By Jeff Wolfe
Several teams found ways to lose Saturday night’s Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Raceway.
But as has become a rite of spring at the Virginia track, Kyle Busch found a way to win. Busch won his fourth straight spring race at the three-quarters of a mile oval in front of 88,000 fans. It was his 24th career victory that came partly because Busch and his team didn’t make a crucial mistake in the final stages of the 400-lap race. Busch took the lead for good on the final restart of the night with ten laps to go by passing Tony Stewart on the restart.
“Wherever that last caution came from, that was the saving grace, just the luck of the day, and put us in the right position there coming down pit road behind Tony,” said Busch, who broke a tie with Richard Petty for the most consecutive spring victories at Richmond. “The guys did a fast pit stop, got us the lead off pit road, which was a huge advantage, just being able to give me the control of the restart and not have to wait on Tony or cause myself to spin my tires or what have you and get behind.
“So it really helped me out, and once I got out front, I knew I had ten laps. I could abuse the heck out of that thing and drive it for all it was worth and didn’t have to save any tires.”
That fifth and final caution with 14 laps remaining was a losing proposition for Stewart. He had led 72 consecutive laps at that point and had over a two-second lead on Busch when the yellow flag was waved, apparently for what was believed to be a water bottle on the backstretch.
“That’s what it looked like to me,” Stewart said. “I mean, it was out of the groove. It had been sitting there for eight laps.”
Busch admitted the finish might have been different if not for the final yellow flag.
“No, I was losing half a tenth to a tenth on every lap to what Tony was doing up there,” Busch said when asked if he could have caught Stewart without the caution. “No catching Stewart without that caution.”
But with that caution, the leaders all came in for tires and Busch’s crew was better than Stewart’s. Busch’s No. 18 team had a stop of 12.4 seconds while Stewart’s team appeared to have a slight delay on the right front, causing a stop of 14.9 seconds.
“We gave it away on pit road,” Stewart said. “We’ve got some work to do on pit stops. I don’t know what happened on that last one. I’m a little ticked off about that right now.”
Stewart wasn’t the only driver to leave in a bit of foul mood. Carl Edwards appeared to have the dominant car on the night, leading 206 laps and looking to win his first race of the year. But after the caution on lap 311, Stewart was the leader, but a miscommunication somewhere between NASCAR and Edwards’ spotter, left Edwards’ No. 99 team thinking it had the lead.
Since Edwards took off on the restart to easily beat Stewart, who appeared to spin his tires on the restart, NASCAR penalized Edwards for beating the leader to the line and also for starting before reaching the designated restart line. Edwards’ crew chief, the normally calm Bob Osborne argued vehemently with NASCAR officials about the penalty, but to no avail.
“I was on the outside and thought Tony Stewart was the leader on the inside,” Edwards said. “NASCAR told my spotter about three seconds before the restart that the 99 was the leader. They put us on the scoreboard as the leader and I realized I was at a disadvantaged position on the outside and NASCAR made a little mistake. I got the best start I could and Tony didn’t start or spun his tires and NASCAR black flagged us. I don’t know why they black flagged me. I don’t think it is right and I don’t agree with it.”
Stewart thought there was no question that he was the leader.
“Well, we were the first one to line up and we were the leader on the board,” he said. “So, I don’t know how much clearer it could be that we were the leader. If that was the case then they should have put the caution out and given him the opportunity to choose the lane that he wanted. It’s a miscommunication between upstairs and the drivers.”
Johnson’s shot at his first win of the season ended not because of a miscommunication, but because of a missing tire carrier during pit stops on that same caution. The result is that the tire was rolled all the way across the pit box, a violation of NASCAR rules. That put Johnson in the back of the pack, even though he did rally for a sixth-place finish.
“Stuff happens, it’s racing,” Johnson said. “The good news is we had a very fast race car. I certainly wish we didn’t have that mistake.”
After Busch, the top-10 ended up being Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Mark Martin, Brad Keselowski and Edwards.
While Earnhardt’s winless streak is now at 138, he is just five points behind leader Greg Biffle, who finished 18th.
“We were running about fifth all night, and just got lucky on that restart to be on the inside and get a couple spots,” Earnhardt Jr. said of the final restart. “We just kind of got lucky there at the end on a couple things to gain a couple extra spots. But we ran good. We were terrible last year at this track and I really like running here, and I just was curious as to why we weren’t performing as well. So it feels good to run all right here.”
The front of that pack might have had a different look if not for so many mistakes. Instead, it had quite the familiar look, in the spring anyway, with the No. 18 car in Victory Lane once again and giving Busch another happy birthday week.
“I guess being the last week of April, first week in May, birthday week, it’s always kind of fun, too,” said Busch, who will turn 27 on Wednesday. “I won here on my birthday two years ago and coming up on another birthday. Every time I come to Richmond in the spring its really good, but yet I feel really bad because I’m getting older.”
Next for The Sprint Cup series is a return to Talladega Superspeedway for the Aaron’s 499. Coverage starts with a special full hour edition of FOX’s Pre-Race Show at Noon EDT (11am CDT), with actual race coverage starting at 1pm.
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