Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2013 Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond

Key MomentBrian Vickers spun in turn three on lap 396 to bring out the final caution flag of the night. It brought most of the field to the pits, scrambling the running order and cost Juan Pablo Montoya his first win on an oval.

In a Nutshell – They only pay money to the leader on the last lap. One of the three laps that Kevin Harvick led was the last one.

Dramatic Moment – After the checkered flag flew not one, not two, but three former Cup champions were running into each other on the track.

That final restart, between the divebombing and daring three-abreast moves was Richmond at its best. The fact everyone got through that in one piece is a minor miracle.

What They’ll be Talking About Around the Water Cooler

Hopefully, one of the better finishes to the season for NASCAR in 2013. But there’s no denying, this Monday that the penalties handed down to Joe Gibbs Racing still take center stage. While even Toyota admits the part in question, an illegal connecting rod was underweight the “throw the book” reaction has caught everyone off guard, part of $450,000 in fines due to penalties handed out within the past two months to individual teams. Matt Kenseth, in particular may be facing an uphill battle to rebound from a 50-point loss due to the engine failing postrace inspection after Kansas. He didn’t waste any time this weekend, qualifying on pole, leading the most laps and finishing in seventh place; however, he still remains in a “wild card” position instead of firmly within the top 10 in series points. The appeals board will be busy in the month of May…

Speaking of Kenseth’s engine problems at Kansas, Toyota Racing Development has recalled three engines that were issued to Michael Waltrip Racing. All three engines were destined for Clint Bowyer, one for Saturday night’s race and two for next week’s Russian Roulette 500-miler at Talladega. It turns out the manufacturer of the rods had notified TRD of their weight, less than the allowable 525 grams but the engine builders didn’t notice it in the paperwork shipped with them. TRD has made changes to their quality procedures to prevent the error from occurring again; still, that’s not the type of thing that makes your customers feel all warm and fuzzy.

Late last year and early this year, people were talking about how Tony Stewart had mellowed. Being an owner and recent champion seemed to be giving him a new perspective, one that resulted in some of the antics he used to perform being held in check. Welp, the last few weeks, that has all gone out the window. Stewart has threatened to kick Joey Logano’s ass, then ended up trading body slams and verbal insults with Kurt Busch after the race Saturday night before speeding off in his golf cart and not commenting for the TV crew. It seems like a combination of bad luck, worse handling and driving moves that have backfired, late (think: Fontana) have taken their toll.

Wednesday will be the appeal hearing for the Penske rear end penalties at Texas. The conspiracy theorists will be out in force if nothing is changed, claiming Hendrick is treated differently than the other teams. If the penalties are altered, it will bring into question the authority of the sanctioning body and the overall technical inspection process. There are some rumblings in the garage that the drivers and possibly the owners are looking to sit down with the folks from Daytona to try and loosen up the regulations and technical inspection a bit to afford the teams the opportunity to innovate.

Goodyear gets a lot of abuse in this column because, frankly, they deserve it. That said, they will also receive praise when it is warranted. Saturday night proved, once again, that if the tire wears out the racing will be better. It was fantastic at Fontana earlier this year and it was great again Saturday night. When the caution flew at the end of the event, leaving only a green-white-checkered finish, most of those in contention still came in for fresh rubber. It was clearly the right call; in just two laps, Harvick came from seventh on the final restart and took the win handily. It is probably false hope again, but perhaps the folks in Akron will realize how good Saturday night was and come up with more tires that wear out.

Montoya had his first oval win in the bag but lost it when Vickers went for a spin. Montoya wasn’t the best car on the track but he had himself in the right spot and was going to get the win. Amazingly, he was still all smiles during post race unlike Stewart, Kurt Busch and Kenseth, who had their panties all in a wad over finishes at the back of the top 10 (Note: Stewart slid back to 18th after his contact). Montoya hasn’t been able to benefit from Earnhardt Ganassi Racing’s newfound speed this season but perhaps this run will give him confidence.

Brad Keselowski may not have been fined for his blatant disdain for the sanctioning body last week, but he wasn’t shown any love during the race Saturday night. Anyone who has seen Norm Benning at Darlington ought to know that NASCAR is very lenient with the minimum speed enforcement. It appeared that they took the opportunity to send the defending champ home early rather than turn a blind eye when he was struggling at the end of the race with engine problems.

Speaking of Keselowskis, a thumbs up to Brian Keselowski for running the race on Saturday night. The brother of the defending champ is trying very hard to make it in racing with a bailing wire and duct tape budget. While they only ran 186 laps, it was great to see such an underdog organization get on the track and compete with the full-time guys.

Friday’s Nationwide Series race ended with Nelson Piquet Jr. kicking Brian Scott in the man region after the two got together on the racetrack for the second time this season. Apparently, that wasn’t the end of the extracurricular activities on the Richmond International Raceway grounds. Later Friday night, two of Scott’s crew members were arrested by Henrico County Police after an altercation outside of the Driver/Owner lot. The crew members were charged with misdemeanors and released, pending their court date in the near future. “Boys, Have At It” gone overboard?

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Marcos Ambrose done blowed up at Richmond, dropping out before halfway en route to 42nd place. The Devil Racer has been having a hard time this season, with just one top 10 and three finishes outside of the top 20. Even with those struggles, he’s still in 23rd in points and knowing his ability on road courses, he could rebound enough to win those two races, finish top 20 in points and make the Chase.

