NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2012 Richmond Spring Race Recap

The Key MomentTony Stewart’s crew botched the final stop and Kyle Busch emerged from the pits with the lead during the fifth caution. Nobody was able to mount a serious challenge on the No. 18 after that.

In a Nutshell – It wasn’t as bad as Texas, Fontana or Kansas but it surely was Richmond Lite… less action, more boring.

Dramatic Moment – Kyle Busch and Stewart waged a brief, side-by-side battle shortly after the midway point of the race. If you sneezed, you might have missed it. Other than that, the most exciting part was waiting to see if rain would move back in.

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

After a bruising few weeks in the court of public opinion, NASCAR officials doubtlessly were ready to give fans something to talk about other than how boring the races have become. They probably weren’t expecting we’d be spending the next week talking about how incompetent some of them are. Saturday night’s race wasn’t officiated; it was orchestrated by a bunch of boneheads.

I guess this one’s a matter of fans needing to be careful what they wish for… because they just might get it. You wanted a late-race caution to spice up the finish? You got it. It’s just hard to call a caution flag for a plastic water bottle outside the racing groove legitimate. (Especially since it had been laying there eight laps.) I don’t blame Stewart for being so peeved after the race. The only thing worse than a boring race, in my mind at least, is a race with an artificially manufactured outcome like we saw Saturday night. Oh, and for the record, I didn’t find the finish all that spicy anyway.

What in the blue blazes happened on that fourth restart? Stewart and his team obviously thought they were leading the race. Carl Edwards and his team claim that they were told they were leading the race. (The caution late in a green flag pit cycle caused endless confusion, and was probably unnecessary; Jeff Burton, in the No. 31 was already driving to the pits after hitting the wall. But again, be careful what you wish for.) If Edwards thought he was leading the race, was he lined up in the disadvantageous outside line? As I saw it, he didn’t mash the gas until within the prescribed limits for a leader restarting, while Stewart buzzed his tires and made Edwards’ start look like a felony rather than a misdemeanor. (To be fair, Stewart had trouble on restarts all evening.) But what about the other four cars that passed Stewart coming to the green flag when he failed to get up to speed? Weren’t we told at Bristol that if the leader fails to restart at an adequate pace, the driver beside him has the “right of way to accelerate?” At the very least, given the confusion (both the scoring pylon and FOX’s ticker showed the No. 99 in the lead) why wasn’t that restart waved off, the two drivers involved informed of the real running order and the race restarted again? I think Edwards was the victim of Grand Theft Auto Race, but I cast no stones at Stewart for behaving as he did.

Editor’s Note: For its part, NASCAR claimed there was sheet metal on the backstretch that caused the final debris caution. Some, like Dave Moody of SIRIUS claim to have seen that piece of sheet metal, but it was never shown on the FOX television broadcast – along with the truck which supposedly came by to pick it up.

OK, so we’re up to five cautions at Richmond. One of them was a competition caution because of rain prior to the event. Two of them were for “debris.” Two of them were for harmless, single-car incidents that didn’t even require a wrecker to be dispatched with both drivers able to continue racing. I’m starting to make my summer plans now, and I don’t think I’ll be following racing that closely. To paraphrase Ms. Taylor Swift (who incidentally still hates me), “Sundays, I’ll be rolling on a big old Harley, cause all you’re ever going to be is green…”

I do this segment from time to time to dispute the official count of legitimate lead changes. Here’s what I have in my notes about legit lead changes at Richmond Saturday night. On lap 30, Edwards passed polesitter Mark Martin for the lead. On lap 201 (yes, that’s 171 laps later) Stewart passed Edwards to take over the top spot. Harvick inherited the lead on pit strategy, but on lap 220 he tangled with Dave Blaney (who was four laps down at the time) and Edwards reassumed the lead. (We’ll call that one quasi-legit). 31 laps later, Stewart passed Edwards. On lap 286, Kyle Busch took over the lead from Stewart. On lap 305, Stewart retook the lead from Busch. Then we had that whole mess with the fourth caution period. Busch then regained the lead in the pits while the potentially deadly water bottle was retrieved off the track. As I see it, there were six legitimate lead changes in Saturday’s race, lead changes where two cars running at competitive speed battled over the top spot and in many instances, that was because the leader simply pulled over and let his pursuer by. That’s totally unacceptable for a 400-lap race at Richmond, “The Action Track.”

