Aftermath, Richmond II: What We Learned Heading Into NASCAR's Chase (Plus A Few Quick Thoughts)

RICHMOND VA - SEPTEMBER 11: (Back row from L-R) The 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chase contenders Denny Hamlin driver of the #11 FedEx Office Toyota Matt Kenseth driver of the #17 Crown Royal Ford Carl Edwards driver of the #99 Kellogg's/Cheez-It Ford Greg Biffle driver of the #16 3M Ford Kurt Busch driver of the #2 Miller Lite Dodge Tony Stewart driver of the #14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Kyle Busch driver of the #18 M&M's Toyota Jeff Gordon driver of the #24 DuPont/National Guard Chevrolet (Front row L-R) Kevin Harvick driver of the #29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet Jeff Burton driver of the #31 Caterpilliar Chevrolet Jimmie Johnson driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet Clint Bowyer driver of the #33 Cheerios/Hamburger Helper Chevrolet pose following the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Air Guard 400 at Richmond International Raceway on September 11 2010 in Richmond Virginia. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

They say you learn something new every day, and there's been a lot to learn this year in NASCAR – including from the not-so-exciting race at Richmond.

Here's a few of the things we learned, plus a few more quick thoughts:

1. We were so, so wrong about Richard Childress Racing.

At the start of the season, my Chase predictions included ZERO RCR drivers. As it turned out, I got nine of the 12 Chase drivers correct but completely misjudged Childress' three cars.

RCR turned out to be the only team to get all of its cars in the Chase. Oops.

Kevin Harvick went from a virtual afterthought last season to the incredibly consistent points leader this year; Jeff Burton showed strength and could have been even better if not for a few mistakes by his team; Clint Bowyer was cool under the pressure of the Chase bubble.

The ECR engines were tops in the garage and the entire organization transformed itself into a championship-caliber team.

Obviously, the RCR bandwagon left without me.

RCR's turnaround is a great lesson that even when a group seems like it's way behind the rest of the teams, the offseason can work wonders.

So no matter what happens in the Chase, this year has been a wild success for RCR.

2. Denny Hamlin is the favorite...to be runner-up to Jimmie Johnson this year.

Winning at Richmond was important for Hamlin – it was his first victory since June. But though Hamlin is determined to capture his first championship and finally knock Johnson from the Cup pedestal, this isn't the year.

The Chase still contains Johnson's best tracks, and while many drivers say the championship is wide-open and it will be closer than ever this year, I completely reject that theory.

Johnson has everyone right where he wants them. The 48 team will come out strong, just like it does every year, and run away with the title.

We still don't have to like it, but it'll happen. Johnson will win his fifth straight championship, everyone will be depressed and the media will anoint the Homestead winner as the favorite to stop Johnson from winning six straight.

It's wishful thinking, just like Hamlin winning the title. As I've said all season, this is Johnson's year yet again.

3. It can't be very much fun to be Dale Earnhardt Jr. right now.

Most of us non-millionaires have a very hard time feeling sorry for the rich and famous. It's difficult to have sympathy for someone who flies around on private jets, hangs out with famous people at awards shows and generally enjoys the best things in life.

But I do feel bad for Earnhardt Jr. He can have all the money and popularity, but the burden he so obviously bears for not succeeding in NASCAR the last few years has beaten him down.

Missing the Chase for the second straight year is embarrassing; his team's performance at Richmond even more so.

No matter what you think of his talent, the guy is trying his ass off and his team just can't get the car the way he wants it. That's got to be highly discouraging when the spotlight never goes away.

As I've written before, Earnhardt Jr. is a capable driver who can win races; Lance McGrew is a capable crew chief who can win races. Together, though? It doesn't seem like it.

In general, it shouldn't matter if a setup works for other drivers; if it doesn't work for your driver, it's not the right setup. McGrew must continue to work to give Earnhardt Jr. the feel he needs in the car. In return, Earnhardt Jr. must continue to attempt to stay mentally involved and somehow fend off the negativity that surrounds the 88 team.

