Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
The knock on Jimmie Johnson has long been that his cars were better than the driver was. This year, he’s proving the opposite to be true. Johnson finished sixth after being mired in the 20s in the first half of the race. It wasn’t the result that commanded attention, though, as much as it was how Johnson got there. In a show of vintage Johnson, the No. 48 took the field three, then four wide on the final restart. The car wasn’t good enough to win, and Johnson wasn’t really a contender, but it wasn’t really a top-10 car either until the driver made it one.
That’s the kind of performance that made Johnson dominant for so many years, and why, if he had a car capable of a top-five, sometimes even a top-10 finish, he was a threat to win. A good driver can usually finish a race where the car is capable of finishing, with a little luck on his side. The best drivers can finish better than where the car should have wound up. That’s what Johnson did Saturday night.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
The racing was better in the early going before the sun went down, but in the end, clean air won, and late in the race, the leader had a big clean-air advantage. The end of Stage 2 was particularly racey, but after night fell over the track, it was all aero all the time.
Richmond is a bit of a pseudo-short track because clean air matters too much for it to produce the same type of racing as Martinsville or Bristol. It’s hard to execute a bump and run if you can’t get to the leader’s bumper, and that was often the case in the second half Saturday.
Richmond moved this race back to nighttime after running on Sunday afternoon last year, at the request of fans. Why fans would request racing that’s less than the best a track can offer is a bit of a mystery. Cars look pretty under the lights, but they look prettier when they can race better.
Where… did Kyle Busch come from?
Busch started a miserable 32nd on Saturday but made his way to the front when it counted, and extended his win mark at Richmond to five, most among active drivers. That’s a Richmond record for the deepest starting spot for a winner, and it certainly provided for an entertaining run as Busch sliced his way to the front. It’s a little bit misleading in that he never had a 32nd-place car, and that’s why he was able to make his way to the front.
While it’s rare for a winner at any track to come from so deep in the field, it’s also rare for a diver with equipment as good as the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to qualify so poorly. It’s not as uncommon for drivers in top cars to start at the rear for an engine change or other by-the-rules reason and contend for a win, so nobody should be surprised that a driver of Busch’s caliber in the best cars in the field was there at the end.
When… was the moment of truth?
It doesn’t take much to change everything. Martin Truex Jr. has long had a monkey on his back when it comes to the Cup Series’ short tracks. He hasn’t won on a track under a mile, even in his stellar 2017 championship campaign. Saturday looked like it might have been the night – Truex won the pole and led laps – but a series of late cautions after running most of the night under green ultimately ended any chance Truex might have had to end the drought.
On the other hand, the race was caution free until the final 50 laps, save the two stage breaks, and it showed that cautions aren’t really necessary to make a race exciting. While it’s true at some tracks that restarts provide the most action, that wasn’t the case at Richmond. There was plenty of action for much of the night, a lot of it among the top 10. Once again, NASCAR can’t win for losing. Plenty of fans called the race boring for a lack of yellow flags, but they don’t watch for the crashes….
Why… didn’t second-place Chase Elliott pull it off?
Elliott’s eighth runner-up finish ties his father Bill in second-place runs before his first win, but that’s probably not one the younger Elliott was hoping to tie. He’s been fast, had the best car some weeks, but has yet to win. Saturday, Elliott simply didn’t have a strong enough car to make a move. It wasn’t until the sun went down that Elliott became competitive, and he certainly put himself in position to take advantage of any mistake by Kyle Busch on the final restart.
But Busch didn’t make one, and his Toyota again proved stronger than Elliott’s Chevrolet. The advantage wasn’t just behind the wheel as Toyotas dominated the late laps. As Elliott matures, he looks closer than ever to that first win, but his biggest competition may just be his own manufacturer as the Chevy camp continues to struggle for a foothold.
How… much of a driver’s wife on camera is too much?
As has too often been the case in recent years, FOX missed the boat late in the race by getting more creative than necessary with the cameras. Late in the race as Kyle Busch was gunning for his third win in a row, the broadcast cut to his wife, Samantha, several times. While there’s nothing wrong with showing reactions in the pits from time to time (heck, during the race it can add to the drama), this time, FOX cut to the reaction shot almost the moment Busch crossed the line, and some viewers were unhappy that it cut away from some critical action, namely several cars fighting tooth and nail for spots all the way to the line.
Two-time Camping World Truck Series champion Matt Crafton even weighed in on the situation on Twitter.
I might throw up if it shows her again.
— Matt Crafton (@Matt_Crafton) April 22, 2018
Several of Crafton’s followers weighed in to agree, and they’re not wrong. Fans watching on television saw maybe half the field cross the line before the cutaway. There’s a time and a place to show a driver’s happy significant other, and when others are still racing to the finish is not that time.