For many of NASCAR’s top competitors, Richmond will be remembered for the race that got away.
While race winner Kyle Busch exclaimed, “What up boys, we back,” as he came to the checkered flag at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday night, Jimmie Johsnon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards were trying to ascertain what went wrong.
Johnson’s team lost control of a tire during pit stops on Lap 311. The No. 48 car, which had led a lap and was running in the top 10 most of the race, had to battle back from 14th after a penalty for that infraction. He salvaged a sixth-place finish.
Edwards led 206 laps throughout the evening and assumed he controlled the lead coming to the green flag after the fourth caution on Lap 319. However, Stewart was scored as the leader, and as he spun his tires, NASCAR accused Edwards of jumping the start and black-flagged the No. 99 Ford. Edwards was forced to serve a drive-thru penalty on Lap 321. He lined up 15th – the last car on the lead lap.
“What was the black flag for?” Edwards asked his team at the time. “If they say (NASCAR) made a mistake, they have to rectify it ... If they can give me an explanation, I’m curious as hell.”
Crew chief Bob Osborne attempted to keep Edwards focused and replied, “They will in the truck after the race.”
Edwards salvaged a 10th-place finish. He told the crew over the radio at the finish, “You did a really good job on pit road. We definitely got screwed there. I don’t want anybody yelling or whining too much about it, all right? We’ll talk about it with NASCAR. We’ll tell everybody what happened and move on. I know we’re frustrated. We’re all frustrated.”
While Edwards and team owner Jack Roush took their concerns to the NASCAR trailer, Stewart pouted about his pit crew’s miscue on the final stop. Although Stewart started 22nd, he blazed through the field. Seventy laps in, he had moved to just outside the top 10. On Lap 200, Stewart led the first of his 118 laps at the front. During a 73-lap run at the point, NASCAR called a caution for debris on Lap 387.
“We lost (the race) on a plastic bottle on the backstretch,” Stewart added, citing the debris. “For a caution for a plastic bottle, so you tell me how you'd feel?
“Hard to feel good about that one. We threw it away on pit road. I don’t know what their malfunction was, but I’m pretty ticked off about it.”
Stewart lost the lead to Busch in the pits. Although he restarted second when the race went green on Lap 392, Earnhardt soon passed him for position. But with a set of soft brakes, Earnhardt felt fortunate just to salvage a top-five result.
“Good job, good cars, we’ll just work on the brakes a little bit,” Earnhardt said over the radio. Crew chief Steve Letarte, ever the optimist, was quick to remind his driver that second place “was a helluva lot better than we were here last year,” when the team posted finishes of 19th in the spring and 16th in the fall. Earnhardt agreed.
“We outran a couple of guys there that were faster than us all night,” Earnhardt said. “Just got lucky on that restart being on the inside. We had some brake problems all night long. Kinda tried to overcome them best we could. We were a top, maybe a fifth-place car. I'm really happy to gain a couple of spots there at the end with that caution and get some more points.”
Earnhardt’s second-place finish, which elevated the driver to second in the points standings (five points behind leader Greg Biffle, who finished 18th) proved more beneficial than the finishes of Stewart or Edwards, who maintained eighth and ninth, respectively, in the standings.
Although the winless streak grew to 138 races, Earnhardt remained optimistic.
“(Hendrick Motorsports) built a great race car,” Earnhardt said. “Our team did a good job on pit road. We're just trying to click away some good runs. We want to win a race or two here and there. If we keep running up front, that will happen."
While it’s hard to believe, Kasey Kahne earned his first top-five finish of the season at Richmond on Saturday night.
Kahne, who has endured a rash of bad luck over the first six races of the year, posted his third consecutive top 10 of the season and broke into the top 25 in the points standings with his fifth-place finish.
"We're definitely trying to run top 10, top five, do the best we can,” Kahne said. “Once we get things figured out, hopefully we can get a couple of wins. Right now the guys are doing a good job. We had good pit stops tonight. It was a pretty solid race for us. We made gains throughout so it was good."
Paul Menard finished 13th after starting 35th in a backup car, having wrecked his primary during first practice on Friday. Menard maintained 14th in the points standings.
4: Consecutive victories for Kyle Busch in the spring Richmond race.
24: Career wins for Kyle Busch, which ties him with his brother Kurt for 26th on the all-time wins list.
5: Positions gained by Mark Martin in the points standings after finishing eighth — the most of any competitor. Despite missing two of the first nine races of the season, Martin is 19th in the standings.
AJ Allmendinger qualified fourth and was running in the top 10 for most of the race until Juan Pablo Montoya punted the No. 22 Dodge late in the race. The incident caused Allmendinger to lose several positions before dropping to 16th. However, before Allmendinger was lapped, he asked the crew: "Is that the leader behind me?'' When the question was answered in the affirmative, he added, “That’s awesome.” That earned the reply from an unidentified voice on the No. 22 radio, “Why don’t you focus on driving and quit (complaining).”