The Sprint Cup Series lit up the night in Richmond Saturday (April 26). Four of NASCAR’s best drivers put on an unforgettable show over the final laps before the most unlikely of the bunch ran away with the win. No matter; they each continued to lay the foundations for potential playoff pushes.
Fire was a major issue for many of those who struggled. Several cars were laid to waste after tire failures ignited their bodywork. Those drivers will hope that deflated form doesn’t continue in Alabama this week.
This Who’s Hot and Who’s Not favors many of those who stayed out of the spotlight in Virginia, but also shows who needs to miss the Big One the most at Talladega.
Many of the same drivers have been competing for the win in every race this season; Richmond was no different. Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski led for much of the Toyota Owners 400, a place to which they have become accustomed over the first fourth of the 2014 season. As the laps wound down, fellow frontrunners Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano joined the party, setting up a truly exciting finish.
The four drivers battled over the final 10 laps before Logano escaped the melee and took the checkered flag first for the second time in three races. It’s his fifth career victory and the first time that he has won multiple races in one year.
Logano’s arrival as a weekly contender in Cup has come as a surprise judging by his career numbers at many of the stops this season. For anyone who has watched it isn’t very shocking, however, because the No. 22 team has been a frontrunner on a consistent basis, Darlington’s mechanical DNF is starting to seem more and more like a minor hiccup.
Kyle Busch took advantage of a decision to take four fresh tires during the closing laps, jumping ahead of Keselowski and Kenseth to claim third place, his third top six in as many races.
These Cup superstars each rank in the top seven of the driver point standings, and each, outside of Gordon and Kenseth (who currently stand first and second overall), already has a foothold in the Chase if they can stay inside the top 30.
The same group of drivers has also experienced success at Talladega over the last two years aside from Logano (but that could change; it is restrictor plate racing after all), making it a realistic possibility that at least one of them could make it back-to-back hot-level appearances in next week’s column.
Moving right down the official finishing order, AJ Allmendinger (sixth) put the No. 47 entry in the top 10 for the second time in five races and avoided further confrontation with Austin Dillon.
JTG Daugherty Racing’s new driver has the organization on pace to at least match its best year since debuting in 2009. There is a long way to go, but Allmendinger has made his single-car team into a borderline top 10 contender on a week-to-week basis — not bad for an organization that has struggled to stay inside the top 35 over the past two seasons.
One of JTG’s former drivers, Marcos Ambrose, punched the Allmendinger-Dillon Darlington brush up into the old news pile. Ambrose was seen slugging Casey Mearsin response to Mears’ confrontation with him over events that took place on track during the white flag lap.
That’s not very warm now is it? The punch was down and dirty, and resulted in a skirmish between members of the two crews, but rivalries create headlines, and that’s good for the sport. The short-lived brawl combined with Keselowski’s post-race actions and remarks directed towards Kenseth serve as ways to maintain the buzz that comes with the short track racing genre.
In addition, for Mears things aren’t very bad; he’s having one of his best stretches with Germain Racing since joining the organization midway through 2010. Sure, he might have a little swelling, but Richmond was possibly the team’s best effort yet. The 19th-place finish doesn’t do him justice, because the No. 13 Chevrolet seemed capable of a top 10. Overall, that’s Mears’ fifth top 20 of ’14, a mark that he didn’t hit until Round 13 last season.
Goodyear brought a new tire compound to Richmond in hopes that it might solve the tire issues that have plagued teams as they try to adjust to NASCAR’s new set of rules dictating car setups. The updated tires brought with them a new type of problem: fire.
Flats were again a problem, only this time the tires unraveled from the inside, causing long strands of rubber to tangle with parts around the wheels of several cars, causing the rubber to heat up and burn. Clint Bowyer and Cole Whitt both had issues that resulted in like conditions simultaneously. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. was also affected by fire after contact with the wall started a blaze.
Tire issues at Fontana were believed be caused by aggressive camber settings used by teams, but its hard not to blame Goodyear this time around. According to Sporting News writer Bob Pockrass, Goodyear’s multi-zone tire designed to be tougher given the new rules, featured a more heat-resistant inside two-inch portion, but it obviously didn’t help.
Watching Reed Sorenson being pulled from his blazing No. 36 car on pit road isn’t a sight that should become common.
Swan Racing is officially out of Cup, after selling its assets off to BK Racing (No. 26) and Xxxtreme Motorsports (No. 30). Yet, nothing changed for the new owners, who also received the owner points for the two cars.
Cole Whitt, driver of the No. 26, never recovered from his sizzler, but stayed on the track, and finished 33 laps down in 41st. Meanwhile, JJ Yeley, who took the reins from rookie Parker Kligerman, succumbed to an engine failure after 380 laps in his first Cup action of the year.
While there were some minor changes with the turnover to new teams, the results remained the same in the first race since both restructured. The No. 26 fell to 36th in owner points and the No. 30 dropped to 43rd (a spot behind Glenn Wood’s No. 21, which has three starts).
If there is one track that could change their fortune, it’s Talladega, a venue known for turning anyone into a star for a day. Just ask David Ragan, who has scored more points than any other driver over the last five trips to the Heart of Dixie.