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After an 18th-place finish on Saturday night at Richmond, Greg Biffle's lead in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings was reduced to just five points over second-place Dale Earnhardt Jr., who moved up two spots in the standings after finishing runner-up to race-winner Kyle Busch.
Also jumping two spots in the championship order was Denny Hamlin, who now sits third overall following his fourth-place finish. The top five is rounded out by Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr.
Truex Jr. dropped three spots in the standings after finishing 25th, his worst result of 2012 and the first time in five races he hadn't finished somewhere in the top 10.
Further down the standings, Busch's victory propelled him to 11th, while his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Joey Logano, fell from 12th to 15th.
On the strength of his third consecutive top-10 finish, Kasey Kahne finds himself 23rd, three positions higher than he was the previous week.
In the standings as of now, Busch and Brad Keselowski would be the two drivers receiving the wild card berths.
Here are the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings after Richmond (relation to the Chase in parentheses):
With five laps to go in Saturday night's NASCAR race at Richmond International Raceway, it looked like it was finally going to happen: NASCAR's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., was finally going to snap his 137-race winless streak after nearly four years and several near-misses.
Running second to leader Kyle Busch, all Earnhardt Jr. had to do was find his way around the No. 18 Toyota, which seemed like a foregone conclusion considering Earnhardt Jr. was clicking off his fastest laps of the evening.
But with his brakes fading, it wasn't to be, as Earnhardt Jr. had to settle for a second-place finish – and yet another near-miss.
"I couldn't get enough front brake in it at the end to run as hard as I wanted to, and we just had hurt the balance a little bit on entry," Earnhardt Jr. said after the race. "But really happy to come home with second. We were running about fifth all night and just got lucky on that restart to be on the inside and get a couple spots. We just kind of got lucky there at the end on a couple things to gain a couple extra spots. But we ran good."
The runner-up finish was Earnhardt Jr.'s fifth consecutive finish inside the top 10 and his best finish since finishing second to Matt Kenseth in the season-opening Daytona 500. It also allowed Earnhardt Jr. to move up two spots in the standings to second, just five points behind leader Greg Biffle.
With the continued consistency Earnhardt Jr. has shown this season, it seems to be only a matter of time before he'll win again. And that very well could happen next Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, a track Earnhardt Jr. has won on five times previously and place where he's almost always in contention.
Not that Earnhardt Jr. thinks his early success will carry over to a track where anything can – and usually does happen thanks to the unpredictability that is restrictor-plate racing.
"No, I don't think momentum is a real thing," Earnhardt Jr. said. "The team is confident, we're feeling good. We feel like we're competing well; really close to winning a race. We haven't really raced for a win yet and lost one, so I wouldn't count tonight. But we're getting better at running in the top five and top 10. We'll just try to keep doing that.
"There's too many variables going into races at Talladega whether you feel confident winning or not. There's just too much going on there."
On Saturday night, I emerged from the Richmond International Raceway infield tunnel after walking down from the press box and looked up at the scoring pylon to try and figure out who was leading the race with 83 laps to go.
The race was under caution for Jeff Burton's collision with the wall, which came in the middle of green-flag pit stops. Because of the odd timing, it was confusing to try and figure out exactly who was leading the race.
When I looked at the scoring pylon just before the restart, it said this: 99-14. That's Carl Edwards, then Tony Stewart.
Moments later, Edwards restarted the race as Stewart spun his tires and zoomed off to a huge lead. But NASCAR promptly black-flagged Edwards for two reasons: First, officials said he was not actually the race leader; second, he took off before arriving at the official restart zone.
What followed in the remaining laps, and well into the chilly night afterward, was a bunch of confusion and controversy. Did NASCAR get the call right? What really happened to set off the sequence of events?
As best I can offer it, here's my understanding and an explanation of what happened.
The reason for the confusion started with Jimmie Johnson, who had actually come off pit road first prior to the restart. But when Johnson had to serve a penalty for an uncontrolled tire, second-place Stewart was the one who inherited the lead.
The scoring pylon, though, showed Edwards as the race leader. So spotter Jason Hedlesky asked a NASCAR official on the spotters' stand to clarify the situation, and he claimed the official tapped him three times on the shoulder to indicate Edwards – not Stewart – was ahead.
Hedlesky quickly radioed this information to Edwards, who then assumed he was in the No. 1 position and figured he was in charge of restarting the race a few moments later.
