Richmond International Raceway hosted the most unpredictable race of the season to date last weekend as the field was shuffled more than once before the checkered flag waved. Juan Pablo Montoya appeared to be ready to snap a multi-year winless streak, leading 67 laps before a late caution for Brian Vickers mixed up the leaders for a final time.
In the end, Kevin Harvick was able to surpass Jeff Burton and others during the resulting green-white-checker sequence to claim his first victory of the season, and third ever at the 0.75-mile track.
This edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not examines where drivers lined up after a happier Harvick and what to expect from them when Sprint Cup visits Talladega Superspeedway for the Aaron’s 499 on May 5.
Kevin Harvick might be giving up his seat at Richard Childress Racing once the season is over, but it was hard to tell from the scene in Victory Lane on Saturday night. Childress had nothing but praise for his driver after Harvick found a way to win despite leading twice for only three laps.
In that way, his performance can only be described as classic Harvick. He showed why he was once known as one of NASCAR’s premier closers by first pitting off sequence late in the race, then using those gains to setup the No. 29 Chevrolet seventh with two overtime circuits remaining.
On the final restart Harvick held the inside line, passing everyone ahead of him heading towards the white flag. From there, it was smooth sailing as he easily held off Clint Bowyer for a much needed win, a victory that moves him up to ninth in the standings.
The win does more than just help him in the points; it could set him off in a way that should have other teams in the garage area deeply worried. In the not-so-distant past victories have served as the cornerstone for extended runs of top five and top 10 finishes, transforming Harvick into a championship contender.
If history proves true once again, this might not be his last appearance atop Hot or Not. Harvick will have a chance to become this season’s first back-to-back winner at Talladega where he will be among those considered favorites.
The No. 29 didn’t finish the ’12 rendition of the Aaron’s 499, but that race is Harvick’s only DNF at a track that is known for dishing them out. With 24 starts there, he has completed 97.8 percent of all laps and has one victory.
If Sprint Cup’s first restrictor plate race of the year at Daytona is any indication, Harvick will also be among the fastest drivers at the track. Although he’ll hope for a better outcome this time; an early accident left him 42nd on race day.
Kurt Busch made headway in his comeback from two consecutive 37th place finishes earlier in April by posting a ninth-place run. More importantly, he did it while leading laps – pacing the field for 36 circuits – and was constantly mingling with the leaders, even as pit stops cycled through time and time again.
These types of finishes bode well for a driver who wasn’t competitive last season until his move to Furniture Row during the Chase. But more impressive was the way he handled himself during a post race shouting match with Tony Stewart.
Busch isn’t exactly known for keeping his cool – especially in recent years – but he did just that when Stewart confronted him about the way the drivers raced each other as the laps wound down. If he exhibits the same sort of self-control and knocks off more top-10 finishes going forward, Busch could quickly reassert into the free agency conversations of top flight organizations.
Things haven’t exactly gone well since Juan Pablo Montoya made the Chase in 2009, finishing eighth in the standings. Since then, he has been at odds, struggling with a flailing organization and still in search of his first oval win.
Montoya came close to capturing that elusive result at Richmond, where he kept the No. 42 Chevrolet in front of the pack during the late goings, leading for 67 laps total. It appeared that he would be the one celebrating until a caution with a handful of laps remaining, plus the subsequent decision to pit left him out of position.
Whether this finish is an anomaly or a pleasant sign of things to come, it by no means puts Montoya fully back onto the map with other Chase contenders. But it does serve as a step towards moving him off a potential hot seat with Kyle Larson waiting in the Earnhardt Ganassi ranks.
Marcos Ambrose is another driver hoping for more oval success, but he failed to find it at Richmond because of engine complications. After an early exit from the racing surface, that bummed motor left him grounded in the garage area, forcing him to accept a 42nd-place finish.
Ambrose has improved his ability to qualify well over the past month but the finishing results to match – outside of an eighth-place result at Martinsville – haven’t been there.
The Tasmanian-born driver will need to avoid trouble at Talladega to reverse the resulting drop in the point standings. Unfortunately, he hasn’t done well there outside of his ’09 track debut, with two DNFs and no finish better than 14th since.
After the Sprint Cup Series arrived at Richmond, Greg Biffle and the No. 16 team unloaded their Ford Fusion and found success during the first practice session. From there, things quickly went downhill as Biffle was unable to recapture that speed, eventually posting a 36th-place result.
Biffle hasn’t looked as impressive as he did early during 2012, but it wasn’t until this uncharacteristically bad finish that things took a real downturn, dropping him four positions to eighth in the standings.
Fortunately, the return to restrictor plate racing might serve as the remedy he needs to turn things around quickly. Roush Racing has experienced ample success at such venues of late and Biffle is no exception, with top 10s in three of the last four Talladega race dates.
Brian Vickers appeared to have recaptured the ability that made him a top prospect with Hendrick Motorsports, but his career comeback has been recently frozen due to two consecutive finishes outside the top 30.
A late race crash leaves Vickers with his first DNF of the season and first since experiencing a blown engine at Watkins Glen last August.
Vickers now looks forward into a cloudy future. He is currently listed on the entry list for Talladega, but some sources believe that Denny Hamlin’s return is now imminent, which could force the part-timer to watch as his counterparts race.