Four Spring races at Richmond, four straight Kyle Busch victories. To have that type of record on your resume, Lady Luck needs to be hired as at least a part-time consultant.
Or how about full-time employee? We saw her working overtime Saturday night, taking control for Busch at a Richmond racetrack that had another weird ending added to its resume. Remember last Fall, when Paul Menard’s late-race spin set up a suspicious finish where teammate Kevin Harvick blew by Jeff Gordon? Or how about the Spring of 2008, when Denny Hamlin led a record-setting 381 laps only to blow a tire, setting up the infamous Kyle Busch spin of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. which opened the door for Clint Bowyer to triumph?
Since then, this particular Spring event has been owned by Busch, whose four trips to Victory Lane in four consecutive years broke Richard Petty’s event record at RIR. (The King did it from 1971-1973, in case you were wondering). In the past, Busch has conquered all in dominating fashion, leading more than 500 laps in total during this stretch. But this time, a struggling Shrub entering this race needed a Moses-like, miracle parting of the Red Sea to make his mark. One might say the No. 18 car, which paced the field for just 32 circuits this time around, was the fourth-fastest vehicle on this night, behind Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, and Jimmie Johnson. All of those drivers had to get shot in the foot, either by themselves or somebody else in order for anyone else to have a chance.
Good thing NASCAR officials, typically Busch’s number one enemy, came packing for each of his rivals on this night. The first to fall was Johnson, burned by a pit road violation when a crewman rolled a right-rear tire. Paul Menard’s crew, jabbering with Johnson’s team earlier in the evening, was all too happy to point out the penalty. Officials sent the No. 48 to the rear and negated a patient, persistent drive to the front. It’s yet another near-miss for one of the sport’s active greats, who after five straight championships has suddenly made a habit the last year-plus of learning how to give races away late. Whether it’s a bad Knaus adjustment, the pit crew itself, or Johnson overdriving, it’s an all-too familiar monkey that needs to be handled. With just one win in the last 37 races now, that’s a record all the top-5 finishes in the world for the No. 48 team can’t erase.
Next to fall was Edwards, burned by a black flag for jumping the start with less than 100 laps to go. The driver of the No. 99 had plenty to argue about: NASCAR’s control tower radioed his spotter, Jason Hedlesky Edwards was the leader when, in fact, he should have been starting in second place. That type of miscommunication alone should have caused a simple restart “wave off” to sort things out, a practice we see at least once or twice a year. Instead, it was Edwards losing track position, then headed to the hauler after the race to argue fruitlessly with NASCAR officials. A character building night, for certain from a team that has gone more than a year without a first-place result; however, those are the types of efforts you need to see ended with the car wheeled to Victory Lane.
That became the second strike, seemingly handing the race to Stewart as the No. 14 Chevy sailed to what appeared to be a series-leading third victory of 2012. But then, Lady Luck made her move in the form of the fifth and final caution flag of the night: debris. What it was and where it was picked up is a matter of debate; SIRIUS Speedway’s Dave Moody joins NASCAR in claiming sheet metal was seen on the backstretch. But if there was, at the very least, television and radio is guilty of not clearly explaining what got picked up by series officials. Someone also needs to tell that to Stewart, whose claim it was an empty 20-ounce Dasani, out of the groove raised eyebrows and left fans irritated over a possible “fabricated” finish.
“Well, when the caution is for a plastic (water) bottle on the backstretch, it’s hard to feel good about losing that one,” he said. “It got taken away from us. I mean, it was out of the groove. It had been sitting there for eight laps.”
The yellow flag surprised even Busch; at that point, he was sitting in the runner-up spot, but more than two seconds behind the leader and a virtual continent away from contending. A green-flag finish, and Smoke almost certainly waltzes to the checkered flag unchallenged. Heck, _you_ could have probably jumped in and still finished first.
“Wherever that last caution came from, that was the saving grace,” Busch admitted. “Just the luck of the day, and put us in the right position. No catching Stewart without that caution.”
The Joe Gibbs Racing pit crew took over from there, beating Stewart and Co. out with four fresh tires in a stop that sealed the deal. Struggling on restarts all night, there was no way the No. 14 would compete with the No. 18 leading the way to the green and that’s exactly what happened; moments later, Stewart was steamed and Busch celebrating a much-needed boost after starting the season with just one top-5 finish in eight races.
“We feel like we’ve definitely had some ups and downs,” he said. “We definitely feel like we haven’t run to the competitiveness that we want to. You know, we’re not out there leading all the laps and running up front and doing what Biffle has been able to do or Martin Truex has been able to do or some of those guys.”
Certainly not. Yet what this convoluted series of events did, NASCAR officials pulling the irony of virtually handing their personal enemy number one a victory is giftwrap a Chase bid for the No. 18. That’s important; sitting 11th in points, Busch earning a win takes the pressure off trying to scrounge his way inside the top 10. Heading into 2012, the focus for this driver was to peak late, not early after a series of unspectacular Chases and you can certainly focus more on testing during the regular season when you feel you’re already in. It’s a method of success stolen from Johnson, who joins with Edwards in holding goose eggs in the win column and wondering what might have been.
Those two have certainly had their share of breaks in the past; but Lady Luck is a fickle beast and, fabricated or not, she spent Saturday night lined up with Busch. That means those likely championship contenders must join every other Sprint Cup competitor with a groan; Busch the Unpredictable, whose aggression and uncertain temper can pop up at any time, lighting him on fire while torching competitors, will almost certainly be a part of the playoffs. The “new” Busch, five months removed from the Texas tragedy that nearly cost him a job can play nice, putting more distance between that incident and a cleaner, conservative version of driving before every point counts once again. It will almost certainly give him another “probation” mulligan, should he choose to use it at the right time.
Who would have thought a Dasani plastic bottle could change a season that much?
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