Joe Jennings, NASCAR correspondent
Racing at the Richmond International Raceway got underway a night early this week with the second-running of the Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown, a charity race for late model stock cars that benefits the local driver’s foundation.
On Thursday evening, Brett Moffitt put his Toyota into victory lane in the 100-lap NASCAR K&N Pro Series East event, eking out a narrow victory over second-generation drivers Chase Elliott and Corey LaJoie along with teenager Kyle Larson. In the 75-lap NASCAR Whelen All American Series event, Tony Stewart took the win over Greg Edwards and Brandon Butler. NASCAR veterans Jeff Burton and Joey Logano were fourth and fifth, respectively.
During Thursday’s Nationwide Series inspection, NASCAR officials forced two Chevrolet teams to cut the front-bumper covers off six cars. Teams affected were Turner Motorsports (cars of James Buescher, Justin Allgaier and Kasey Kahne) and Richard Childress Racing (Elliott Sadler, Austin Dillon and Kevin Harvick).
We don’t have an explanation, but we have done what NASCAR asked us to do.
According to Sadler, the officials’ decision came as a surprise and without warning. “It is the same car I have run twice this year, so it has been through pre- and post-race inspections and teardowns as we won two races with it,” Sadler stated. “We went through the tech line yesterday and got a sticker (for passing inspection). The guys were working on the car back at the trailer when NASCAR came and said we needed to cut the noses off our car. We don’t know what’s going to happen or where we stand. All the templates fit, so it must have been an eye-test. We don’t have an explanation, but we have done what NASCAR asked us to do.”
The Turner and Childress teams won’t know until Tuesday whether NASCAR will take additional action against the teams.
In other Nationwide Series news, Nationwide Insurance has renewed its “Dash 4 Cash” program for series drivers and fans alike. The lucrative program rewards the highest-finishing eligible driver in four races with a $100,000 bonus beyond the race purse. One lucky fan can also come home with a $100,000 prize at the end.
The July 6 Nationwide race at Daytona will serve as the qualifier with the four top drivers in points at that time carrying the “Dash 4 Cash” designation into the next four races at New Hampshire, Chicagoland, Indianapolis and Iowa. Should one driver collect the top prize from the first three races and win the Iowa race outright, Nationwide Insurance will pay an additional $600,000 bonus to that driver.
On the Sprint Cup front, the top drivers in points met with the media over the weekend. While no controversies occurred, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was asked to address his comment at Kansas where he inferred he was the best driver on the Hendrick Motorsports team. “I certainly don’t like to rock any boats, but you have to answer the question honestly,” the popular driver said. “All the drivers in the garage feel like they are the best individually and they should. I learned a long time ago if you don’t have confidence in your car and your crew chief that can be problematic for you. You have to feel like you’re the best. In any profession, you have to have that kind of confidence.”
Drivers were asked about published reports earlier in week that said recent races have had few caution periods and minimal passing, making for somewhat boring race. In response, Jimmie Johnson said, “The reason we can’t pass more often is we’re all virtually running the same speed. You have to be a half-second or at least three-tenths faster to pass someone. From a competition side, NASCAR has created a very level playing field, which we were all after.”
Drivers were also drawn into the discussion about the modifications being made to the track surface at the Bristol Motor Speedway. Johnson, for one, indicated he would like to have provided input into the decision, except the former champion wasn’t asked. However, he was asked for input prior to the repaving of the Phoenix track.
Kevin Harvick, too, was a bit miffed not to be asked for input. While he had heard Bristol management wanted to meet with the drivers, no meeting took place. “Hopefully, they grind the whole thing,” he said. “Obviously, it didn’t sound like Bruton (Smith) wanted anybody’s opinion that drives a car. He went to Darrell (Waltrip), so we’ll see how all that works out for him.”
The Budweiser Chevrolet driver said he wasn’t concerned with the lack of yellow flags and restarts, believing over a period of time, it all works out. You look at last year’s first Martinsville race and the second one, it couldn’t have been more different races,” he quipped.
