Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2011 Richmond Spring Race Recap

The Key Moment: Kyle Busch was able to stretch 107 laps out of a tank of fuel to drive to victory Saturday night (April 30).

In a Nutshell: Perhaps it’s appropriate that on a weekend where gas prices soared north of four bucks in most parts of the nation, all three of Richmond’s marquee events were decided on fuel mileage.

Dramatic Moment: Waiting to see who, if anyone, would run out of gas on those final laps.

What They’ll Be Talking About Around the Water Cooler This Week

So let’s take a scary look ahead to Richmond this fall courtesy of team orders and the new points system. Let’s say that going into that race, the one that will finalize the contenders for the Chase, Denny Hamlin is still mired in the teens in the points and still hasn’t won a race. He and Kyle Busch are once again the dominant cars but Busch is leading, yet again, and Hamlin is second.

During the final laps might JGR executives radio Busch and tell him to slow down and let Hamlin win the race so the No. 11 team makes the Chase? Would Busch comply? Would the fans riot afterwards? Don’t worry, darling, don’t you fret, we’re living in the future and none of this has happened yet.

So what do we call next weekend’s race? Officially it’s the Southern 500 presented by such and such and sponsored by whoever really wants their product boycotted but it is not THE Southern 500. THE Southern 500 is run at Darlington on Labor Day weekend. It is run during the brutal heat of the late summer afternoon of the Carolinas. Winning said event memorializes the winner into the august pantheon of the sport’s most elite drivers. That’s what THE Southern 500 is, not just a 500-mile race run south of the Mason-Dixon line or God forbid in southern California.

And until NASCAR realizes as much after their Fontana travesty, don’t look for the TV ratings to improve for the sport amidst the army of disengaged loyalists.

What is with Ryan Newman and Juan Pablo Montoya? It seems Newman has been running into Montoya every second or third week since the Colombian joined NASCAR’s top rank.

Good wishes go out to Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne who has been hospitalized again due to reoccurring symptoms (including double vision and numbness in his arm) that were originally attributed to a bug bite. It’s a little frightening that this deep into his medical issues doctors still can’t say what’s wrong with Bayne, but the kid is only 20 years old and an abundance of caution with his future health is clearly the best strategy.

I’m sure for Bayne it is frustrating and frightening to be hospitalized again at such a young age after his time in the spotlight after Daytona, but he hopefully has many more years to race and prosper. Maybe he needs to talk to Brian Vickers and Ricky Craven.

It’s been a sad week for old-school fans. The “Best Damn Garage in Town,” Smokey Yunick’s old shop, burned down. Yunick was one of the sport’s most talented mechanics and might be the most brilliant guy who ever devoted his attention to the greasy mechanical bits that make up the internal combustion engine.

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In addition to all his race wins and his innovations in open wheel cars (which included the first winged car to ever run at the Indy 500), Yunick was once courted by the Big Three during the ’70s when gas mileage and lower emissions were center stage to help them develop new engine technologies. Had the Big Three actually listened to his ideas the only Honda in your neighborhood would likely we owned by a fat kid on a Mini-trail trying to chase down the ice cream truck.

But Yunick had little tolerance for fools, charlatans and those trying to make a career out of college degrees and when they wouldn’t listen to his ideas he soon headed back home to Daytona.

The fire has been determined to be caused by arson and it’s not surprising considering the upscale developments that have been erected all around the former shop which to be kind was a little on the unsightly side. Smokey Yunick was the DaVinci of the automobile and an American patriot who flew bombers during World War II. The loss of his shop is the automotive equivalent of a massive fire at the Louvre. If you think you know a thing about NASCAR history and haven’t read his three-volume autobiography, published posthumously, you sir are a pompous ignoramus.

Also this week, April 29th, would have marked Dale Earnhardt’s 60th birthday. My guess is by now Earnhardt would have retired from full time Cup competition and would be focused on his role as team owner. I’d also guess that when NASCAR officials sought his counsel on impending ideas like the Chase and the Car of Tomorrow, Dale’s less than generous assessments of such concepts would have been sufficient to knock them off the drawing board and out of public sight.

There has never been a voice in the garage area that NASCAR respected the way they did Earnhardt’s and it it’s unlikely there ever will be again given our current five-time champion is so bland it would probably take him and his PR team two weeks to draft a statement saying that, all things being equal and given that there was room for debate on the issue, he’d just as soon hope that no future infants or puppies ever contract malaria again, or at least they do so in smaller numbers than infants and puppies do today.

Given the Earnhardt anniversary weekend it was all that much more troubling to see Jeff Gordon, a good friend of the Intimidator but a driver who fans of the No. 3 car once considered his chief rival, going slamming driver’s side first into a section of concrete wall STILL not protected by SAFER barriers.

Why is it so hard for track owners, particularly the ISC (which is, nod, nod, wink, wink NASCAR its very own self), to realize that drivers are eventually going to find the least convenient place on the track to wreck their cars heavily even where you think a couple of marshmallows glued to an inert surface would offer adequate protection?

I’m not sure who thought it was a good idea to have both Michael and Darrell Waltrip in the booth for Friday night’s Nationwide Series race. Fortunately despite the fact neither of them can ever shut up long enough to let anyone else wedge a word in sideways, they were both able to promote Kenny Wallace and Toyota to the point you thought early in the event he was the only car in the race.

