Father and son enjoy day at the races in Richmond

Published 8:10 pm Friday, September 12, 2008

RICHMOND—Great hospitality, great food and great weather are just some of many things that make a day at the races worth your while. My father and I had the opportunity to report on the NASCAR festivities that happened last weekend at Richmond International Raceway to set up the chase for the NASCAR championship.

Friday’s schedule was hinging on the threatening weather with Tropical Storm Hanna looming and scheduled to move in over the weekend. With the threat of rain beginning late Friday afternoon we went down to the track and watched the practice. However, the rains did begin, and qualifying was rained out as well as the Nationwide Series race. RIR officials made a decision late in the day that with the uncertainty of the weather both races would be run on Sunday and the race lineup would be based on owner points.

We arrived at the track just before 11 a.m. and proceeded to get set for the first race, which was the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 Sprint Cup race. The significant thing about this race was the fact that this was the “last race until the chase.” This means that only the top 12 points leaders will be able to compete for the 2009 Sprint Cup Championship. Several drivers had already solidified spots, while several others were right on the brink and needed a good finish to make “The Chase.” Already making the chase were a few well known drivers: Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt, Jr, Jeff Burton and Greg Biffle. But others were “on the bubble.” Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Clint Boyer, Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth were able to secure their spots in the chase with decent finishes as well. Not being able to make the chase by only slight margins were Kasey Kahne and David Ragan.

One of the local favorites, Denny Hamlin (a previous racer at Southampton Speedway in Capron ) was “on the bubble” and was available for a pre-race interview Friday night at the RIR Media Center. If you remember, it was “Denny Hamlin Weekend” at RIR in May, when he won the Nationwide race, held the pole position for the Sprint Cup Race and led all of the Sprint Cup Race until a cut tire forced him to pit in the closing laps of the race.

Kyle Busch started on the pole and held the lead until Lap 29 when Harvick who started in the 7th position passed Busch for the lead. A mandatory competition caution to analyze tire wear was done on Lap 37, and Kyle Busch overshot his pit stall and was forced to back up and lose precious time, forcing him into ninth place at the race restart with Jeff Gordon starting in first after taking on only two fresh tires.

Later Gordon would pay and lose many positions while Harvick retook the lead and held onto it until Hamlin could swing by him into the lead on Lap 77. With Earnhardt Jr. on his bumper and pushing, Hamlin allowed an outside pass by Earnhardt on Lap 81. While many of the drivers held onto the low groove, Little “E” continued to run a high groove most of the day. It seemed to pay off as Jimmie Johnson began to run a little high later as well.

The next caution of the day was for track debris caused by a cut tire on the No. 70 Sauter car on Lap 96. Leading off this caution on Lap 100 were Earnhardt, Hamlin and Harvick. At the green flag, Michael Waltrip spun coming off of Turn 2, slowing the field with another caution. On Lap 211, the well anticipated happened on Turns 1 and 2 as Earnhardt and Kyle Busch came together. With the crowd rising to their feet and giving a huge cheer, Earnhardt tapped into the rear of Busch’s car and sent him spinning (almost a replay of the May incident that took Earnhardt out of the lead when Busch spun him in Turn 3 and cost Earnhardt the race). It was apparent that Earnhardt was on the brakes with smoke rolling from his tires to keep from hitting Busch but couldn’t slow in time. With Busch on the gas and spinning his tires, he lost control in Turn 2 and spun down the back stretch. To his credit, he did minimize any damage as he only tapped the inside SAFER Barrier wall.

It seemed local driver Elliot Sadler had a rough day at the races with the Busch brothers as well. He had trouble with cut tires and contact on two occasions (Lap 228 with Kurt Busch and Lap 241 with Kyle Busch) and ended up with a 37th-place finish.

After the Sadler incident on Lap 241, when the green flag dropped the new leaders would be Reutimann (44), Mark Martin (8) and Truex (1) with Hamlin, Johnson and Stewart back in the field (15th, 16th and 17th, respectfully) due to the leaders staying on the track and not pitting. As Stewart carved his way through the field to a second spot position on Lap 278, Brian Vickers cut a tire and brought out yet another caution.