"With how that pit sequence came, it was very confusing on who was the leader and who wasn't," Edwards' crew chief Bob Osborne said. "We rely on NASCAR to tell us how we came off pit road and where we were supposed to line up. Unfortunately, a late call made it much more confusing than what it really was."
All of the leaderboards you see at home or at the track – the scrolling ticker on FOX, the infield pylon or even the NASCAR.com leaderboard – are linked to NASCAR's timing and scoring system. The system relies on transponders – devices attached to the car – to keep track of the cars as they cross the start/finish line.
With one lap to go before the restart, Edwards was "scrubbing his tires" – wiggling back and forth to build up heat in the rubber – and crossed the start/finish line before Stewart, who was the actual leader.
The NASCAR timing and scoring system then picked up this information and showed Edwards as the leader (see photo below, courtesy of @kartracer3886):
"What you've got to understand is the electronics," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition. "When the transponder crosses the start/finish line – when Carl was scrubbing his tires, he beat the 14 to the line – so that instantaneously puts him up top.
"It happens all the time, but these circumstances don't stack on top of it. That put him up on top of the board just because he was coming to the line with one to go."
Edwards heard over the radio he was leading the race, and he was immediately frustrated. Why? Because if he was the leader, he wanted to choose the inside line for the restart – not the outside, where Stewart would likely beat him into Turn 1. But there was no time or opportunity to do so, due to what he assumed was a late call by NASCAR.
As a result, Edwards was over-eager on the restart. He "jumped" the restart – accelerating early before arriving in the official restart zone – and Stewart either lagged back intentionally or spun his tires to emphasize Edwards' decision to NASCAR officials.
At every NASCAR track, there are a series of lines painted on the wall near the start/finish line. The set of double red lines indicate the start of the restart zone, and the leader must get to that point before he takes off.
Sometimes, the leader takes off a bit early and NASCAR issues a warning not to do it again. But NASCAR can certainly issue a black flag for jumping the restart if it chooses, and officials said Edwards was clearly in violation of the rule – which is backed up by video evidence.
In other words, NASCAR says Edwards' argument about being the leader is a moot point; even if he was leading, he still broke the rules by going too early on the restart.
However, it's worth wondering: If Edwards really had been the leader, would NASCAR have black-flagged him in that situation? We'll never know, but that would have been somewhat unusual based on similar instances in the past.
Absolutely, because what happened during Saturday night's race certainly was not his fault.
After leading just one lap the entire season – and that came during green-flag pit stops at Kansas – Edwards was finally having a performance worthy of his status as a preseason favorite.
He had led 206 laps and figured to be a contender for the win no matter what happened on the final restart, but the whole sequence of events put him in what he called a "difficult spot."
"I thought I made the right decision," Edwards said. "Jason Hedlesky told me I was the leader. I did everything I could to beat Tony down into Turn 1. ... I had no clue they were going to black-flag me afterward, otherwise I would have gladly drove down into Turn 1 in second (place)."
Edwards said he hoped for "an apology" from NASCAR for the misunderstanding, but was frustrated and upset when NASCAR held firm to its decision in a meeting afterward.
The Roush Fenway Racing star now has not won a Sprint Cup Series race since March 2011, and it's understandable he was upset.
NASCAR said there was no evidence to support Hedlesky's claim – even though the spotter was emphatic about what happened – and argued the team should have known Stewart was the leader.
"We're coming to the restart and there's a lot of finger pointing up there, and everybody has to look at the scoreboard," Pemberton said. "But you really have to look at the fact of coming to one to go, they knew the 14 was the leader and the 99 was second. It's as clear as that."
Because of the confusing sequence, NASCAR could have waved off the green flag and made sure everyone was clear on the proper restart order.
If that had happened, Edwards likely wouldn't have jumped the restart because he would have known Stewart was the leader.
"When you have to make a split-second decision based on when information is coming over the radio, it's a lot harder than when you have time to digest what's going on," Osborne said.
What NASCAR could not have done is go back afterward and place Edwards higher than his actual 10th-place finish – even if officials admitted they were wrong (which they certainly did not).
Even Osborne seemed to understand there was little that could be done before he and Edwards met with NASCAR in the Sprint Cup Series hauler.
"I'd have like them to say, 'You know, we'll put you back up in second,'" Osborne said. "But reality is, they can't do that."
Pulling away from Dale Earnhardt Jr. after a restart with eight laps left in Saturday night's Capital City 400 at Richmond International Raceway, Kyle Busch streaked to his fourth straight victory in the spring race at the .75-mile track.
