Busch, Hamlin take top spots in Richmond
by Matt Taliaferro
Saturday night’s Matthew and Daniel Hansen 400 from Richmond International Raceway was a tale of two teams within one race shop.
Storyline No. 1 was Kyle Busch and his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team — a driver and team surging early in the 2011 NASCAR season, and in search of their third straight spring Richmond win.
Storyline No. 2 was Denny Hamlin. Also a JGR entry, he and his No. 11 JGR team stumbled out of the gate this season after battling Jimmie Johnson tooth and nail for the 2010 Cup title. Hamlin had already won his own charity race at RIR on Thursday night and followed it up with a dominating run in Friday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race.
As it turned out, both teams delivered big showings, as Busch led a race-high 235 of 400 laps en route to his second win of the season, while Hamlin notched his best run of the year in second, after leading 35 laps at his home track. Both kept a keen eye on fuel mileage, though, as a long green-flag run capped off the evening, requiring the JGR operation — along with the remainder of the field — to conserve gas to reach the finish.
“It was important to save fuel there under the cautions. Fortunately we had that long caution flag,” Busch said of a 12-lap caution period with just under 100 laps to go. “That probably saved us. If we didn't have that, most likely we would have went to the end but probably come up a little bit short.
“Thankfully, it played out the way that it played out and I saved just enough. I thought I was going to be better than that. I thought we were going to have — we did make it to the end, so you can say you made it to the end — that’s good enough, right?”
Hamlin, the only driver that seemed to have anything for Busch, was happy to notch a solid finish on a track he was expected to excel at — something he has not done to this point in the season.
“It was a good weekend,” Hamlin said. “We came up one spot short, but it was to a teammate. When you look at what we need to work on, we yarded the rest of the field by about 10 seconds, we just didn’t have enough to get to our teammate.”
The win also marked the twelfth win in the last 15 short track races in the Cup Series where either Hamlin or Busch has gone to Victory Lane.
“We know when we come to these racetracks we’re going to be contenders for a win,” Hamlin said. “I never even thought about one struggle that we had earlier in the year when we come here to Richmond. It's like, ‘OK, we should win, regardless of what's happened, how bad we ran up until this point.’ You forget about all that when you go to a racetrack that you have a lot of success. Hopefully this is the point in which we turn it around.”
Kasey Kahne’s third-place showing was his best with Red Bull Racing, while David Ragan, in fourth, scored his best finish since October 2008. Carl Edward rounded out the top 5.
Edwards continues to hold a nine-point advantage over Jimmie Johnson in the top spot in the point standings. Busch moved into third, 30 points back, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. is fourth and Kevin Harvick fifth.