Rain Night Sun Day

Twenty hours, two red flags, fourteen caution flags, 103 laps of caution and three inches of rain later Sunday’s Pontiac Excitement 400 finally came to its conclusion. Track conditions, widely blamed on the sealer used on the track since over the off season, transformed the Winston Cup race into NASCAR’s version of Bizarro World. The normally three grooved race track only developed one and a half grooves of racing width Sunday and 43 of the sport’s top drivers often looked like teenage kids running their first enduro stock event as a result. One can almost hear an ISC accountant telling the track manager, “But this new sealer is two dollars a bucket cheaper. Let’s try it. What’s the worst thing that could happen?” “The worst thing that could happen” pretty much sums up Saturday and Sunday’s race. Richmond is normally known for side by side racing. This weekend it was “Slide into side” racing.

In the midst of all the madness, at least one thing turned out normally. Tony Stewart has wrested the crown of NASCAR’s top short track racer from Rusty Wallace, and he took his third win at Richmond in the last seven races run here. But Tony did it the hard way, starting shotgun on the field after both he and teammate Bobby Labonte had to change engines after qualifying. Suspiciously enough this is the third time in eleven Winston Cup races run under the “one engine” rule this season. Without taking anything away from Stewart’s hard earned victory this is something NASCAR needs to take a long hard look at. Once is a marvel, twice is a coincidence, but three times is a trend.

For a brief while it appeared that for the second straight weekend a rookie driver might claim his first win. Jimmie Johnson took the lead for a few yards, but roughed up Jimmy Spencer to get it. Spencer, who never forgets of course, was apparently reminded of Kurt Busch making the same sort of pass on him for the point at Bristol, and moments later Johnson was hard into the wall. Ryan Newman was able to duck under the resultant melee to take the lead. Newman took his turn at the point, but Stewart was able to rattle the rookie driver into charging a corner too hard and got a nose under the 12. To Newman’s credit, he didn’t do anything stupid, and drove on to a hard fought second place. After the rash of mechanical failures he’s endured of late that second place has to count as a moral victory for the young man.

Jeff Burton narrowly avoided disaster as Rusty Wallace slowed suddenly with a cutdown tire (one of three for the 2 car today) and in fact did spin out in the incident which also collected the 29, 25 and 14 cars. Curiously, Jeff Burton’s 99 team has been lagging behind his three Roush stable-mates to date this season, but Sunday he was the best finisher in Jack’s Armada. The third place result was Jeff’s first top 5 of the season and he moved into 9th place in the standings. (Kenseth, Busch and Martin occupy the 2nd, 3rd and 4th places in the standings, all stacked up with 59 points of one another.)

Mark Martin finished fourth, doing what he does best; taking a substandard car and getting the best possible finish out of it with a minimum of drama. In a race that became a game of “Last Man Standing” Martin stood undaunted, if not undented at the end of the event.

Pundits predicted big things for the pairing of one of NASCAR’s most underrated drivers, Jeremy Mayfield, and former three time Winston Cup champion crew chief Ray Evernham this season. Things started reasonably well with a second place finish at Las Vegas, but since then the wheels have fallen off Mayfield’s bandwagon. Sunday’s fifth place result was his first top 10 finish since. If this team begins hitting its stride in the second two thirds of the season, they could rack up some victories.

Matt Kenseth had an eventful weekend. During the brief stint of racing rain allowed on Saturday Kenseth’s car appeared to have a “Hit Me Hard” sign taped on the rear bumper and several drivers obliged. The team arrived at the track this morning knowing the exhaust system had to be reattached and a brake line repaired. Kenseth pitted at the start of the race and lost three laps. He was able to make those laps up with the help of the frequent caution flags, and began working his way through the pack. Kenseth was lucky to sneak through the event’s big race with inches to spare, and eventually finished 6th. The finish was one of seven top 10 results to date this season for Matt, and he moved back into 2nd place in the points, just ahead of his teammates Kurt Busch and Mark Martin.

Jeff Gordon is only having a substandard season if you consider his own lofty standards. Plenty of drivers would be well pleased to be 6th in the points with two top 5 finishes and a total of six top 10 results. But once again, Gordon was able to get close to the front at Richmond, only to fade in the waning laps. In the past it always seemed that Gordon got stronger as the race wound down.

Petty Engineering is trying hard to turn things around after several seasons of mediocrity. That desire to improve recently forced them to make the difficult (they term it) decision to release Buckshot Jones and put Steve Grissom in the 44 car. In his third race with the outfit, Grissom rewarded the Petty’s with an eighth place finish Sunday.

Ricky Craven quietly carved his way through the carnage to come home 9th.

Jimmy Spencer appeared to have a car capable of winning in the later stages of the races. Say what you want about the contact with Jimmie Johnson disputing the point, but this is after all short track racing, and Spencer was already denied one victory when he got roughed up from behind at Bristol. The 41 team gambled on four tires during the 13th caution period, and Spencer was not able to claw his way back to the front.

Richmond was a decided challenge for points leader Sterling Marlin as he attempted to retain his place at the top of the heap. Marlin typically doesn’t run well at the track, and has a best ever career finish of 4th at Richmond. Marlin was lucky his car wasn’t badly damaged when he was caught up in the big wreck, and managed to recover well enough to finish 11th, only one position away from claiming his 9th top ten finish of the season.

Joe Nemechek wasn’t even at the track this weekend. Johnny Benson broke a rib and knocked himself dizzy in a hard crash during Friday night’s Busch race, while making his first start in that series in three years. Nemechek was pressed into emergency service as a substitute driver, and responded well with a 12th place result. With all the teams apparently looking at new drivers, Sunday’s race made a nice addition to Nemechek’s resume.

Benson’s injury is also likely to renew the debate as to whether Winston Cup drivers should risk their “day job” by running events in NASCAR’s other touring series and risking injury or other unfortunate results. (Like Harvick having to sit out a Cup race for his actions during a Craftsman truck series race.)

The foul weather and the poor track surface combined to spoil one of the fans’ most anticipated Cup events of the year. Even NASCAR seemed ready to throw in the towel. When Kurt Busch blew a tire and littered the track with debris late no caution was thrown. Officials in the tower were probably fearful that if they bunched the field up together one more time no one would finish the race. There’s still a great race track down under that sealer somewhere and hopefully it can be unearthed prior to the second Richmond event. Then with a little cooperation from Mother Nature, Richmond could serve up another NASCAR classic. As for this weekend’s competition about the nicest thing that can be said is at long last it is over and nobody got hurt too badly. With only six short track events left on the Winston Cup schedule that simply isn’t sufficient.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2002

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