I hope all of you were able to catch Friday night’s Nationwide Series race, because it settled a debate that’s been raging the last few weeks. Some folks have been complaining about the lack of cautions and action on the track, saying the last few races were boring and stock car racing in general isn’t what it used to be. Others have been saying that folks who feel like that are just ghouls who want to see a bunch of big wrecks. Well, the finish to Friday’s race was what I want to see return to the big leagues. Two drivers were battling side by side, fenders banging, tires smoking, out of turn four to the checkers with Denny Hamlin getting his car sideways in one last attempt to pass Kurt Busch for the victory. There was no wreck, nobody got hurt. It was just an intense race between two drivers who weren’t concerned with points or stirring up controversy. (Yes, OK, Busch and Hamlin aren’t gunning for this year’s Nationwide driver’s title and yes, I’d rather have seen two NW series regulars fighting for the win.) Let’s make this one clear: I don’t want to see wrecks. I just want to see some intense, side-by-side battling for a win, clouding the air after the race with a lingering odor of tire smoke while a few Goodyear doughnut marks land on the side of the top-finishing cars.

I’ve written frequently that I feel the structure of the Chase points system is a key reason the racing is less intense and exciting. As I see it, the current points structure penalizes failure far more than it rewards excellence. So where’s my proof? Read this quote from the winning No. 18 team’s crew chief, Dave Rogers after the race. “It’s early in the season; we’re just trying to get lined up for the second half. We’ve been criticized for starting the season so strong and yet finishing the season so weak. So we’re doing development early in the season, and hopefully we can end strong.” At least he’s being honest about it.

In what had to be the Freudian slip of the season, an MRN broadcaster who shall remain nameless inadvertently referred to the driver of the No. 18 car as “Kyle Bitch.”

When it comes to off the wall ideas about stock car racing, I think I hold a few patents. So after Friday’s night race, here’s my latest idea for how to decide a Cup champion. The driver who wins the most races is champion. Second place on down through 50th or whatever are determined by full season points, not just points in the last 10 races. In academic circles, the motto amongst college professors is “publish or perish.” (Ask my buddy and fellow Frontstretch writer, Dr. Mark Howell.) In racing, the motto ought to be “win or push it back on the trailer and go home.”

I’m not sure what to make of Bruton Smith’s announcement concerning the Bristol track configuration on Wednesday. As it turns out, they are changing the “new” Bristol but not back to the “old” Bristol. So I guess this means we’ve got a “new, new” Bristol. I sure hope the fans react better to the “new, new” Bristol than they did the old “new” Bristol.

Boy-howdy here we go again. The front nose pieces of all three RCR Nationwide cars and the three cars of Turner Motorsports in the same series (coincidentally, perhaps, all Chevys) were confiscated Thursday by NASCAR officials before practice. The nose pieces, which are supposed to be supplied as a standard piece by the car manufacturers, were all found to be out of compliance and even visual evidence makes it clear there was something funny going on (let’s just say those noses had been reworked more than Michael Jackson’s snoz.) Are penalties forthcoming? Rumor has it Childress has put in an emergency call to have John Middlebrook put on standby for the appeals panel.

Hamlin’s charity Late Model race on Thursday was a whole lot of fun to watch. After a few sedate Cup races it was good to see some real racing again. The downside of Thursday’s event? I’m told that a competitive Late Model car now costs north of $60,000. No wonder grassroots stock car racing is dying on the vine.

So what was “the Tooth Fairy” doing at Richmond? She was there to echo Brian France’s statements that all is well with NASCAR racing.

How is it prior to a big time Saturday night stock car race nobody thinks to throw the switch and ensure all the track lights come on? Is it that difficult? The same thing happened at Texas a couple weeks ago. Or is leaving the lights off until needed part of NASCAR’s “green initiative?”

Is it really 31 years ago Martin started his Cup career at Richmond? No wonder he looks so old. No wonder we all do.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Stewart’s slow final pit stop cost him the race. The fact the caution that led to that pit stop was so bogus has got to make things that much more frustrating.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. worked his way up to second but was never able to mount a serious challenge on Kyle Busch after his brake pedal went to the floor in the final 10 laps.

Jimmie Johnson’s attempt to claim Hendrick Motorsports’ 200th win went awry when an uncontrolled tire during a pit stop forced him to restart the race at the tail end of the field. Johnson would bull his way back to a sixth-place finish, but had to be left wondering about what could have been.

Not a great day for HMS, with Jeff Gordon’s cutting down a tire early in the race after tangling with Greg Biffle and Kurt Busch. An unplanned pit stop dropped Gordon two laps off the pace and he was never able to get up to speed again, leaving him 23rd.

