One last week of short track racing at Richmond before the whole circus packs up and pulls a 180 at Talladega. It’s our last entry in the “I made it up last week” hashtag #ShortTrackRumble. Let’s get our fix in now, cause we won’t have this much sheet metal banging and beating until we hit the first road course race at Sonoma in June.
Let’s get right into this thing.
I’m going to stress this again. LAST CORNER OF THE RACE!
NASCAR fans are being spoiled this year with one epic finish after the other. Yesterday’s race was the very first time in the history of the series at Richmond. And Richmond isn’t one of those new cookie cutter tracks that opened during the building surge of the late 90s and early 00s. Richmond has been hosting NASCAR Cup level racing since 1953.
Carl Edwards has now gone back to back for the first time since 2010. Joe Gibbs Racing has won four in a row and five of the nine races at the one quarter mark of the season. Edwards leads the points with only one race outside the top seven so far this year (Vegas). The team, and the driver, have positioned themselves at the favorite at this point the season. JGR teammate (and victim of the bump and run), Kyle Busch is the defending champion and all, but I’d still favor Edwards. Yes, Busch has two wins and sits 4th in the points, but he had the adversity of the injury comeback to fuel his focus last year. He’s one of the most talented drivers in the history of the sport, whether you think he’s a hero or a heel, but I still want to see him hold his focus for a full 36 races before I can consider him a perennial contender.
Tony Stewart is back!
One of the biggest news items in NASCAR during the off season was Tony Stewart’s impending retirement followed by the injury suffered during a vacation tooling around in some sand rails out in California. Back injuries are nothing to mess around with so everyone knew it would be a while before he could safely race again. He’s been walking around at the track the last couple weeks playing the role of owner and mentor to his team and the Vickers-Dillon combo keeping his car warm for him. It’s a role that Stewart will excel in just as he has in all his other racing endeavors.
But we’re all happier that Stewart is back in his car for the rest of his final season.
Stewart ran a mid pack race all day, losing a lap, getting it back, beating and banging all day. He tangled with Logano and ended up with a shredded tire fighting for the lucky dog position. It happens. The man was just ecstatic to be on the track again.
Of Lug Nuts and Fines
Of course NASCAR shot itself in the foot and created a PR cluster for themselves by fining Stewart 35k for speaking out about lug nut safety. The crazy thing about the fine is that the statements were very tame by Tony Stewart’s standards. It stems from the rule about not having a NASCAR official monitor that all five lug nuts are secure on each wheel anymore. Junior has spoken out against the same thing. So has Biffle. NASCAR has made it sound like it’s a self policing policy. But teams are paid to push the limits. Three or four lug nuts for an extra tenth on pit road on the final pit stop? Hell yes that’s going to happen. Many drivers feel this is a huge safety risk and are put into a bad position by NASCAR.
Well, the new(ish) Driver’s Council decided to step in and pay off Stewart’s fine. That’s a big deal. NASCAR has never traditionally tolerated dissension in the ranks. Hamlin was quoted as saying “that we just believe that we should have the right to speak our opinion” and not everyone exactly agrees with Stewart’s opinion. The Driver’s Council just sent a shot across the bow.
I think this is a good thing. The Race Team Alliance and the Driver’s Council are a happy medium for the sport between NASCAR doing whatever it wants and having contentious battles between NASCAR and some sort of union. There are too many players with money in the pot to form a full fledged union in NASCAR. Baseball and the NHL have months and whole seasons to union battles and not that long ago. Frankly, NASCAR would not survive something like that. Baseball and hockey barely did. Hell, baseball losing the ’94 World Series to a strike let the NFL swoop in and take the title of the most prominent sport in America, a title the NFL’s billions aren’t going to let up on any time soon. Baseball has never fully recovered. Hockey hasn’t recovered. NASCAR has too many of it’s own issues to ever survive a proper union blow out.
But what the Driver’s Council is doing here is important. NASCAR, the tracks, the sponsors, the TV partners, they’ve all got fat stacks of cash involved with the sport but the driver’s are still the stars. The council makes sure their voices aren’t lost in the shuffle. This is NASCAR’s new reality and it seems like it will be healthy for the sport. People constantly deride the sport for becoming too button up corporate. Guys like Keslowski have said they censor themselves because they don’t want to be fined. But NASCAR needs to let the driver’s be human beings, not machines. We’ve got machines, they’re called race cars.
One Angry Cat
I really have nothing to add here beyond Kyle Busch’s Banfield Pet Hospital paint job will go down as one of my favorites all time. The cat on the right rear looks so pissed at having that thing on its head. I love it.
So now that I’ve rambled on about NASCAR’s unnecessary distraction with those Tony Stewart fines, (side note, some day I want to figure out how much in his career he’s been fined… I imagine a lot), time for the Richmond Shout Outs!
