainly wasn’t a unique situation, as there were few cars running in the 20s on back that didn’t have some form of Amp-colored paint on their quarterpanels by race’s end. And in Kvapil’s case, he went on to finish 28th and make up ground on the TRG bunch for 35th in the owner standings. What Front Row Motorsports didn’t need though was another beat up race car; for a team with limited means, the amount of sheet metal Kvapil has torn up in 2011, his fault or not, has to have added up by now.
Speaking of Front Row Motorsports, I had a weird personal experience while listening to this race on the radio, driving up I-85 on my way back to Washington. Low and behold, driving south on the other side of the highway was the No. 55 hauler, lugging the same Ford that JJ Yeley start-and-parked in the event. Regardless of where one falls on the start-and-park issue, it was just odd to see a team hauler back in North Carolina even before the checkered flag flew in Richmond, pushing 100 miles away.
It was thoroughly discouraging to see David Stremme and his Inception Motorsports bunch return to the track they made their debut at back in May (a race they ran well in) only to put in scarcely a tenth of the laps run this time, parking for good after only 42 circuits. Shame to see a new operation four months into their program having only been able to run the distance in two of their 11 starts.
Let’s not stay completely confined to the independent operations. David Reutimann came out of the parking lot outside left field to win the pole for Saturday’s race, perhaps the brightest spot of what has been a vastly underwhelming campaign for the No. 00 team that has won races in each of the last two seasons. It was short-lived; Reutimann didn’t even manage to lead the first green flag lap of the race and had to save his car early when Clint Bowyer spun out running underneath him on lap 8. Sadly, that No. 33 seemed magnetically drawn to the No. 00 this weekend, as lap 312 saw Bowyer send Reutimann’s machine hard into the fence, leaving the lucky dog of the field to finish 26th.
*This Weekend’s Winner: Goliath*
The success of Stephen Leicht and Tommy Baldwin Racing actually making the telecast was a feel-good story and an example of a deserving blue-collar effort seeing hard work being rewarded. But Richmond looked more like Martinsville in the sheer amount of torn up sheet metal that it produced Saturday night, and a lot of teams that didn’t need cars torn up ended up bringing mangled rides back to the shop, including start-and-park entries for the Whitney Motorsports No. 46 team and Robby Gordon’s No. 7 operation. Races high in attrition tend to open doors for underdogs, but on this Saturday much of that attrition sent those same guys packing.
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