Biffle’s season had been off to a fantastic start but Richmond was a bit of a reality check for the driver of the No. 16, who has struggled at short tracks throughout his Cup career. Whether it was that incident with Gordon or just an ill-handling car, Biffle struggled home to an 18th-place finish which badly eroded his former points lead.

What’s worse than a slow pit stop like the ones Kevin Harvick had to endure? Slow pit stops where the teams make adjustments that render a formerly front-running car non-competitive. After having been a frontrunner early, Harvick struggled home 19th. If I was a member of the Nos. 29, 48 or 14 pit crews this week I’d be spending a lot of time on Monster.com.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Kyle Busch’s chances at a win were severely hampered by the awkward angle he had to enter the pits after the caution his brother’s spin brought out. But all in all, it was a pretty fair weekend for the Brothers Busch. Kurt claimed the win in Friday night’s Nationwide Series race aboard a car Kyle owned while Kyle, his nasty old self, won the big iron on Saturday night.

Virginia native Hamlin started the race strong but soon found himself tumbling back through the field at the midpoint of the race. Fortunately for him, they don’t award points at halfway and Hamlin was able to reassert himself back to fourth once the pay window opened.

That late caution enabled Edwards to get back on the lead lap and finish 10th after what looked like a potentially disastrous points night when he was black-flagged. Maybe NASCAR threw that caution as an apology to Edwards?

Worth Noting

  • Kyle Busch’s victory snapped a 21-race drought that dated back to Michigan last August. The win was his fourth Cup victory at Richmond, all of them scored consecutively in the Cup Series’ last four visits to Henrico County in the spring.
  • For those keeping count, Stewart-Haas Racing has three victories, two with Stewart and one with Ryan Newman. Joe Gibbs Racing now has three victories, two with Hamlin and one with Kyle Busch. Roush Fenway Racing has two wins, one with Matt Kenseth and one with Biffle. Penske Racing has one win with Brad Keselowski. That’s your totals, overall in just nine events. Richard Childress Racing and Hendrick Motorsports are still posting goose eggs in the win column in 2012.
  • Kyle Busch’s win Saturday was the 24th Cup victory of his career, moving him into a tie with brother Kurt in that category.
  • The top-10 finishers at Richmond piloted four Chevys, four Toyotas, a Ford and a Dodge.
  • Earnhardt and Johnson now lead all drivers with seven top-10 finishes in this season’s nine races. Kenseth and Biffle lead the pack with five top-five results in those nine events.
  • Earnhardt’s fourth top-five finish of the season matches his total number of top fives scored in all of 2011. The last time he managed more such results in a year was in 2008.
  • Stewart led a lap (118 of them, actually) for the first time since Fontana.
  • Kasey Kahne’s fifth-place finish was his best of the season.
  • Edwards now has five consecutive finishes of 11th or better.
  • Juan Pablo Montoya finished 12th for the second straight week. In both instances, his team used a carefully orchestrated strategy of not having JPM run into a jet dryer.
  • Biffle’s 18th-place result was his worst of the season.
  • Harvick’s 19th-place run matches his worst of the season. He also finished 19th at Martinsville.
  • Clint Bowyer’s seventh-place finish was his best since Bristol.

What’s the Points?

Despite a substandard showing Saturday, Biffle maintains his points lead. Earnhardt’s runner-up result moves him back up two spots to second in the standings, just five points behind. Hamlin moves up two spots to third, one point ahead of Kenseth, who fell a spot to fourth. Martin Truex Jr. tumbled three spots to fifth.

The top 10 is rounded out by Johnson (+1), Harvick (-1), Stewart, Edwards and Newman. All drivers from ninth-place Edwards on down are already more than a full race’s worth of points out of the lead.

Further back, a victory pushed Kyle Busch forward three spots to 11th in the standings. Keselowski holds the other “wild card,” sitting 13th with a win in hand.

Martin, who has sat out two races, is up five spots to 19th in the standings, one spot ahead of Burton (-3), who has shown up at all nine races. Tellingly, Martin is just three points behind Gordon. Time to hit the panic button for the Nos. 31 and 24? Not yet, but I’d check to see it was well lubed, all the connections are tight and it’s in plain sight.

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 two cans. What I was expecting was a classic but what we got was a ball of confusion, a bunch of ticked-off drivers who were mad at NASCAR, not each other, and a sedate finish.

Next Up – The circuit heads off to Talladega. Certainly, those fans who long for big wrecks won’t be disappointed, though those of us who thought Daytona was a wreckfest are a bit concerned no changes have been announced after the 500 despite the wholesale carnage. I just hope no driver’s mother is left to bury her son in the days leading up to Mother’s Day.

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