The win was Busch's first of the season and the 24th of his career. Tony Stewart, the race leader before the fifth and final caution for debris in Turn 2, lost ground on the restart and finished third. Denny Hamlin ran fourth, followed by Kasey Kahne.
A caution for Jeff Burton's crash into the Turn 3 wall on Lap 311 interrupted a cycle of green-flag pit stops and scrambled the running order.
Johnson, who came to pit road when the caution flew, was penalized for a tire violation on his pit stop -- after one of his crewmen rolled a tire unattended toward the pit wall -- and had to restart on Lap 319 from the tail end of the field.
That same restart proved disastrous for Edwards, who was black-flagged for jumping the start after he put the power down, in NASCAR's judgment, before reaching the double red restart lines on the outside wall.
Forced to serve a pass-through penalty, Edwards dropped to 15th, 17 seconds behind Stewart. On lap 372, Stewart put Edwards a lap down and pulled away from Busch in second place to a lead of nearly two seconds.
Johnson rallied to finish sixth, but Edwards, who led a race-high 210 laps, had to settle for 10th, after getting back on the lead lap as the free-pass car under the fifth caution of the evening.
Here are the results from Saturday night's NASCAR race at Richmond:
All day, there has been concern that rain might affect tonight's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Richmond International Raceway because of showers and storms earlier this afternoon. The good news is the forecast is looking mostly dry this evening.
Showers moving through western and northern Virginia have weakened and all but dissipated with the rest of the activity staying to the north. This looks like a mostly dry forecast for the Capital City 400, and there is only a slight chance of a stray shower during the race. Given how fast these showers have been moving all day, any isolated shower would be quick.
It looks very good that we will get all of the race in this evening. I am going to just mention the chance of a few isolated to scattered showers this evening.
7 p.m. EDT
Sprint Cup race – Mostly cloudy chance of an isolated shower – temp: 55
9 p.m. EDT
Sprint Cup race – Mostly cloudy chance of an isolated shower – temp: 52
11 p.m. EDT
Sprint Cup race – Mostly cloudy chance of an isolated shower – temp: 52
It's NASCAR race night in Richmond, and here are some storylines and drivers to watch heading into tonight's race:
A Kyle Busch Breakthrough?
Since joining Joe Gibbs Racing prior to the 2008 season, Kyle Busch has won 23 races. Yet this year, Busch is still winless as he and crew chief Dave Rogers have struggled to get their fleet of Toyotas handling to Busch's liking. As such, the 18 team has just one top-five on the year and sits 14th in points.
But with three victories, 11 top-fives and 12 top-10s in 14 career starts on the .75-mile oval, if there was a track for Busch to get healthy, Richmond would certainly be it.
Denny Hamlin rolls into Richmond
Following a win last Sunday at Kansas, not only does Virginia native Denny Hamlin roll into Richmond as the conquering hero, he has an excellent chance of winning his second consecutive race and his third of the season. And outside of maybe his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate mentioned above, Hamlin is as good as it gets on the short track.
We all know about Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s winless streak, which now stands at 137 races. But there are quite a few other notable drivers who would love to see their victory droughts come to an end tonight.
Among them is Martin Truex Jr., who hasn't won since June 2007 at Dover – a span of 175 races – but he is coming off a runner-up finish in Kansas which moved him up to second in points. Then there is pole-sitter Mark Martin, who is at 87 races and counting, along with outside pole-sitter Carl Edwards, who has seen 41 races go by since his last victory.
Practice in the daylight, race in the night
Because practice and qualifying take place when the sun is out and the race is under the evening stars, an issue all teams struggle with at Richmond is dialing their cars from practice to race conditions. Which is why it's not surprising to see a driver fall back early as they fight the handling on their car but battle back later once they figure out the proper adjustments to make.
• Martin Truex Jr., Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are the only three drivers to have completed every lap in 2012.
• Since opening its doors in 1953, Richmond has hosted 111 total races, of which 79 percent have been won by a driver starting somewhere in the top 10.
• Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson each have three victories at Richmond, most among active drivers.
1. Denny Hamlin
Considering they've won a combined five of the last six races held at Richmond, you can't go wrong with either Denny Hamlin or Kyle Busch. Hamlin gets the nod because he's won this year – twice, actually, including last week – whereas Busch hasn't.
2. Kyle Busch
Three wins and an average finish of fifth says all you need to know about how well Kyle Busch navigates his way around the D-shaped short track.