My predictions from last week… eh. It was a lot of the usual faces with no huge surprises like last week at Bristol.
The biggest shout out goes to Kasey Kahne.
Richmond was his third top ten and first top five of the year. Although he hasn’t been running as well as he did in the first nine races of last year, Kahne needs more finishes like this. With Chase Elliot out performing his rookie expectations already, he does not want to be mired in a lower tier of performance than the rest of Hendrick Motorsports. Again. Kahne is 14th in the standings at the one quarter mark of the season. That’s not bad per se, but his teammates are 3rd, 6th, and 11th. More races like this will help Kahne a lot. Started 8th and never left the top ten on the day. That is an excellent day for anyone.
The other shout out on the day goes to Chase Elliot.
The rookie started way back in 23rd place after qualifying was rained out and went to practice speeds. He spent over 150 laps running a lap off the pace but managed to get the lap back and claw his way back up to a 12th place finish. Twenty six cars finished on the lead lap this week, a very high number for a short track even in this modern era of waive arounds. Getting his lap back was a big deal, especially after running so long without it. I think it takes more focus to have the patience and perseverance to get the lap back the way he did rather than running 12th all day long. Chase is showing a veteran temperament behind the wheel again.
Pit Stall 13 Update
David Ragan in the BK Racing #23 was the lucky recipient of pit stall 13 this week. He ended up finishing in the same spot as his number, but the BK team had a solid race anyways. Ragan started 30th after the washout of qualifying but he leap frogged a pile of cars early and stayed on the lead lap the entire race. Ragan raced in the top 20 most of the day. A series of cautions late in the race made the lead lap pretty crowded for a short track so he lost a couple spots near the end, but this kind of race is very good for the little team that could. After Matt DiBenedetto’s epic run last week at Bristol, I’m glad to see BK’s whole performance is getting better.
- 28th – #21 Ryan Blaney – Top of the Charterless again, but finished a lap down on a day where a lap down wasn’t going to get you much
- 37th – #93 Ryan Elis – Running a third entry for BK Racing, this was Elis’ second start at Cup level. He’s got a couple more on the books later in the season
- 39th – #30 Josh Wise – Survived ten laps off the pace
- 40th – #55 Reed Sorensen – Survived ten laps off the pace, but actually with a sponsor this time. Also note how all 40 cars finished the race this week.
- DNQ – #98 Cole Whitt – The primary Premium Motorsports car missed the show after qualifying was set by practice speeds. First race since Daytona where anyone DNQ’d.
The 98 had the lowest speed of the Charterless, a half mile per hour slower than Elis. But notice how I said Charterless. Annett would have missed the race normally since he posted no time after damaging his car earlier in the weekend. Annett, Bowyer, Jeffery Earnhardt in the #32 all posted slower practice times than Whitt.
The irony is that HScott’s charter for #46 was leased from Premium. So the team that missed the race did so to the person they gave up their charter to. Annett got a 36th place finish out of it.
On to Talladega!
We’re done with short tracks until August and NASCAR switches things up as much as they possibly can by hitting Talladega next week. The biggest track in the sport provides a holiday for the state of Alabama. This is the most rambunctious track out there.
We got two big news items already for Talladega. The official race entry list has not been released this early in the week, but Tony Stewart will still run the superspeedway. When talking about his return to the car last week, he said that he’ll start the race to get the points, but will likely hand over the car to Ty Dillon. The big track makes a driver change a hell of a lot easier than most places. I also think this shows Stewart is playing his recovery smart. Spinal injuries aren’t something to mess around with so no need to put more strain on it than he needs. After Talladega, the next race with speeds even approaching that like that won’t be til Michigan in June.
The other item was floating around Twitter this morning. Greg Ives, crew chief for Junior, said that Amelia has been repaired and will return to the track this week. If you don’t know, that’s the name of Earnhardt’s favorite restrictor plate car. He’s won a pile of races with that car but it got banged up. This is going to put Earnhardt way inside his comfort zone and, like his father, he is an ace at the plate tracks.
Earnhardt is instantly the favorite for Talladega. He would be even without his favorite car behind repaired. Other favorites to look out for… Hamlin, first of all. The Gibbs cars are the top in the sport right now and Hamlin won the last plate race in Daytona.
I keep wanting to say to watch out for the RCR cars. That team tends to perform well at the plate tracks, but with Austin Dillon having a rough couple of weeks and Newman and Menard having trouble carrying on with their top 15 parades, I’m putting a big asterisk on the end of that. I really don’t want to. Just like with Roush, the sport is better off with RCR, one of the old school teams, being relevant. At this point though, I think RCR needs to swing for the fences to break their win drought. Talladega is a place to do it.
And of course, we get to see what little team is going to bust out a good finish. That right there is my favorite part of restrictor plate racing.