The length of races varies throughout the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races. 400 laps, sometimes 500 miles. Heck, there are even some races measured in kilometers.
Really, though, in those hundreds of laps run in any given race, the only one we really care about is the last one.
Carl Edwards led 151 of 400 laps at Richmond International Raceway en route to his second victory this season, winning back-to-back races after a triumph at Bristol Motor Speedway the weekend before. The backflip looked a little better this week, and Edwards gained the series points lead, now holding a seven-point advantage over Kevin Harvick. A second victory also sets Edwards up nicely for the Chase Grid reset in September, too.
However, the win didn’t come without some controversy.
Edwards was not leading come the white flag lap. Instead, that spot went to Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch, who led 78 laps and had to settle for second after the “bump heard ‘round the world” from teammate Edwards in turn four of the final lap.
The “bump and run” is a classic move in NASCAR and various other forms of racing, but it’s a little less common between teammates. After Edwards has spoken so highly of his teammates since joining the organization last season, it was a bit of a surprise to see the contact and such an aggressive move against one of those exact teammates.
Edwards blamed part of the contact on what he thought was a problem with Busch’s car, but also spoke of the fact that both drivers have wins this season, giving both of them the opportunity to race each other hard without much in the way of championship implications.
“Kyle’s an amazing teammate and it’s like he got really slow there at the end,” Edwards said post-race. “Something happened that last lap. It was like his rear tires went off or something. He went down into (Turn) one and I dove it in and I got to him and I thought, ‘Man, I’ve got something.’ And he went to get down to the bottom and park it in three and four and I had already decided to go down there so I thought, ‘Man, I’m going to give him a little nudge,’ and we both have got wins and we’re racing for fun getting these trophies and just an awesome day.”
As to be expected, Busch wasn’t happy with losing the race, and didn’t really have much to say about the move, effectively avoiding lashing out at Edwards directly.
“It was just racing I guess,” Busch said with a straight face. “We had a great car. The Banfield Pet Hospital Camry was really good today. We were fast.
“Maybe not as good as Carl was on the long run, but we did everything right. We did everything we were supposed to do and put ourselves in the right position. Adam [Stevens, crew chief] made some awesome adjustments to this car. We lost it there the second to last run and were fading a little bit but the guys gave me an awesome pit stop, got me track position and got us out front and we had a shot to win so that’s all that matters.”
Busch was asked directly about the incident again on pit road and a few more times in his post-race availability in the media center. Again, he dodged the question, instead deciding to talk about his own race up to that point:
“Our Banfield Camry was real awesome today,” Busch said. “We had a great racecar. My guys made some awesome adjustments to it. It was really good for us to have an opportunity to run and race for the win like that.”
Busch was asked again what he thought of the incident, the question this time being about the fact that both drivers had multiple wins, essentially locking both of them into the Chase.
Again, he still chose not to answer the question:
“My guys give me great racecars each and every week,” he continued. “We continue to have fast Camrys. We’ll be continuing to run up front and race for wins.”
Considering that Busch got in trouble earlier this year for not following his media obligations after a race, he was answering questions only for that purpose and would have otherwise liked to have brushed the whole thing off entirely.
At least, that is, until this week’s team debriefing at JGR, a meeting that team owner Joe Gibbs said repeatedly that he is not looking forward to.
“I think when something like this happens, I don’t think there’s a game plan for it,” Gibbs said in the media center. “You have no real organized way of handling it. What you do is you start out and work your way through it. That’s what we’ll do.
“So, you know, it’s a tough thing because it’s certainly painful for one side. You’re on such a high with the other side. It’s a tough thing. You kind of know what we’ll do is kind of go to work and work our way through it.”
Edwards agreed that it would be something they had to talk their way through, though admitted he hadn’t talked to Busch about the contact yet.
“We just talk about it,” Edwards said. “That’s it. I don’t know. We haven’t talked yet. We’ll talk about it. I can say this. My teammates have been spectacular. They truly have been. Not just helping with things we need help, but from a motivational standpoint.
“What Kyle was able to do particularly last year I think raised everyone’s game. So I’m very grateful to have my teammates and to be a part of it. Yeah, we’re going to have times like this when you’re running like this. We’re racing each other for wins, which is really, really good. So hopefully it all works out fine.”