3. Kevin Harvick
By his standards, Kevin Harvick has had a relatively quiet 2012 season thus far – though I'm not certain five top-10s in eight starts can exactly be referred to as quiet. Regardless, Harvick should be up among the leaders tonight and in contention looking for his first victory since winning here last fall.
Is this the week Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally gets back to Victory Lane? Well, why not? After all, Earnhardt Jr. has won this race three times (2000, ‘04 and ‘06) and was the quickest in yesterday's final practice. Keep in mind though; he hasn't finished better than 16th in his last six Richmond starts.
It's NASCAR race night at Richmond International Raceway, and we've got the actual race start time, the starting lineup and some other facts about Saturday's race for you below.
What time does the race start? The command to fire engines will be given by Virginia's lieutenant governor at 7:37 p.m. EDT. After the cars get rolling, the green flag will wave at 7:44 p.m. So if you want to skip the pre-race show and just tune in for the race, turn on your TV set by 7:44 p.m. Eastern time.
Race name/distance: The Capital City 400 is a 400-lap race around the 3/4-mile Richmond International Raceway. So for those of you who aren't math majors, the actual race distance is 300 miles.
TV and radio: The race can be seen on FOX. Every Sprint Cup Series race through May will be on the FOX network. Unfortunately, there is no live streaming of the race – but you can listen on the Motor Racing Network's Web site (just click the red link). You can also check MRN's site for a list of affiliate stations in your area.
*** NOTE: If you're out and about tonight and can't watch the race, make sure to follow me (@jeff_gluck) on Twitter. I'll be tweeting updates about the event. ***
National anthem: A military band from nearby Langley Air Force Base will do the honors. Can't go wrong with a military act.
Tickets: Richmond is not a sellout, so you're safe to take a chance on finding tickets at the gate if you want to make a last-minute trip.
Weather: The unofficial NASCAR weatherman, Brian Neudorff, says it will be a chilly night in Virginia with a chance of scattered showers in the area. Let's hope the race stays dry.
Last time: One year ago, Kyle Busch won at Richmond to win his third straight spring race at the short track. Then, at the Chase cutoff race last fall, Kevin Harvick went to Victory Lane after a suspicious spin by teammate Paul Menard brought out a late caution.
Starting lineup for Saturday's NASCAR race at Richmond International Raceway:
Will it rain Saturday night for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Richmond International Raceway? That's what everyone wants to know. Unfortunately, the answer isn't a straight forward "yes" or" no."
It all comes down to placement of a stalled boundary to the north of Virginia, and the timing of a system that will ride along this boundary Saturday afternoon and evening. Expect the day to start off dry with sunshine. As the day wears on, more clouds are likely, and there could even be a few showers that develop. If any rain does form in the afternoon, it would be isolated to scattered.
The chance of rain begins to increase later in the evening. It appears Richmond should be mostly dry and mostly cloudy at the start of the Capital City 400. As the evening progresses, the rain chances begin to increase.
Until we see when and where the rain will form, it's a tough call about whether or not we will get the full 400 miles completed. As I have been telling many of my followers on Twitter: If I had tickets to the race and knowing what I do about the weather and this forecast, I would still go expecting to see racing Saturday night.
As far as rain postponing the race until Sunday, the odds of that look low. I would expect it to be in the 20 to 30 percent probability, with a good 70 percent probability we see at least an official race Saturday night.
Sprint Cup Race Day – Mix of clouds and sunshine – temp: 61
5 p.m. EDT
Sprint Cup Pre-race – Mostly cloudy chance of a shower – temp: 63
7 p.m. EDT
Sprint Cup race – Mostly cloudy chance of a shower – temp: 60
9 p.m. EDT
Sprint Cup race – Mostly cloudy chance of a shower – temp: 58
Action sports superstar Travis Pastrana finally made his long-awaited NASCAR Nationwide Series debut on Friday night, finishing 22nd at Richmond International Raceway.
A pit road speeding penalty thwarted his shot at a top-15 finish, but he ran a respectable race other than that.
Here's what Pastrana and those close to his racing efforts had to say about his first NASCAR start.
Travis Pastrana, driver:
I had three goals when I started. One was finish the race. Two was to finish on the lead lap. So I did the first goal and didn't do the second goal.
My third goal was – I bet Ross Cathy, my friend from Chick-fil-A – that I'd donate some money to charity...if Danica (finished higher). I knew that was a long-shot bet, but we were so close to her at the end.
