The Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, took the wins and the glory at Richmond International Raceway this weekend with Hamlin winning Friday night’s Nationwide Series race and Busch leading Hamlin home in Saturday’s Sprint Cup Series race.
Richmond was also the chosen venue for Denny Hamlin’s Short Track Showdown, an annual invitation race for Late Model cars which raises money for the Denny Hamlin Foundation. Usually run at Southside Speedway in Midlothian, Virginia it was transferred to Richmond due to lack of availability of the normal venue and brought a change of luck for Virginian Hamlin who, despite opting to start from the rear of the field won for the first time this eponymous race when Kyle Busch ran out of fuel on the last lap.
By contrast on Friday night Hamlin completely dominated the Nationwide race, leading 199 of the 251 laps. The race actually finished under caution one lap beyond the scheduled 250 after a car spun in turn four following a green flag restart. Hamlin was followed across the finish line by fellow Sprint Cup driver, Paul Menard, and the first of the points scorers, Justin Allgaier and Elliott Sadler.
Daytona 500 winner, Trevor Bayne‘s up and down season continued on its strange ways when he was hospitalised in the week leading up to the race by nausea and fatigue which was originally thought to have been related to the insect bite he suffered a few weeks ago but has since been announced by Bayne himself on Twitter as a completely separate illness.
Bayne’s place was taken by Chris Buescher who received a phone call on Thursday telling him to get to Richmond as quickly as possible. So hastily was the drive arranged for him that he had no drivers firesuit with him and was forced to wear Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s for the event. Buescher spent most of his time in the infield pointing fans towards the real Stenhouse! He took his first ever NASCAR race in his stride and achieved his aim of bringing the car home unscathed and in a creditable seventeenth place. A remarkable performance for the young man who at eighteen years of age was a stark contrast to the oldest man in the field, Morgan Shepherd, a very fit and sprightly sixty-nine year old who finished 28th. Only in NASCAR . . .
On Saturday it was Busch’s turn to rule the roost leading 235 of the 400 laps in the Crown Royal 400 Sprint Cup Series race. He passed the checkered flag a measured 1.805 seconds ahead of his teammate with Kasey Kahne in the no. 4 Red Bull Toyota making it a 1-2-3 for the marque.
Hamlin, who has endured a torrid start to his season, was remarkably sanguine about his runner-up spot after the race. “It’s my best finish of the year — I’m ecstatic, to be honest with you,” Hamlin said. “You can’t be mad at second place. Yeah, I want to win, trust me. It burns that you didn’t win. But how we didn’t win, I can live with.”
Busch, who celebrates his 26th birthday on Monday, was quick to acknowledge Hamlin’s help in his win. “I learned from Denny Hamlin last fall — and I’m not going to say what I learned, but he might know. We did a good job of doing what we needed to do early in the run, and once we got out [front] and had to go through traffic, the traffic kind of fell our way, so we were able to pick our way through there.”
The NASCAR tenet of ‘have at it, boys’ came to the fore again with a simmering feud between Ryan Newman and Juan Pablo Montoya during the race. Just after one quarter distance the two collided coming off a turn with Montoya sliding up the track and catching the front of Newman’s US Army Chevrolet. Newman’s brakes were glowing as he tried to avoid the collision and it did appear that Montoya moved up without realising he wasn’t fully clear of Newman’s car. It took several stops during the ensuing caution period for Montoya’s Target Chevrolet to be knocked back in to shape to continue and from then on Newman was concerned that he was going to be on the receiving end of some retribution.
Sure enough, on lap 237, as Montoya was just to the rear of Newman he visibly turned the wheel and steered into the right rear of his adversary. Not satisfied with that, as Newman started sliding Montoya gave him another tap on the left side which sent the no. 39 into the wall. After the race Newman was at the NASCAR hauler waiting for the head honchos to appear so that he could argue his case and ask for action to be taken against Montoya.
Montoya had been warned after the lap 237 crash by NASCAR that he was in danger of being black-flagged if his driving standard wasn’t satisfactory and thereafter drove accordingly. With NASCAR declaring its “have at it” policy at the start of the 2010 season it is hard to imagine the governing body will issue any further sanctions.
Hamlin’s observation of the incident is worth repeating here. “I watch the screen,” Hamlin said. “I don’t like it. Every time Montoya has damage, you see who did it, they usually end up getting wrecked. You usually know that’s coming. You have to realize … Montoya, I like him, I think he’s a hell of a driver, but you can’t wreck everyone every time you get in an accident. Accidents happen. Guys make mistakes. Why hold grudges? Makes it tough to get in the Chase, too.”
The other major incident in the race was a crash on lap 301 which took several of the fancied runners out of contention, none more so than Jeff Gordon who took a heavy hit against the inside wall where it is unprotected by the softer, safe wall. As two cars squeezed together without realising Clint Bowyer was already between them a spinning Matt Kenseth speared into the hapless Gordon and triggered a nine-car wreck that also involved Paul Menard, David Reutimann and Mark Martin amongst others.
Carl Edwards, who finished fifth behind David Ragan, maintains his championship lead over Jimmie Johnson with Busch climbing from sixth to third. Clint Bowyer and A J Allmendinger who both finished just behind Edwards also gained several places in the table whilst the unfortunate Menard drops out of the top twelve after finishing a battered 37th.
Another post-race topic was the radio chatter between drivers and pit crews, particularly at times of stress. Kurt Busch told his pit crew they were monkeys performing unnatural acts with a rubber ball, although a good deal more succinctly than written here. And Martin Truex Jr. who has had a fraught start to his season told his pit crew they were all fired, but again in an altogether more colourful way. There was much debate about how tolerable the industrial language can be over a radio system which the public has access to. Can drivers be asked to think before they speak in the heat of battle at 200 mph? Or is the earthy language something that goes with the territory and has to be considered when choosing to listen in on the transmissions?
Next weekend sees the next races in both series at Darlington, the 1.366 mile track that is egg-shaped because the original landowner didn’t want to disturb a minnow pond.