4. No matter the format, NASCAR can't help dud racing.

Dustin Long, the president of the National Motorsports Press Association, wrote heading into Richmond that "If the sport can't deliver a thrilling, or at least no-holds barred fight at the front, fans will be owed an explanation."

Long's logic was tempting to believe: With no points on the line, all the drivers would care about was winning at Richmond and would do whatever it took to get there.

Unfortunately, that's simply not realistic in today's NASCAR.

There was no big fight at the front. In fact, when all the hype is taken into consideration, Richmond was perhaps the most disappointing race of the season.

Nothing really happened. And at the end, when Kyle Busch had a chance to do a bump-and-run on his teammate Hamlin for the win, he didn't.

The reason? Because Busch knew it would be better to enter the Chase in calm waters at Joe Gibbs Racing than stir things up for a win and 10 bonus points. Busch needed his teammate's cooperation in the long-term more than he needed a short-term win.

The complex relationships in the garage, whether from the mega-teams whose influences extend well beyond the four-team cap, from the manufacturers or just from the personal relationships, drivers often are not willing to do whatever it takes to win these days.

Even Kyle Busch – who practically embodies the "checkers or wreckers" mentality – wouldn't rough up his teammate for a victory. That tells us a lot about the modern-day attitude of NASCAR drivers.

5. Kyle Busch has some serious balls.

Busch displayed his swagger earlier in the weekend by wearing his pink bunnies/kittens/baby seals firesuit in honor of the Toyota Sponsafier commercial.

The fact that he did so proudly and without embarrassment is indicative of the fact that Busch is now entirely comfortable in his own skin. He seemed to revel in the attention.

Save for a few times when he fights off his natural instincts in order to avoid a major controversy or headache for himself, what you see is what you get with Busch.

This is not the Hendrick Motorsports Busch who tried to balance between being politically correct with the fiery guy he was inside. The Gibbs Busch is himself and doesn't care if you like his personality or not.

Busch doesn't protest when people say he can be a jerk. But he'll still jump to his own defense if he believes he's the target of unfair criticism when it comes to his driving.

After the Sprint Cup race, he dismissed an harmless question from Frontstretch.com's Jay Pennell on the grounds that Pennell had written Todd Bodine's extended account of why Busch was a dirty driver.

Busch responded by telling Pennell, "You're probably one of the best at picking out drama like you did last week with Todd Bodine, so I won't answer your question."

Pennell, of course, only printed what Bodine said. But the fact Busch is aware of negative press – even knowing a writer by name who doesn't travel the beat full-time – shows that he does care about how his driving is perceived.

His personality? By now, everyone knows, "That's just Kyle."

Quick Hits

• The new Nationwide car is challenging teams; do fans care? Personally, I don't think most fans are interested in the technical aspects of racing. So even though Nationwide teams say they are struggling to get a handle on the new car, the Richmond race was entertaining to watch. Ultimately, if the racing looks good, that's all fans really care about.

• Mattias Ekstrom was impressive. OK, so maybe finishing four laps down in 31st place isn't going to get the Red Bull driver much attention. But the Swede beat Chase driver Greg Biffle and finished on the same lap as Kasey Kahne – while making his first-ever start on an oval. In any form of racing. There's a prominent Nationwide Series/Indy Car driver who would struggle to match that.

• Landon Cassill out-ran the guy who was reluctant to give him a Nationwide ride. Not to keep piling on Earnhardt Jr., but Cassill struggled to get opportunities at JR Motorsports and was repeatedly passed up for other drivers. Then he beat Earnhardt Jr. by one position in the first full race of his Sprint Cup career (33rd place). There's got to be a small sense of satisfaction in that.

• It's a good thing the Chase is starting somewhere other than New Hampshire next year. I've never gotten that "big-time atmosphere" feeling about kicking off the Chase at NHMS, so I'm glad it's moving to Chicagoland next year. The start of NASCAR's playoff should feel like it. That's why the best place to begin it would be under the lights at Bristol.

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