I had to go through the pit twice (due to a speeding penalty). I got on the gas at the end when I thought
it was the end (of pit road). I was like, 'Yeah!' Then I got out and I was like, 'Ahh, it was the yellow line, not the white one.' I was so stewed – just getting antsy at the pit. That was my first green-flag pit though. It was pretty cool.
Matt Crafton, Pastrana's driving coach and Camping World Truck Series driver:
He's learning every time he comes out. It's just amazing what he learns. I mean, he should have finished 15th to 17th if he didn't have the pit road speeding penalty. This was his second time ever on a radial tire and his seventh time ever in a stock car. So his progress is really amazing to me.
I wouldn't be here wasting my Friday night if I didn't believe in the guy. I didn't know if he was going to be one of those guys just coming in to do it just because he could, but you're never going to find a guy more determined than this guy.
God, he wants it. He calls me and talks to me quite a bit about it, and what to expect and what to learn. That's what makes me want to help him that much more.
Robby Benton, RAB Racing team owner and Pastrana's spotter:
I think the biggest thing we needed to do tonight was compare him relative (to someone with more experience). This being his first race, he exceeded all my expectations. Once we could get into a run and he found a rhythm, he had lap times that were good enough to run solidly in the top 15. He ran the last 10 or 12 laps in front of Kasey Kahne, who finished 10th.
I think he learned a lot tonight. If we could come back tomorrow, push re-do and do it all over again, he'd be much better for it.
Lyn-Z Pastrana, Pastrana's wife:
(Pastrana's mullet) is growing on me, actually. I kind of like it. I'm going to Australia on tour (she's a professional skateboarder) for three weeks, so it has time to grow out while I'm gone. They all thought I would disapprove (of the idea), but when I approved, they were like, 'Oh, shoot. Now he really has to do it.'
I thought he did great (in the race). To me, the best thing he could do was to finish the race and get the first one over with and just learn from it.
If you only saw the group of 40 (friends) in the stands. A bunch of the Maryland friends came out in a Red Bull party bus, and they were in the stands looking very much like Travis with the mullets.
But there are some (friends) like, 'What are you doing in NASCAR? Aren't you bored?' I thought I would be, but after the first race in Irwindale...I got way more into it.
Ryan Blaney introduced himself to NASCAR fans in a big way on Friday night, driving to a surprising seventh-place finish in his first-ever Nationwide Series start.
Blaney, the son of Sprint Cup Series driver Dave Blaney, showed poise, patience and speed throughout the 250-lap race at Richmond International Raceway, demonstrating why garage insiders are high on his talent and potential.
It was a fantastic performance for a series debut, but one Blaney didn't necessarily expect.
"This does exceed my expectations a little bit," he said, trying to suppress a smile. "We were going to pass for third there on that first green-flag run. It's incredible we can come out here with a small team like Tommy Baldwin (Racing) and run with all the big teams and be competitive."
Blaney is a cool customer and his demeanor made it seem as if he'd just climbed from the car after a routine race. But was he really that calm on the inside?
"I told (the team) I couldn't believe I was almost about to pass Denny Hamlin for third place," he said, grinning. "It was a privilege to come out here and run with these guys as good as we did."
The 18-year-old said he was "a little timid" at the start of the race because he wanted to show respect – and earn respect – in his first race. But after about 75 laps, Blaney said he started to notice the regular Nationwide drivers were giving him racing room because he was running so well.
That meant more than anything to a young driver who just wanted to make a positive impression in his debut.
"That really felt good to know they kind of welcomed me in to the Nationwide Series, I guess you could say," he said.
After that performance, it's easily to get the feeling he'll be welcomed in NASCAR for years to come.
Mark Martin may only be a part-timer this season, but his cars are certainly fast every time he shows up.
The veteran Martin won the pole position for Saturday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Richmond International Raceway, knocking off Carl Edwards as the final car to take a qualifying lap.
Edwards was second, followed by Kevin Harvick, AJ Allmendinger and Kyle Busch, who has won the last three Richmond spring races.
"Man, that was dramatic for me," Edwards said. "I thought we had him, and then he shot up to the top of the scoreboard."
Rounding out the top 10: Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Scott Riggs and J.J. Yeley failed to qualify for the race and were sent home.
Here is the starting lineup for Saturday night's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Richmond International Raceway:
NASCAR drivers have each been asked about the string of uneventful races so far this year, and Carl Edwards was no different when it came time for his Friday media session at Richmond International Raceway.
