There would be no water bottles denying a dominant Kevin Harvick this weekend at Richmond, who led 141 laps in what could almost be called an easy victory Friday night, his first Nationwide triumph of the 2012 season and 38th of his career (tying him for third on the all-time wins list). Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Michael Annett rounded out the top 5.
Although Friday’s event was largely uneventful at the front, the same could not be said for the title contenders that endured a wild 250 laps. Sam Hornish Jr. cut a tire down after contact with teammate Ryan Blaney on lap 156, spinning into the turn 1 wall and eventually backing down directly into Timmy Hill’s path. The resulting wreckage left both ends of Hornish’s Dodge crunched and the fourth title contender with an ugly 30th place result. Even more notable was both the wreck and recovery of Elliott Sadler, who spun himself out trying to pass Ricky Stenhouse Jr., but rebounded with crash damage to salvage a 13th place result.
The rebound for Sadler allowed him to keep a narrow one-point lead over Ricky Stenhouse Jr. heading into Chicago next weekend. Austin Dillon now sits 30 markers back and Hornish a distant 50 with the fall stretch approaching.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. did well to capitalize on Sadler’s self-induced misfortune Friday night, aggressively doing everything he could to challenge Kevin Harvick’s A-game and positioning himself just as he did last week at Atlanta to strike should the No. 33 slip. There was no caution flag or mistake to help the No. 6 this time, but a runner-up result still marked his third consecutive top-2 finish. The No. 6 team is going to take the lead in this title chase with results like that no matter what the competition does.
The Dillon brothers each raced on Friday night and each delivered top 10 finishes. (Older brother Austin bested Ty by one spot as the duo finished sixth and seventh.) For Austin, his steady performance over the course of Friday night allowed him to put distance on Sam Hornish Jr. for third in points; brother Ty scored his third top 10 in as many starts in 2012 driving the No. 51 (under the Clements Racing banner but an RCR car). Austin, meanwhile, extended his current top 10 streak to four consecutive races.
Development prospects making rare starts with their respective organizations all delivered results at RIR. Ryan Blaney came home ninth in Penske Racing’s No. 22 car; East Series regular Darrell Wallace Jr. finished 10th after running fourth late before being forced to save his car in the frenzy coming to the checkered flag. Even Travis Pastrana turned some heads in his first start in a Roush Fenway Racing car, qualifying a career-best fifth and scoring a career-best short-track finish of 17th.
James Buescher finished 11th in Turner Motorsports’ No. 30 car, the best finish for any driver in that stable and his best since Kentucky back in June. Michael Annett scored a career-best Richmond finish of fifth for his fifth top-5 result of this season (he scored none in his last three full-time seasons). Tayler Malsam extended his streak of consecutive top 20 finishes to four since being pulled from his No. 19 car in favor of a road ringer at Watkins Glen, his longest such streak since the first five races of the season.
It could have been much worse, but Elliott Sadler’s points lead all but evaporated after an error of his own making; on lap 186 trying to pass Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for a position in the top 5, Sadler got loose on the inside of the track and spun around, with the rear end of his No. 2 car suffering decklid damage after contact with the wall. The replays showed conclusively that Stenhouse (who’s been involved with Sadler earlier this season) held his line and had nothing to do with the crash, but the damage was done nonetheless. The No. 2 team lost a lap making repairs but clearly did it right; despite the bent up metal, Sadler was able to drive back from outside the top 20 all the way back to the 13th in the final 64 laps of the event. It was a solid comeback, but given how good RCR as an organization was at Richmond this Friday, it was a definite opportunity lost for the hopeful title contenders.
Brian Scott endured a double whammy at RIR. It wasn’t 10 laps into Friday’s broadcast before the broadcasters noted that Scott was likely not to return with the powerhouse JGR Nationwide organization in 2012, and the night wouldn’t end before everyone was reminded why. On lap 194, the seemingly perpetual bad luck that has plagued the former Truck Series regular since his move to JGR struck again, with pseudo-JGR teammate Ryan Truex making contact with the No. 11 car and dumping it into the turn 4 fence. Scott finished a distant 28th after the wreck, his fourth consecutive result outside the top 10.
Both female drivers in the field were eliminated early and without much to show for their evenings at Richmond, though one lost considerably more than the other. Danica Patrick did severe damage to her car’s suspension on lap 143 after cutting across the nose of Brad Sweet without being cleared, leaving the No. 7 to finish 29th after losing more than 30 laps to repairs. Meanwhile, in terms of on-track performance, Patrick found herself outdone by Johanna Long, who qualified eighth and ran as high as fourth under green flag conditions in the opening segments of the event. Long’s night went sour on lap 110 when the No. 70 melted a tire bead and tagged the wall as a result, finishing 32nd. For those keeping track, both were actually interviewed this time.
Tanner Berryhill suffered almost identical misfortune to Long, his night was just shorter. The No. 17 car slapped the fence courtesy of a blown tire on lap 35; Berryhill finished 35th.
Sam Hornish Jr. had about as rough a weekend as any driver in the NASCAR garage did this weekend. Even before Friday’s race, Hornish was told that he would not be getting a full-time Cup ride in the No. 22 for 2013, instead yielding the seat to an underwhelming Joey Logano. It didn’t get better once the rag dropped; the No. 12 car, as previously mentioned, ended up in a wreck on lap 156 after cutting a tire down, and was destroyed in the aftermath by a passing Timmy Hill, who had no way to avoid the wreck. The 30th place result pinned the team deep in points, 50 markers out of the lead. Also notable was how upset Hornish was over the radio with Justin Allgaier for a supposed blocking move that the No. 31 threw on the No. 12 that led to the cut tire; the replay showed that Allgaier came down in front of the No. 12 entering turn 3 immediately prior to the wreck, but there was nothing that suggested malice or even over-aggression. That Hornish was as irate as he was (he told his team he’d do what he had to next time to save himself) suggested frustration more than anything else. Problem is, it really does sound like losing the No. 22 Cup car got into his head. This may have become a three-horse title race again leaving Richmond.
Underdog Performer of the Race: Erik Darnell One can’t fault Hornish for being so frustrated. Just ask Darnell, who’s been off the radar of big-time NASCAR since being ousted from Roush Fenway Racing’s truck program despite winning races in the team’s No. 99 entry. Friday night at RIR saw Darnell deliver one of the brighter moments of his season and that of The Motorsports Group, wheeling the No. 40 to an 18th place finish, the team’s third top 20 result in the last four events. That’s the best three-race stint any of the team’s four cars has posted in 2012.
Start-and-parkers occupied 8 of the 43 starting positions in Friday’s race, taking home $101,035 in purse money.
Cup regulars won Friday’s race, scored 4 of the top 10 finishing positions, occupied 7 of the 43 starting positions in the field, and took home $150,016 in purse money.
288 of 1,075 starting positions occupied (26.7%)
$5,868,564 dollars won
13 of 25 trophies collected (52%)
The Final Word
• As disappointing as it was to see Kevin Harvick ride off into the sunset with the win, it sure beat watching a questionable debris caution and two grown men fighting over litter decide the night.
• It was good to see Johanna Long get some earned attention for her efforts in the No. 70 car (especially given where the bar is set for female drivers getting coverage these days), but one listen to her post-wreck interview answers a whole lot of questions as to why the girl isn’t getting a ton of looks… I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard so many canned, cliché comments lumped into 30 seconds. There’s only so much market for “good run, the guys worked hard” folks.
• Although it was good for the championship battle to see the points tighten, the same can’t be said for seeing Hornish all but fall out of the race. It’s hard not to feel for a guy that’s finally gotten his stock car career on track all for naught, at least for now.