Jimmie Johnson may not have been looking like a sure winner, but being spun out by Stewart and then catching some of Mark Martin’s accident with Kasey Kahne ruined his chances at an impressive win. Johnson limped home 12th after climbing inside the top five most of the night.

Greg Biffle broke a shock in the first 150 laps and caught a break, able to change it out during a caution. Unfortunately for the Ford, it just got worse as the night progressed. He spun through the grass on lap 233 and ground off several pounds of his body and undercarriage. No. 16 finished the race in 36th with only 391 laps completed.

The grounds crew at Richmond forgot to turn off the automated sprinkling system which resulted in the caution for Keselowski cutting down a tire being extended for a few laps. The grass in the infield at Richmond is very nice, but somebody needs to make sure there is a check box on the grounds crew pre-race form to make sure the system is turned off when we come back in the fall.

The “Seven Come for Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

Whether it was fine fortune or just pure talent, Keselowski turned right and then left and weaved between the carnage of Stewart, Johnson and Kyle Busch to miss their wreck and stay competitive — before he finally was black-flagged for lack of speed. Keselowski wound up 33rd after being sent to the garage.

Logano ran in the top 12 for most of the first half of the race before slipping back to the lower teens, without the speed to be a true contender. He restarted 11th for the green-white-checkered finish, simply hoping for a top 10 but shook out a surprising third after the total chaos of the last two laps.

Jeff Burton was a typical 12th to 16th-place car all night long at Richmond. His team took the gamble of staying out on the last caution though and, while he didn’t hold onto the lead, he did manage a fifth-place finish for the first time since the fall Phoenix race in 2011.

Worth Noting

  • Harvick’s victory is the 20th in his career in 439 starts. It is his third victory at Richmond in his career.
  • The runner-up finish for Clint Bowyer was his fourth top-five finish of the year. Bowyer also led 113 laps on the evening; heading into the Richmond race, through the season’s first eight events he had led just one.
  • Logano finished third for the second top 5 of his career at Richmond and his best finish at the track by one spot.
  • Kenseth and Bowyer alone led the first 253 laps of the race. In the end, an event regarded as highly competitive had just seven leaders and 10 lead changes, the fewest of the Sprint Cup season to date. Sometimes stats can deceive…
  • Juan Pablo Montoya (fourth) scored the first top five for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates since Bristol in 2011 (Jamie McMurray, August night race). For Montoya himself, it was his best result since a fourth at Martinsville in April 2011.
  • NASCAR actually evaluated their call against Kyle Busch for an illegal entrance to pit lane only to reverse it during the caution period. What’s next? Dogs and cats living together?
  • NASCAR doesn’t give crowd estimates anymore but the stands looked pretty full when the race started, except for the bottoms of the back straight and turns 3 and 4. Unfortunately, by the end of the race, the crowd had thinned out quite a bit. It might behoove Richmond to start the race an hour earlier so that the checkered flag doesn’t fly at 11:30 at night.
  • Monday is Dale Earnhardt’s birthday. Once again, Dale Earnhardt Incorporated and the Dale Earnhardt Foundation will be hosting Dale Earnhardt day at DEI headquarters in Mooresville. Fans are welcome from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. A new exhibit will be unveiled and the grand showroom will be open to the public for an up close and personal look at the cars on display.

Top 10 at Richmond by Manufacturer:

Chevrolet – 5
Toyota – 2
Ford – 3

What’s the Points?

Johnson may have finished 12th on Saturday night but his closest competitors coming into the race didn’t have much luck either. As a result, he leaves Richmond with a 43-point lead over Carl Edwards. Kahne was caught in the wreck with Martin and lost a spot in the standings while Dale Earnhardt Jr. is tied with him after gaining one spot this week. Bowyer’s second-place finish moved him up three spots, into the top five in points but he is still more than a race’s worth out of the lead.

Keselowski lost three spots thanks to his horrible night in Richmond and is sitting sixth in the standings. Kyle Busch had a rough night, but amazingly didn’t gain or lose any positions as Greg Biffle free fell past him down to eighth. Harvick’s win bumped him up to ninth in points, overtaking his teammate Paul Menard for the top spot among the RCR drivers. Menard is still hanging on to 10th in the standings.

After the 50-point penalty to Kenseth, he is 13th in points and is only credited with one win toward the Chase tie-breaker. Hamlin was not allowed to race at Richmond and, as a result, he is 71 points out of 20th place and in danger of not having a shot at the Wild Card if he is not able to get back to racing by the time Darlington’s race goes green.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic) – Richmond International Raceway is the favorite of most of the drivers in the series and a majority of the fans. Saturday night did nothing to dampen that enthusiasm for the track, as the race ended with a complete free-for-all of a green-white-checkered finish, paired with the perfect sprinkling of 11 cautions for 75 laps. The only things missing to make this night perfection were someone upside down on fire and a water bottle being thrown during postrace interviews. As a result, we’re going to give this one four well chilled bottles of Michelob Amber Bock.

Next Up — If you believe the NASCAR commercial during the Richmond race, the best racing anywhere is coming up next weekend as the series heads to Talladega. The problem is that there is a very real possibility that the race will be a single file parade for 90% of the event. One thing is for sure; the best parties of the year will be in the infield. The race is on FOX TV at 1:00 p.m. and will be on MRN radio as well.

About the author

What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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