Edwards, though, was one of the few to offer a solution. I thought it was pretty interesting, so I'm posting it below:
NASCAR hates it when I say this, but I firmly believe that we should not be racing with downforce, sideforce and all these aerodynamic devices. We do not need splitters on the race cars and giant spoilers.
What has happened, in my humble opinion...(is) it is pretty common sense that if all the cars are very similar and all the drivers are really good – which we all think we are – and we are all within a tenth of a second of each other but are relying on this clean air and downforce to make the cars go that speed, then by definition, if the guy in front of you is disturbing the air, then your car is not going to be able to go as fast as it could in clean air.
So why don't we get rid of these aerodynamic devices and race cars on racetracks with tires that are softer? ... That is my opinion on how to make the cars and the drivers able to do more and put it in the drivers' and crew chiefs' hands. I think that is important.
I don't know if that will make more exciting races, but it sure as hell will make a guy able to go up through the field if he has a fast race car, and I think that is exciting.
With the dearth of cautions and passing the last couple of weeks, there have been a variety of different ideas bandied about regarding why the on-track action has seemingly been lacking in NASCAR as of late.
And like many others, five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson had his own theory as to why the quality of racing isn't at the level many have grown accustomed to watching.
The way Johnson sees it, the only way the on-track product is going to improve is if NASCAR takes a harder look at the tracks on which the Cup series competes – not with the cars themselves.
"I think the change comes with the venues," he said Friday at Richmond International Raceway. "The change comes with the resurfacing of tracks and reconfiguring tracks to make more side-by-side racing. And then there's also the argument of tracks that create more cautions that some people want to see.
"From a competition side, NASCAR has created a very level playing field, which we were all after. And now we need to look at the venues and try to put on a better show based on the tracks."
While it's unlikely NASCAR is going to radically make over the Sprint Cup Series schedule by taking dates away from tracks and awarding them to facilities where the racing is deemed "better," there might be some truth in what Johnson said Friday.
A quick glance at the current schedule shows over one third of the races are held on tracks between 1.5-to-2 miles in length – tracks which are almost virtually indistinguishable from one another both to causal and the diehard fan alike – and prominently feature long stretches of single-file racing.
So if a change is going to occur how will it start? Johnson said fan opinion – perhaps influenced by the drivers – can actually make things happen. And the "ultimate influence," he said, is fans showing "their approval or disapproval with ticket sales."
"I understand it would be foolish to take a perfectly good surface and rip it up," Johnson said. "It's expensive to redo it. But as we start resurfacing tracks, I just ask that all the track owner/operators spend a lot of time thinking about the competition, the type of racing we put on and how we can use that opportunity to make it better."
Just because Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a comfortable cushion back to 11th place in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion doesn't mean he's going to start taking more chances.
Why? Because he's already racing as hard as he can, the driver said Friday at Richmond International Raceway.
"There ain't a lap that I've ran to this point this year that wasn't ran as hard as it could have been ran," he said. "... I think everybody runs as hard as they can. Everybody is as aggressive as they want to be. I don't think we're all out there being overly nice about it. Everybody is running pretty hard and pretty aggressive for positions."
So why has NASCAR seemed so quiet lately? Earnhardt Jr. said the lack of recent cautions and rivalries is "just the way the racing is right now," in which it's more important for drivers to points race than to go run into a competitor out of anger.
"I still feel like it's pretty early in the season," he said. "Everybody is just trying to get as many points as they can get, trying to make the Chase. If you go out there running over each other and damaging your car, you could cost yourself 10 points here and 10 points there, and you could lose the opportunity to make the Chase pretty quickly.
"So you have to pretty smart when you're driving your car."
Earnhardt Jr. also said his comment last week about believing he's the best driver on Hendrick Motorsports' team was something every driver thinks.
"All the drivers in the garage feel like they're the best, individually," he said. "And they should. That's kind of the way you have to approach it. I learned a long time ago that if you don't have confidence in your car...your crew chief and yourself, it's just not conducive to being successful. You have to feel like you're the best."
Before Twitter, NASCAR fans mostly knew the names of the drivers, their wives and their crew chiefs. And that was pretty much it.
But since the world started tweeting, everyone from spotters to public relations representatives to business types who were formerly behind the scenes now has a following of their own.
Josh Jones is one of those people. He's an employee of Kevin Harvick who handles Harvick's personal business – Kevin Harvick Inc. – but you likely don't know him by his name.
