NASCAR: Round 10 – Russ Friedman 400, Richmond International Raceway – 2 May

Kyle Busch completed a clean sweep of this weekend’s Richmond events, and celebrated his 24th birthday with the Sprint Cup race win – just the second time in NASCAR history that a driver has won the race on his birthday, the only other person being the legendary Cale Yarborough.

Kyle had qualified 14th but he’d set the number 18 to run strongly on the outside line, meaning he was able to use the relatively quiet early laps to move smoothly up the running order to the front of the field.

The first laps were actually run under green-and-yellow conditions, as the track still had some damp spots that needed drying out following pre-race showers. Th weather continued to be a concern throughout, with fears of interruptions or a truncated race never far from anyone’s thoughts, but in the end NASCAR was able to run a full 400 laps without a single further drop of rain.

When the track went green on lap 6, polesitter Brian Vickers quickly got into a scrap with Jeff Gordon for the lead which saw them exchanging places until Gordon finally emerged as the stronger on lap 23 and held the lead for the next fifty laps. Lap traffic destroyed Gordon’s lead, and as they neared the first pit stops under green, Gordon’s form went away and he found himself overtaken for the lead by Denny Hamlin.

Gordon quickly fell back further, losing second to Kurt Busch and then slipping behind Mark Martin and Kyle Busch. It continued to be Hamlin in the lead flanked by the Busch Boys after the next pit stop on lap 151, this time under yellow following a spin by Kasey Kahne. It was the third ‘proper’ yellow of the race: Dave Blaney had got loose on lap 9 and slammed into the wall putting him out of the race, and Jeremy Mayfield had hit the wall hard on the frontstretch on lap 114, but it was the fourth ‘official’ yellow given that the start itself had been under caution.

The fifth yellow was on lap 167, after David Stremme tapped Carl Edwards into a spin and their team mate Jamie McMurray spun avoiding the incident ahead of him. Following the restart, Kyle Busch started th drop off the lead – the latest pit lane adjustments not suiting the 18 nearly as well.

There were plenty of fights and feuds developing up and down the field. Juan Montoya got annoyed with David Reutimann bumping him and made sure Reutimann got bumped back in no uncertain terms on lap 160. Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers had a similar contretemps on lap 224. And Dale Earnhardt Jr had just managed to tap Jeff Burton into a spin on lap 211 as Burton passed on the outside, the bump looking almost intentional but in fact just a consequence of loose handling – ironically, something a repeat of the incident here last year where it was Kyle Busch who did the same thing to Earnhardt himself in the closing laps to earn the lasting hatred of NASCAR fans. Strangely, the fans didn’t take the same exception to Dale this time!

Jimmie Johnson was having a frankly rotten day, easily his worst in NASCAR this season. He got a pit lane speeding penalty on lap 117, too fast leaving pit road. Then shortly afterwards he reported that he had a brake line problem , and sure enough a couple of laps later he ended up rear-ending Joey Logano and almost hitting the wall. Trying to tough it out, he ended up spinning on lap 191 to bring out the yellow because of the worsening brake situation, and he had to crawl into the pits to effect emergency repairs that put him two laps down. And then he got black flagged by NASCAR for not restarting in the correct position: when it goes wrong for the reigning Sprint Cup champion, it really goes wrong!

In the end, Johnson got involved in a multi-car accident on lap 325 which started when David Stremme got bumped by Bobby Labonte. That sent Stremme into the wall and collected Johnson along with Kasey Kahne along the way; this time, Johnson’s trip to the pits ended in the garage.

Hamlin’s flying lead came to an end during the pit stops on lap 212 when Martin Truex Jr gambled on taking just two tyres. Hamlin got the lead back on lap 249 and still seemed to have plenty in reserve, but a bad pit stop on lap 274 under a caution for debris saw him suffer problems with his front right lugnuts that dropped him to 8th place at the restart.

That meant Ryan Newman headed the restart ahead of Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and then the Busch boys, Kyle and Kurt. Kyle’s car was now back where he wanted it, and he immediately moved up a couple of places; but in some cosmic, karmic Busch balance it seemed at the expense of Kurt, who after a strong mid-section of the race started to fall away.

The next sixty laps were punctuated by a sequence of rapid fire yellows: we had Joey Logano bump Greg Biffle who spun and hit the wall on lap 285; Kevin Harvick blew a tyre on lap 292 and hit the wall himself; Marcos Ambrose slammed the wall in Turn 2 after contact with Sam Hornish Jr. on lap 306; Ryan Newman bumped Mark Martin causing him to spin in front of the field on the restart on lap 312, Martin eventually getting hit by Martin Truex Jr.; then there was the multi-car incident on lap 325 that wrote of Jimmie Johnson; followed by Bobby Labonte spinning at the start/finish line on lap 345 after a bump from Kurt Busch, and finally a spin from David Reutimann on lap 356 after contact with Brian Vickers. It made for a record-equalling 15 official cautions in all.

During this sporadic sequence of racing, we’d seen Jeff Gordon return to the lead by opting to stay out on used tyres while others hitting, but eventually paying for it as the race wore on; Carl Edwards popped up at the front of the field, closely followed by Sam Hornish Jr and Jamie McMurray. But throughout it all, Kyle Busch was looming and he timed his bid for the lead perfectly just before the yellow on lap 356 so that he would take the restart from the front.

After such a mass of caution periods, it seemed unlikely that the race would get all the way to the finish from here without further interruptions. But that’s exactly what happened, thirty-nine green flag laps to the chequered. It rather caught everyone by surprise.