At Lap 316 an incident involving Bobby Labonte, Bill Elliott and Carl Edwards coming out of Turn 2 brought another caution flag, slowing the field and allowing Kyle Busch the “lucky dog award,” which allows the first lapped car to regain one lap and restart the race from the rear of the lead lap cars. This allowed Busch in the 32nd position.

David Ragan saw his hopes to enter the “Race for the Chase” diminish while running three wide with Truex and Boyer in Turn 2. He was run into by Truex after Boyer tapped Truex. He would lose many spots to other drivers and never recover.

On 349, Stewart took the lead from Reutimann and Jimmie Johnson overtook Reutimann for second place and set his sites on Tony Stewart for what would set the stage for a duel between the two top drivers in the final laps of this race.

The 13th caution was brought out by Scott Riggs when he spun exiting Turn 2. As the drivers returned to the track, Truex was in the lead position with Johnson, Steward and Earnhardt in close pursuit. Johnson took the lead on Lap 366 but held off drivers only a little while as the 14th caution was brought out by Menard and Carpentier as they clashed in Turn 2 on Lap 369.

On the waving of final green flag, the top three positions were occupied by Johnson, Stewart and Earnhardt and would stay that way for several laps with finger-biting intensity. As Johnson and Stewart battled back and forth for the final 25 laps, Earnhardt turned over his third spot to Denny Hamlin, who had a bird’s-eye view of the dueling finish between Johnson and Stewart.

With Stewart on the low line and Johnson favoring the high line, they swapped back and forth until Stewart, appearing a little loose on Turn 4, relinquished the lead for the final time to Johnson, who edged past him on the high side with only three laps to go. As they passed the white flag for the final lap Johnson appeared to have about a two-car-length lead over Stewart and held on to win by 0.355 seconds. This was Johnson’s fourth win of the season. Following Johnson and Stewart at the finish were Denny Hamlin, Earnhardt, Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Reutimann and Kurt Busch.

Following the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race there were many press conferences with drivers in the Media Center.

Question to Hamlin: Your thoughts about today’s race? You came in third and also about being in the Chase field.

A: “Definitely excited about it for sure. Our first goal, of course, was to get in the Chase and we stayed up front all day. We really were not paying attention where Ragan was, only if we had to get in the back of the pack and he was in front of us, but the only time we were in the back, he had already had trouble, so it was pretty much an uneventful day for us and we had a good car at the end.

Question to Stewart: Tony, obviously it hurt, but had they showed you in the car taking off your equipment and everything, is this the most disappointing loss you’ve had this year, do you think, and also, was there any concern during those last 12 laps or so that you did not come into the race as a lock? Were you doing any arithmetic to see if something happened to you that you did go out?

A: “If you haven’t watched our season, I’ve got enough trouble just driving the car. I don’t have time to play with a calculator while I’m inside there. That’s why you guys are here, because you guys don’t have enough to do during the race. I didn’t have time to pay attention. We’re out there trying to win a race. That’s what we are here for every week”.

Question to Earnhardt: Dale, the obvious question: Could you sort of describe, frame by frame, the incident with Kyle Busch?

A: “ He’s racing hard. He was up front leading and I was a little — I felt like I was a little quicker and was gaining on him a little bit on each corner and I was on the bottom real tight and that wasn’t going to get by him. So I moved up to get next to him and race him hard and I got down into 1 too hard and got into the quarter panel and spun him out. It was an accident that it happened, but you know — and it was midway through the race.”

Question to Busch: Kyle, were you aware that Junior was back there in the quarter panel and before the race did you discuss the possibility that this might happen?

A: “ Yeah, I knew he was back there …, and no, there was no discussion of that before the race.”

Q: Do you think that was revenge?

A: “ Was that revenge? Who knows. “