Edwards’ crew chief Dave Rogers is also expecting to have a conversation with Busch’s crew chief Adam Stevens this week, but again thinks that the situation was justifiable, teammate or not.
“I think today, we can talk about the relations with the 18,” Rogers said. “Adam and I are great friends. Kyle and I are great friends. So I’m not worried about any relations. If we look at the big picture, today was a great day for NASCAR. Our fans don’t want to see teammate orders. They don’t deserve teammates to fall in line. They deserve good, hard racing.
“So I think today was a great day for the sport. It stinks that we had to move a teammate. I’m sure Adam and I will talk about it, and Carl and Kyle will talk about it. But I think it would be very disappointing to our fans if Joe imposed a team order and told us, Hey, have a parade instead of a race.”
The “teammates” theme has been a very prevalent one with JGR this season, so it was only natural that one of the other JGR drivers weighed in. Denny Hamlin, who has had success at Richmond before but an early tire penalty prevented him from being a contender, weighed in on Edwards’ last lap move.
“I think every driver is trying to win for themselves,” Hamlin said. “I mean, ultimately if you give yourself an opportunity to win you know you’re not going to wreck your teammate I think its okay. That’s the biggest thing – you can’t wreck a teammate for a race win, that’s for sure.”
JGR has won five of the nine races run in 2016, so it was only inevitable that the four-driver camp would have at least two – if not more – of their drivers racing for the win late in the race. If you think about it, it’s probably more surprising that something like this didn’t happen sooner.
There was a lot of talk about “driver code” late last season. The discussion was generated by a separate incident but many drivers weighed in then, and a couple weighed in now. So where did the rest of the field weigh in on a last lap bump-and-run between teammates?
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s take on the move was very similar to that of Hamlin’s.
“It was awesome,” he said. “I know Kyle was probably disappointed, but it’s short track racing man. The fans come to see something like that. If you can reach them, if you can get to them on the last lap you better be leaning on them a little bit. He didn’t wreck him. As long as you don’t put a guy in the fence. I think the fans really enjoy it and that has always been good for the sport for 50 years. Hopefully, we have more exciting races come up in the next several weeks.”
Three-time Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart was back on the track as a driver this weekend after missing the first eight races of the season due to a back injury sustained over the offseason. He had a unique take on the situation as he is also a team co-owner for Stewart-Haas Racing. Again, Stewart echoed the “just don’t wreck ‘em” sentiment.
“You pray that is the scenario that you get in,” Stewart explained. “You want to be in that scenario where you’ve got two cars going for the win on the last lap. The golden rule is don’t crash each other. You can lean on each other, you can move each other, you do what you’ve got to do, but just don’t take each other out.
“It’s no different than what you would do if it was anybody else. You are not going to go and wreck somebody intentionally, you might move them out of the way, but be tactful about it. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. As long as the coach and the team owners can sit there and keep their drivers under control when it happens, the driver that gets the receiving end of it normally doesn’t like it as much as the guy on the delivery end.”
Still, Gibbs still seemed rattled by what took place and expressed disappointment on the part of Busch’s sponsors and Busch as a JGR driver.
“Kind of my fear is always at the end when you got cars as good as we have, and drivers as good as we have, that you wind up with two of your teammates battling there,” Gibbs continued post-race. “You wish it wouldn’t happen. I think Carl would say that, too. Certainly we had a lot of people here from Mars, Banfield Pet Hospital (Busch’s sponsors). You hate to have them miss out on something. At the same time I think you know it can happen.”
Edwards did have some consolation to offer.
“If my cat ever gets sick, I don’t care how much it costs, I will take it to the Banfield Pet Hospital if that helps.”
One thing is for sure. Busch won’t hesitate to reciprocate the same move if and when the situation presents itself. And, most likely, it will, as JGR continues to be the strongest team in the sport right now. Too bad we may have to wait a few weeks for that. The next race is at Talladega, where retaliation is absolutely off limits because of the high speeds, tendency for big wrecks and a history of cars getting airborne.
After that … who knows? That’s why we tune in.