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Through the Gears: Four things we learned in Richmond
“Confidence comes not from always being right … but not fearing to be wrong.” – Peter T. McIntyre
I remember one of the first times I interviewed Saturday’s Richmond winner, Joey Logano. It was 2008 and he was 18 years old, slicing up the Nationwide Series just as his nickname — “Sliced Bread” — would imply. With an early track record of teenage success, you’d expect it to come paired with a swagger and confidence that matched Mark Martin’s labeling of him as “the best driver of this generation.” Instead? I found a wide-eyed, Connecticut kid so nervous over national media attention that it took me an extra hour to transcribe with all the stutters, stoppages and stage fright surrounding what for most would be a 10-minute, run-of-the-mill chat about a dreamlike future in the sport.
I say that because early on, as Logano transitioned to the Cup Series in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 — a ride formerly manned by Tony Stewart — that hesitation transitioned onto the track as a sense of weakness rivals sniffed out instantaneously. It seemingly frustrated crew chief Greg Zipadelli, Stewart’s former partner in crime, who wasn’t used to passive behavior in his driver; further, teammates at JGR were repelled by the awkwardness. Competitors knocked the kid all over the track — without retribution — leading him to hide in the corner, having Dad fight his battles or, as aggravation mounted, respond a bit over-aggressively (remember the "firesuit in the family" blast?). JGR President J.D. Gibbs made it worse by throwing millions at free agent Carl Edwards when he became available, undermining the “driver of the future” by trying to make him the “driver of the past.” Instead of getting unconditional support, a young talent saw his confidence shattered, his place in the organization hamstrung.
My, how quickly things have changed. A scenery switch combined with a mentor in Brad Keselowski is all Logano needed to let loose. In just 15 months at Team Penske he has more wins (three) than he had during four-plus years with Joe Gibbs Racing (two). Saturday night at Richmond, Logano set a new season high for laps led (359) in his career … and we’re still in April. His second 2014 victory, scored in a thrilling finish, has him all but locked in to the Chase for the Championship.
But it’s the way Logano is now driving that speaks volumes. With less than 10 laps to go at RIR and running fourth, he showed no mercy in picking right through series heavyweights Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Keselowski. There was no hesitation, only pointed aggression to pick off a trio that has a combined six Cup championships between them. It was the cherry on top of a gutsy performance, considering his race included three-abreast moves on restarts, muscling through traffic and nearly cutting off rivals while flashing consistent speed on the racetrack.
It’s the type of behavior you see only from someone who’s got confidence behind the wheel. So amidst the post-race punches and the late-race contact that emerged as the real Richmond story, don’t forget as we go “Through the Gears” that it’s Logano who’s truly armed and dangerous. His competition certainly hasn’t forgotten. At age 23, the sky’s the limit for a man who stopped being the whipping boy and now realizes he can whip the competition.
Since we’re on the subject of fighting …
FIRST GEAR: Guess what’s back? NASCAR rivalries!
For a sport in need of some crossover material, the best possible result happened Saturday night: Richmond made people mad. Like, fighting mad. The most notorious incident involved a punch thrown by Marcos Ambrose and successfully landed on Casey Mears after the two made contact battling for 18th place. Caught on national television, crewmembers quickly intervened after the shoving match got out of hand, leaving Mears a bit swollen and NASCAR reviewing for possible penalties. At the time of this post, Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton refused to commit to anything, claiming officials need to watch more video and that the incident could still rise above NASCAR’s “Boys, Have At It” policy of letting off-track conduct run its course.
That, however, wasn’t the only frayed temper on a night that started with pole sitter Kyle Larson being turned around on Lap 1 (more on that later). In the final 10 laps, the four-car battle for the win led to contact between Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski. While Kenseth’s No. 20 tried to block both lanes, keeping everyone behind him, an eventual slip-up left him drifting into the side of Keselowski’s No. 2 car. As Jeff Gordon and Logano both slid by, Keselowski got miffed, so much so he brake-checked Kenseth after the race causing a chain-reaction bump that also collected AJ Allmendinger and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“The 20 car ran me off the racetrack,” Keselowski said, calling Kenseth’s move “mind-boggling.” “We had a shot to win.” Angrily confronting his rival after exiting the car, he threw gloves in frustration before going to congratulate Logano — a reaction that clearly left Kenseth scratching his head.
“I ran him up to the third groove or so,” Kenseth explained. “But I’ve witnessed (Keselowski) racing that way a lot, like I think he did to Jimmie (Johnson) at Texas a few years ago. I thought once we got to the straightaway, I left him enough room. I guess he’s upset about that and we were all going for the win — that’s what we’re supposed to be doing.”
Earnhardt seemingly agreed when interviewed after the race, joking that Keselowski should “get over it.” But those aren’t the only tempers likely still simmering. Rookie Justin Allgaier was seeking retribution inside the garage after being pushed up into the outside wall, ruining a top-10 run. Kyle Busch wound up punting teammate Denny Hamlin in Turn 3 after a late restart. Ambrose found himself at the mercy of David Gilliland, his car being bounced like a pinball as the No. 38 raced around with ease.