Matt Kenseth wasn’t sure whether the Bristol changes were good or bad, and was perplexed with the much-hyped publicity that has emanated from the work in progress.
Teammate Carl Edwards said he did a lot of driving this week and has been listening to the NASCAR discussions on Sirius XM radio. “I was surprised about how big a debate it has been about boring races,” he said. “I am more of a racing purist, so I am a fan of what goes on during the competition. I think cautions and wrecks don’t add a bunch to the competition. If that’s important to fans and what they want to see, then NASCAR and all of us have to decide whether we want the races play out naturally or if the sport has to be changed. Not every race has to be an exciting and dramatic finish, and if you let them play out naturally, you will get those great moments.”
Commenting about the race cars, Edwards added, “I firmly believe that we should not be racing with down-force, side-force and all those aerodynamic devices. We do not need splitters or giant spoilers on race cars. In my opinion, it is common sense that if all the cars are similar and the drivers are all very, very good, then by definition if the guy in front of you is disturbing the air, your car won’t be able to go too fast, so why don’t we get rid of those aerodynamic devices and race with softer tires.”
The articulate driver said if his script was followed, it would put racing into the hands of the drivers and the crew chiefs.
Grading his season, Edwards scored it as a C+. “We have made a couple of mistakes,” he said but indicated his team is focused on the end of the year. “We don’t have a big problem; we just have a few things to work out,” he said. “Don’t count us out.”
Edwards went on to discuss the importance of (Sprint Cup) points. “We are ninth in points and do not have a win,” he said, indicating his team has to be cautious, so to work its way into the Chase. “We don’t have the fastest car, but we have to make it into the top-10. And then we are hoping in the last 10 races we are good enough to shoot for the championship.”
Martin Truex Jr., second in points, expressed delight with his team’s progress in 2012. “I feel good about what we are doing as a team, and our consistency has me ecstatic,” he noted. Running up front is icing on the cake to me. We have proven we are not a flash in the pan.”
Michael Waltrip Racing has never made it into the Chase but with 13 top-10s in eight races, the three-car team seems to be on a roll. “Every piece of the puzzle is better,” Truex stated. “A big goal for us is to get Michael Waltrip Racing into the Chase. For me, I feel like a win is very important.” A week ago at the Kansas race, Truex led 173 of the 267 laps and ended up in the runner-up position.
Sprint Cup point leader Greg Biffle exuded confidence with his team’s performance but indicated they are not complacent with their standing. “Running good can turn off at any time and you don’t want to get behind the curve,” he said. “We haven’t built that cushion, but we are having a good feeling.”
The Roush Fenway Racing driver said he never lets up during a race. “Technically, we go for it every race; I don’t know what else I could do to get better. There’s a false sense that a driver could do more. At Kansas, I did everything I could for fifth place.”
Biffle said he wants to be in top form for the last 10 races of the season, indicating he wants to be able to sustain his momentum as the season winds down.
While Biffle is excelling, Jeff Gordon has had difficulties and resides 18th in points. Regardless, the former champion continues to be confident and would like to be the driver to win the 200th race for Rick Hendrick. “We have run great in our races, although we haven’t qualified well. We have been awesome in races but still 18th in points,” he said. “The hardest think in this sport is fast cars but when cars aren’t running good, it is easy to lose your confidence in a hurry.
“It is not one race that will turn our season around; we have to put together a string of races. I really don’t see us doing anything differently, other than trying to qualify better. In the races, we are not missing any one thing. And we have been good enough to win races.”
Winning a race or more is important to Gordon as it will elevate his chances for making the Chase. “We try as hard as we can to win every week,” he said. “Being 18th in points makes it even more important to win. We have put ourselves into a huge deficit, but we are not into a panic mode. Winning races is a priority for us.”
Having won twice at Richmond gives Gordon confidence for Saturday’s race and if so, it would mark a notable milestone for car owner Hendrick. “We all want to get that 200th win for Rick and are working hard to achieve that. We are optimistic coming into this weekend,” he said.