Someone needs to let parents know that nobody under the age of 30 who hasn’t done prison time needs to be listening to Kurt Busch’s radio channel during the race. He apparently feels (and has made abundantly clear over the radio) the Dodges he has been provided by Team Penske are not competitive. If I were the crew chief of the No. 22 team I’d be packing a blanket and a dozen ball bats amidst the stuff I was hauling to Darlington next weekend.

Maybe Jughead needs to recall the last time he was with a top-tier organization, Roush Racing, and how he got a little mouthy over the radio and to his owner. It wound up costing him a job before the season even ended despite being the defending Cup champion. Roger Penske has little use for whiners who are supposed to be winners.

It was nice to see the FOX network solicit donations for those whose lives have been turned upside down by this week’s tornado and flooding disasters. But is there somewhere we can offer thoughts to help cure the disaster that is FOX’s own pre-race show before it drives us all insane? You probably remember the law of Conservation of Matter from high school. (It’s one of the few things I remember from high school simply because it comes up every time I can’t find my car keys.)

Let me propose the Law of Conservation of Annoyance and Incompetence. It doesn’t matter if the FOX pre-race show is an hour or a half-hour. They can still annoy the Hell out of you just as much no matter how long they have your attention.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Martin Truex Jr. looked competitive early in the race but his team left a lug nut loose and to compound his misery Truex was then nailed for speeding when he returned to pit road to correct the issue.

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Gordon looked like, well like you’d expect Gordon to look at Richmond, leading briefly and running up front. He got the worst of the nine-car wreck after a restart.

Even though his car never really seemed up to speed, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Chevy didn’t get very good gas mileage either. A late stop for a splash of gas dropped the No. 88 to a 19th-place finish.

The way Joey Logano’s season is going makes me wonder if Charlie Sheen has been informed of a possible career opportunity with the No. 20 team.

I feel bad for any fan who laid out the bucks for a ticket to Friday’s Nationwide Series race (and the overpriced gas to drive there). To be blunt that race just sucked. (I also feel bad for a guy who rushed home from Carlisle and left the company of a good woman just to watch it. What the Hell was I thinking?)

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

How close was Kyle Busch on fuel? He ran out of gas doing his post-race burnouts.

After a horrendous start to his season, Hamlin had the sort of weekend folks expected of last year’s second-place points finisher, winning his own charity event Thursday, winning the Nationwide Series race on Friday and finishing second on Saturday.

Only days after remedial knee surgery Kasey Kahne enjoyed his best race of the season, finishing third.

Jimmie Johnson’s car looked so out to lunch early in the race it’s a wonder Knaus didn’t break out the picnic hamper. Somehow he rallied well enough to finish eighth. Anymore questions on how the No. 48 team has won five straight titles?

Worth Noting

  • The win was Busch’s third straight triumph in the Richmond spring event. He took home the trophy for the eighth time in 21 starts in NASCAR’s top-three touring divisions this year.
  • Gibbs teammates Busch and Hamlin have combined to win the last five Cup events staged at Richmond.
  • His second-place finish wasn’t just Hamlin’s best of 2011, it was his first top-five result of the season.
  • Kahne (third) also notched his first top-five Cup result of 2011.
  • Keeping with the trend, David Ragan’s fourth-place finish was his best of 2011. He has top-10 results in three of the last four Cup events meaning he doesn’t have to wear brown shorts this week.
  • Carl Edwards (fifth) posted his seventh top-10 result in this season’s nine points-paying Cup events.
  • Clint Bowyer (sixth) has now managed five straight top-10 finishes.
  • AJ Allmendinger’s seventh-place finish was his best of the current Cup season.
  • Tony Stewart’s ninth-place finish was his best result since Las Vegas.
  • Gordon’s 39th-place finish was his worst since the Phoenix fall race of 2008.
  • The top-10 finishers at Richmond drove four Toyotas (claiming the trifecta of the top-three spots), three Fords and three Chevys. The top Dodge finisher was a none too happy Kurt Busch in 22nd, three laps off the pace.

What’s the Points?

Edwards remains the points leader, now nine points ahead of Johnson, who remains second.

His win propels Busch forward three spots to third in the standings. The news isn’t as good for his JGR stablemates, Hamlin, who remains 17th despite the second-place finish and Logano, who is 21st.

Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch occupy fourth through sixth place in the standings respectively, each down a slot from last week.

Everyone from seventh-place Bowyer is already a full race’s worth of points out of the lead. These guys need to post a victory to ensure their plans for the fall Chase.

Allmendinger leapt forward four spots to 11th in the standings.

Gordon tumbled three spots to 16th in the standings despite his Phoenix win. He is within one point of being a full two races out of the points lead.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): Frankly I found the race curiously lacking for a Cup event at one of my two favorite tracks. We’ll give it three lukewarm cans of generic stuff and a discount for five cents a gallon off your next gasoline purchase.

Next Up: It’s off to Darlington, NASCAR’s most historic track, for the “new” tradition of Mother’s Day weekend. Don’t bother sending a card or flowers. The Lady in Black is one mean mother of a track that makes Mommie Dearest, Joan Crawford, look like Mother Theresa.

About the author

Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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