You know him by the Twitter handle @Mother_Function.
On Twitter, Jones is portrayed as Harvick's goofy sidekick – the two friends are constantly playing practical jokes on one another and lobbing insulting tweets back and forth – but in reality, Jones is actually a shrewd businessman and valuable employee.
Aside from his Twitter antics, Jones is a high-energy guy who is constantly in motion, the type of person who seems to know everyone and can put together a deal with ease.
He also has gained a tremendous following on Twitter: A whopping 44,000 people follow the @Mother_Function account, which puts him in the 30 most-followed accounts in all of NASCAR – more than even some Sprint Cup Series drivers.
So when Harvick tweeted this week that Jones was hospitalized after an injury sustained in a Tuesday night softball game, it felt for some NASCAR fans like one of their personal friends had gotten hurt.
Fortunately, Harvick said Friday that Jones is expected to make a full recovery once doctors feel he's out of the woods.
"They're taking good care of him and everything should be fine," Harvick said.
Here's what happened: Jones, an athletic type and former arena football kicker, was running to first base when he was hit in the head with a sharply thrown ball.
Jones fractured his skull, sustained a severe black eye that swelled shut and lost the hearing in his left ear as it filled with blood (the hearing is expected to return).
"But all that should be better, and they were just being really cautious about the swelling of his brain and making sure he didn't get a blood clot," Harvick said.
Jones hasn't tweeted since the accident – his last tweet was a picture of the softball team – but his wife, known as @MRS_FUNCTION, tweeted, "@Mother_Function and I want to thank everyone for their kind words, thoughts and prayers. We are spending some quality family time together. We'll all pull through this! Just may take some time :-)"
His family, friends and fans are likely hoping Jones returns to full strength soon to resume his back-and-forth tweets with Harvick – though the driver said he might have to take it easy on his buddy for awhile.
"I'll probably have to give him a lot less grief for a few weeks, for sure," Harvick said with a chuckle. "At least let his eye come back open."
Weather will be quiet for Friday's NASCAR actitivies at Richmond International Raceway, but Saturday and Saturday night is when things get tricky.
A cold front will stall to the south in the Carolinas during the day on Friday. High pressure will build in and provide mostly sunny skies to the region. It should also remain dry for Friday night's Nationwide Series race.
Saturday's forecast becomes more problematic, as the same front that stalled across the Carolinas moves back north as a warm front, then stalls again to the north. The forecast challenge and question becomes: Where does this front stall? It appears that it will be close enough that showers will be a threat at anytime during the day and evening Saturday.
I don't expect a large, all-day wave of rain but more the scattered "hit or miss" type showers. I don't think it will be a rain out – at least I hope not – but showers and radar will need to be watched Saturday afternoon and Saturday evening.
9:00 a.m. EDT
Nationwide final practice – Mostly sunny – temp: 56
12:00 p.m. EDT
Sprint Cup practice – Mostly sunny – temp: 63
2:30 p.m. EDT
Sprint Cup final practice – Mostly sunny – temp: 67
4:00 p.m. EDT
Nationwide qualifying – Partly sunny – temp: 68
5:30 p.m. EDT
Sprint Cup qualifying – Partly sunny – temp: 66
7:00 p.m. EDT
Nationwide race – Partly cloudy, increasing clouds – temp: 62
7:00 p.m. EDT
Sprint Cup race – cloudy to mostly cloudy, chance of a shower – temp: 61
Kyle Busch, once a familiar face in NASCAR media centers around the country, returned to the interview room on Thursday for his first scheduled press session since Las Vegas.
Since NASCAR typically only asks drivers to schedule a pre-race interview with reporters if they're in the top 12 of the Sprint Cup Series point standings or is a compelling storyline for the weekend, Busch has been a virtual stranger in the media center this year.
But Busch, tied for 13th in points, has won the last three Richmond spring races – so he's an obvious story heading into Saturday night's short-track event. As such, he sat at the front of the room on Thursday afternoon and faced questions along the lines of, "Dude, what's the deal this season?" (We're paraphrasing.)
"I think that we have been a little bit off this year, and why? I don't know," he said. "It's just kind of been a little bit of a struggle to find comfort in the cars and speed in the cars this year so far for me."
Busch has just one top-five finish in eight starts this season; last year, he had four top-fives and a victory by this point. In addition, Busch has led 132 laps – but that's low by his own standards.