All this anger may stress the grid out, but it’s fascinating, must-watch television in NASCAR. The sport already had increased competition; now, it’s got the emotions and non-robotic responses from the drivers to match. If that can’t get TV ratings back up to par, well, I’m not sure what will.
SECOND GEAR: Men on a mission.
While Logano won Saturday night and gained more momentum, he’s not the only one catching fire after NASCAR’s off week. Jeff Gordon ran a strong second, leading a race-high 173 laps and remained the point leader by five over Matt Kenseth. Since the Richmond debacle last September, which resulted in Gordon getting a “mulligan” 13th entry into the Chase, he’s seemingly out to prove a four-time champion should need no such help ever again.
“We were having fun,” he said, not disappointed in the slightest to lose that four-car battle down the stretch. “Gosh, what great cars we’re bringing to the racetrack. I mean, as good as we’re running I definitely feel like we can win races just about anywhere that we go, and if we continue to perform like this, we are going to win.”
Kyle Busch, after a gutsy call by crew chief Dave Rogers to get four tires late, blistered his way through the field to finish third. For Busch, already a race winner this season, it’s his third straight top-6 result as he seeks the type of consistency needed for a serious Chase run this fall. And Dale Earnhardt Jr., fresh off his second at Darlington, was a contender all night, overcoming brake problems to run a strong seventh. The No. 88 team shows no signs whatsoever of slowing down after the strong start.
THIRD GEAR: Tires and fires.
Goodyear, whose Richmond compound was under fire much of the weekend, “flamed out” in dramatic fashion. Right-front tires, in particular, were lasting no more than 55-60 laps, a multi-zone design creating multiple problems no matter what camber settings teams had. The load proved too much, causing internal separation that left burning rubber catching other parts of the car on fire as it came apart.
The results for some cars were spectacular. Reed Sorenson’s Chevy burned up to the point rescue workers had to help the driver get out on pit road. Others, like Jimmie Johnson, were somewhat luckier in that their cars survived through due diligence but unscheduled green-flag stops knocked them out of contention. It was the race, though, that suffered the most, as drivers turned conservative knowing it was just a matter of time until a Goodyear blew. Brian Vickers even asked at one point if NASCAR would start throwing competition cautions.
“The problem is they put a harder inside edge on the right front and right rear here, and that's eventually where we ride most of the time around the racetrack on that part of the tire,” Kyle Busch claimed. “Why they went harder on that, I'm not sure. It's just too hard of a compound for here. We were all basically on ice. Really tough for all of us to keep the tires under our cars. It's supposed to be more durable, but I think was just not the right way to go obviously for Goodyear.”
Come September, chances are you’ll see a brand new compound after an extensive tire test. NASCAR won’t screw around like this again for its regular season finale.
FOURTH GEAR: Karma for Clint?
Saturday night was a return to the scene of the crime for Clint Bowyer, nearly eight months after a self-induced spin that changed the landscape of NASCAR’s Chase — and potentially team orders — forever. Those who felt Bowyer got off easy last year in keeping his sponsor and postseason bid after the shenanigans likely got a sense of satisfaction Saturday. A heavy favorite to win who flexed his muscles in practice, Bowyer’s day went sour from the first turn of the first lap. That’s when incidental contact with pole sitter Kyle Larson sent his No. 42 spinning and took the driver of the No. 15 completely out of his rhythm.
“I really hate that happened,” Bowyer said. “I really like Kyle (Larson) and I’m a big fan of his. Him and the 2 (Brad Keselowski) kind of spun the tires and I just got such a big run him when he moved up. Then I was like, ‘OK, I guess I’m going to go to the bottom if you’re going to give me the bottom.’ Then, at the last minute he arched it in and I just wasn’t ready for him. I tried to get on the brakes and just got into him.”
Bowyer never seemed to recover, sliding through the field and outside the top 10 due to handling trouble. That’s before the dreaded “corded tires” came apart, melting pieces of rubber and catching the oil lines on fire, turning his night into a nightmare. Now 21st in the standings, Bowyer’s last-place finish took away a prime opportunity to lock in a Chase bid by the end of April. And it left MWR still a step behind where it was before last September’s Richmond controversy.
Kasey Kahne is mired in a serious slump, raising questions about his long-term future at Hendrick Motorsports, but Saturday night’s mediocre result simply wasn’t his fault. A series of slow pit stops early left him fighting from behind; the final one did him in after a crewman missed a lugnut on a tire. Kahne wound up 14th with what appeared to be a top-5 car. … Danica Patrick’s crew chief, Tony Gibson, said this week he thought Patrick “disliked” Richmond. Ya think? Lapped early, she wound up five laps down in 34th and was at times the slowest car in the field. … Give a call to AJ Allmendinger, whose sixth-place finish was his best since Team Penske dumped him for failing a drug test in mid-2012. It was also the best for his underdog JTG-Daugherty single-car program since Bobby Labonte ran fourth with the No. 47 in the 2011 Daytona 500.