Race Weekend Central

Pace Laps: Almost Isn’t Enough, Keselowski’s Comeback And Refueling

Did you miss an event during this busy week in racing? How about a late-night press release, an important sponsorship rumor, or a juicy piece of news? If you did, you’ve come to the right place! Each week, The Frontstretch will break down the racing, series by series, to bring you the biggest stories that you need to watch going forward for the week ahead. Let our experts help you get up to speed, no matter what series you might have missed, all in this edition of Pace Laps!

Kyle Busch was one of several Richmond contenders to leave the track disappointed after circumstances didn’t tilt his way down the stretch.

Sprint Cup: A Series Of “Almosts” Saturday night’s Richmond race, a prime example of why winner Kevin Harvick is called “The Closer” leaves behind a long list of “what might have beens.” The driver of the No. 29 Chevrolet, used to charging from behind in crunch time came from seventh place, making daredevil moves on a green-white-checkered finish and only led a grand total of three laps during the race.

But Harvick’s gain, “Happily” stealing a trophy underneath everyone’s nose left up to a half-dozen drivers scratching their head. Once again, Matt Kenseth and the No. 20 Toyota had the dominant car, leading the most laps (140) only to have the wrong handling package down the stretch. Coming home seventh, he’s now led a total of 303 laps the last two weeks and has just 37 points to show for it. Clint Bowyer, who also led a huge chunk of the race (113 circuits) had no choice but to settle for second.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking moments, though came from Juan Pablo Montoya and Jeff Burton. Montoya, who hasn’t won in nearly three years clearly had the race in hand if not for that final, fateful yellow flag. The pit strategy that ensued turned the lead over to Burton, who stayed out in hopes of winning the race on old tires. Neither one happened, although their fourth and fifth-place finishes, respectively were their best on the circuit since 2011.

Then, you had Kurt Busch, whose small-time, single-car team was playing with the Big Boys up front until circumstances didn’t fall their way. Little brother Kyle, entering the night with four consecutive wins at Richmond was poised for number five after surviving a pit road penalty rescinded. But then, a bad set of tires, combined with Jimmie Johnson’s spinning Chevy left them a mere footnote on a wild ending.

The tough part for all these men, trying to salvage confidence out of fairy tale endings squashed is that Talladega lies dead ahead, the Russian Roulette of all races on the Sprint Cup schedule. Their finishes, in many ways will be out of their control this Sunday; but their mental state? That’s something firmly within their power. All of them flashed potential, each one showcasing their strengths in the face of adversity that has plagued their teams – or in some cases, their careers – throughout much of 2013. The intriguing storylines of Richmond, then, will not be what happens in six days but rather a month from now, to see if all these men who spent time juggling the Richmond win, prior to dropping it can lick the wounds from a “near miss” and string some momentum together that can make them true Chase – or in the case of Kyle, championship – contenders. Tom Bowles

Nationwide Series: Brad Keselowski’s 2013 Cup season has been solid, but a win had eluded the defending Cup champion in both his “regular job” and the Nationwide Series, despite running all races in both. All that changed at Friday’s ToyotaCare 250, when Keselowski won the pole and then took the lead late to score his first NASCAR win in 2013, holding off fellow Cuppers Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch.

With the winless monkey off his back, it’ll be interesting to see what the driver of the Blue Deuce and the Double Deuce can accomplish in either series. In Nationwide in particular, he could conceivably become the biggest challenger to Kyle Busch’s usual choke-hold on the series; after all, he ended the three-race win streak the Vegas native possessed coming into Richmond. Regardless, it must be heartening to Keselowski himself, who has endured his teammate, Sam Hornish Jr., already winning a race and leading the points while Brad cobbled together the occasional top 5 but was mainly underwhelming in comparison to both his teammate and his Cup regular counterparts.

Next week, the series heads to Talladega, where pretty much anything could happen in terms of finishing order, and usually does. Tune in to see if the Cup dominance continues, or if Hornish, Regan Smith and the championship contenders can steal a win away. No Kyle Busch next week, though; Joey Coulter will take over the No. 54 as the Cup regular takes the weekend off. Kevin Rutherford

Johnny Sauter’s harsh consequences, for a fuel cell violation after a strong start to 2013 became the underreported NASCAR penalty of the week.

Camping World Trucks: A Need To Refuel From the drop of the checkered flag over the Truck Series season opener at Daytona, in February Johnny Sauter has been atop the points standings on the strength of two wins and a pair of top-5 results. But all of that changed Wednesday when NASCAR hit the driver of the No. 98 ThorSport Racing Toyota with a 25-point penalty after his fuel cell was confiscated during opening day inspection last weekend at Kansas Speedway. The part was found in violation of multiple sections of the 2013 NASCAR rule book. In addition to the driver points, ThorSport was penalized 25 owner points and crew chief Joe Shear, Jr. has been suspended for four events and fined $10,000.

Now, with 18 races left to run, instead of holding a comfortable lead over teammate Matt Crafton in the standings, Sauter finds himself tied for second with rookie Jeb Burton, 13 points behind the leader. Judging by the way the No. 98 team has been running this season, the likelihood of this penalty derailing their championship hope is slim; however, it has the risk of distracting the progress of a team that’s clearly been firing on all eight cylinders.

The key is for Sauter and his team to head into Charlotte without letting that penalty distract them. Mentally, it can be a stumbling block if it connects to past history. Remember that black flag for Sauter at Texas in June, 2011? The amount of points the result cost could have given him the season championship. Assuming this year’s battle comes down to the final race, as it usually does it will be hard not to point at this penalty if Sauter finds himself inside 25 points behind the leader at Homestead. Whether it becomes an issue remains to be seen, but how the team chooses to handle adversity will define the 2013 battle for the title going forward. Beth Lunkenheimer

Short Tracks: Special Race Includes Special Performances By Up-And-Coming Stars Once again, the Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown was won by a Cup driver (Kyle Busch), but it wasn’t for a lack of trying by the local short track stars who were invited. Especially notable was Ben Rhodes, who finished in the top six for the second year in a row. Rhodes is a short track shoe who has made the jump from Legend racing to Late Models and seems to excel in the biggest races of the season. It won’t be long before Rhodes scores a win or two in some high visibility events and gets a shot in a National Touring Series.

The fisticuffs at Richmond were not limited to the Nationwide race, either. After the Showdown, C.E. Falk and Nate Monteith renewed their pleasantries that started during a heat race in Daytona at the Battle at the Beach. While battling for 14th and 15th, Monteith and Falk got together. After the finish, they made contact on pit lane. The typically mild-mannered Falk then became anything but in postrace interviews with Race22.com. You can check out the video here; it’s the second public issue for Falk after being on the receiving end of Kyle Larson’s bumper at the Battle of the Beach, back in February. Gotta love Short Track Racing. Mike Neff

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