Kyle Busch shot out to a big lead and waited to see which of the contenders would bring the fight to him. In his rear view mirror he would have seen Jeff Burton, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart go three- and four-wide for fourth place at the green flag, and Burton emerged as one of the strongest runners for this final stint.

But Tony Stewart was also running strongly and kept himself clamped the rear fender of the 31; in a great day for Stewart-Haas, his team mate Ryan Newman was also on the pace and able to stay with them. Jeff Gordon and Jamie McMurray found the pace too hot to handle as the chase for the chequered continued, while Carl Edwards got the worst deal of all and got dropped to the back of the lead lap before the end.

But whatever else was happening, nothing was affecting Kyle Busch’s run at the front. By the end of 400 laps he was cruising, well in control and under no threat; it was probably the easiest win he’d enjoyed all weekend, but that ease was all in the preparation, planning and strategy – not to mention some great pit work.

He celebrated the win – and the birthday – with well-deserved burnouts replacing candles on the frontstretch. Busch could also celebrate another landmark – he now also holds the record for most victories in the series before turning 25. But can he sustain his form all the way into the Sprint itself this year?

Race results

Pos  Driver             Car        Laps
 1.  Kyle Busch         Toyota      400
 2.  Tony Stewart       Chevrolet   400
 3.  Jeff Burton        Chevrolet   400
 4.  Ryan Newman        Chevrolet   400
 5.  Mark Martin        Chevrolet   400
 6.  Sam Hornish Jr     Dodge       400
 7.  Jamie McMurray     Ford        400
 8.  Jeff Gordon        Chevrolet   400
 9.  Casey Mears        Chevrolet   400
10.  Juan Montoya       Chevrolet   400
11.  Marcos Ambrose     Toyota      400
12.  Kurt Busch         Dodge       400
13.  Matt Kenseth       Ford        400
14.  Denny Hamlin       Toyota      400
15.  Brian Vickers      Toyota      400
16.  Robby Gordon       Toyota      400
17.  Greg Biffle        Ford        400
18.  Clint Bowyer       Chevrolet   400
19.  Joey Logano        Toyota      400
20.  Reed Sorenson      Dodge       400
21.  A.J. Allmendinger  Dodge       400
22.  Martin Truex Jr    Chevrolet   400
23.  David Ragan        Ford        400
24.  Michael Waltrip    Toyota      400
25.  Elliott Sadler     Dodge       400
26.  Carl Edwards       Ford        400
27.  Dale Earnhardt Jr  Chevrolet   399
28.  David Reutimann    Toyota      399
29.  Kasey Kahne        Dodge       399
30.  Paul Menard        Ford        398
31.  Bobby Labonte      Ford        398
32.  John Andretti      Chevrolet   397
33.  Scott Speed        Toyota      396
34.  Kevin Harvick      Chevrolet   394
35.  Jeremy Mayfield    Toyota      371
36.  Jimmie Johnson     Chevrolet   368
37.  Mike Bliss         Dodge       368
38.  David Stremme      Dodge       324
39.  David Gilliland    Chevrolet    92
40.  Joe Nemechek       Toyota       90
41.  Tony Raines        Chevrolet    74
42.  Scott Riggs        Toyota       54
43.  Dave Blaney        Toyota        8

Sprint Cup standings

Jeff Gordon regained the Cup Series points lead from Kurt Busch, who held it for one week. Gordon leads Busch by 10 points; Stewart, Hamlin and Kyle Busch each climbed one spot to third, fourth and fifth, respectively following their strong performances at Richmond.

Jimmie Johnson fell three spots to 6th after his dismal evening under the lights. Ryan Newman moves inside the all-important top 12, while David Reutimann drops out for the time being. Juan Montoya inches closer to the Chase after another solid, top ten finish.

Pos Driver              Points
1   Jeff Gordon         1441
2   Kurt Busch          1431
3   Tony Stewart        1402
4   Denny Hamlin        1321
5   Kyle Busch          1314
6   Jimmie Johnson      1290
7   Jeff Burton         1257
8   Clint Bowyer        1212
9   Carl Edwards        1204
10  Ryan Newman         1198
11  Greg Biffle         1193
12  Matt Kenseth        1187
============================
13  David Reutimann     1156
14  Juan Montoya        1152
15  Mark Martin         1126
16  Brian Vickers       1118
17  Kasey Kahne         1106
18  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  1100
19  Marcos Ambrose      1067
20  Casey Mears         1049
21  Martin Truex Jr.     989
22  Reed Sorenson        984
23  Kevin Harvick        979
24  Michael Waltrip      974
25  Jamie McMurray       971
26  David Ragan          949
27  David Stremme        948
28  A.J. Allmendinger    947
29  Elliott Sadler       933
30  Sam Hornish Jr.      925
31  Bobby Labonte        893
32  Joey Logano          859
33  Paul Menard          839
34  Robby Gordon         768
35  John Andretti        743
36  Scott Speed          671
37  David Gilliland      615
38  Regan Smith          473
39  Aric Almirola        451
40  Joe Nemechek         414
41  Scott Riggs          348
42  Brad Keselowski      333
43  Travis Kvapil        292
44  Jeremy Mayfield      288
45  Dave Blaney          258
46  Bill Elliott         228
47  Massimiliano Papis   222
48  Todd Bodine          123
49  Mike Bliss           123
50  Terry Labonte         91
51  Sterling Marlin       86
52  Tony Raines           34

Pos Constructor Points
1   Chevrolet   72
2   Toyota      55
3   Ford        48
4   Dodge       45
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