Here's the thing: The Twitter world seems to think Busch has been neutered, forced to be less aggressive in the race car ever since the infamous Texas weekend last fall in which he was suspended for intentionally wrecking Ron Hornaday.
Busch, though, doesn't see it that way. When asked if he's doing anything differently, the driver shook his head no and said "Not that I know of."
"If you're comfortable in the car, you can drive it harder and make it do something wrong," he said. "When you're two-tenths (of a second) off the pace and you're scared to drive it any harder because you're already out of control, you're not going to be picking up any time.
"We're trying to work on comfort and get the balance close, and then we try to work on driving harder in order to get the speed out of the car. We're kind of taking baby steps in that direction."
That, not a change in the way he drives, is the reason Busch believes he has yet to post his typical results.
"Last year, the 18 team I felt like was the better team (at Joe Gibbs Racing)," he said. "We had better cars. ... The 11 (Denny Hamlin) and the 20 (Joey Logano) were kind of scratching their heads a little bit.
"This year, it seems like the 11 is doing a little bit better job of being able to show up to the racetrack ready to go and have speed in the cars. The 18 and the 20 are now scratching their heads a little bit."
Of course, there's no better place than Richmond for Busch to turn things around. The 23-time Cup race winner is perhaps the best NASCAR driver at the 3/4-mile track and has finished outside the top 10 only twice in 14 career starts here.
"We've run really well here in the past," he said. "I'm hoping that this weekend we can kind of redeem ourselves and run top-five at least."
Remember the "Pastranathon?" Or at least what was supposed to be the Pastranathon?
Last July, action sports superstar Travis Pastrana planned to pull double duty by participating in both the X Games in Los Angeles and the NASCAR Nationwide Series in Indianapolis – two deliciously cross-promoted ESPN events that would perhaps move some of Pastrana's young male fans to watch NASCAR for the first times in their lives.
But in an instant, those plans were destroyed. Pastrana's hard crash during the X Games spoiled his planned NASCAR debut, and he was out for the season. Now, nine months later, Pastrana will finally make his first Nationwide start – what he called "the biggest event of my life" – on Friday night at Richmond International Raceway.
Pastrana has the star power, the right attitude and the tools to succeed in the sport, provided he stays committed to it. So is he really in for the long haul?
"Anyone who has ever been to the top of any sport knows how much work it takes to get there," he said Thursday. "I'm willing to put in that work."
The 28-year-old Maryland native acknowledged any NASCAR success is "not going to be overnight," and in reality will be extremely difficult. His cousin, who will be a member of Pastrana's pit crew, will "be closer to the best tire carrier than I am to the best racer."
Pastrana completely understands he will not be finishing in the top 15 of the Nationwide Series race on Friday night or anytime soon. But with his K&N East Series schedule (he'll race one of those events tonight) giving him a chance to learn and make mistakes, at least he'll continue to get experience.
"A goal for me for this first (Nationwide) race – a goal that would be very, very difficult to reach – would be to stay on the lead lap," he said. "That's where we're coming in and starting. And even if we don't, that'll be our goal coming in for the next weekend. I've got to finish every lap of every race I can."
But the newlywed driver hopes success comes sooner than later – as does his wife, skateboarder Lyn-Z Adams Hawkins. Pastrana let NASCAR champ Jimmie Johnson shave his hair into a mullet as part of this must-watch video, and Pastrana is vowing to keep the redneck-style haircut until he wins a race of some kind.
"I'm thinking to keep my marriage, I might have to go to a go-kart track this weekend," he joked.
Pastrana's legion of fans has had a "completely mixed reaction," he said, to his arrival in NASCAR. And the action sports industry he loves has "ridiculed" him for the move.
Pastrana believes that's just because they don't understand NASCAR yet. For example: He brought 10 friends to Daytona in February, and "they gave me flak the whole way down."
But they quickly changed their minds about the sport, though.
"Since that first car came by on that first green-flag lap, every single one of those guys is hooked," he said. "Every single one of those guys is going to be here (at Richmond), and they're bringing more people. It's a matter of just coming out and experiencing it."
He estimates 100 friends and family members will be in attendance at Richmond this weekend – many of them with mullets to salute his NASCAR debut.
The hard part, though, will be keeping fans interested in his progress if he struggles. If he pulls off that feat, it might just be the daredevil's best trick yet.
"I'm going to figure out how to get to the top of this sport, and that's where I want to go," he said. "... It doesn't matter how big of a fan base you have – if you suck, nobody is going to follow you after awhile."
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