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NASCAR at Richmond: Sprint Cup Series returns to scene of 2013 drama


Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, a return to 2013 "scene of the crime," winless drivers Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne, the downfall of Swan Racing and the return of The King highlight Saturday's Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway.

Bowyer back to Richmond after Chase controversy  
The last thing Clint Bowyer needs this weekend is another bout with poison ivy.

The last time he suffered from the plant’s itchy aftermath while racing at Richmond last fall, Bowyer became a central figure in a ham-handed in-race plot by Michael Waltrip Racing to ensure his teammate a spot in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.

The result? Martin Truex Jr. is no longer Bowyer’s teammate, MWR contracted to two full-time teams and NASCAR, the sport, was battered by loud questions about its very legitimacy.

Bowyer has smartly been hesitant to address the incident directly, knowing full well that direct admissions in the immediate aftermath could have escalated NASCAR’s punishments and that many in NASCAR’s vocal fan base weren’t going to give him the time of day for explanation or apology.

He scratched the surface slightly early Friday at Richmond, though.

“I’m looking forward to having another good run here and shaking that off from last year,” Bowyer said. “It was a bad deal and I get it.”

2013 dominators Kenseth, Johnson each still eye first win
It’s Richmond. NASCAR is edging in on its 10th race of the year. And yet? The two drivers who paced most of last season still aren’t Sprint Cup race winners. What gives?

A year ago after eight races, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson had taken home half of the checkered flags — two apiece. With both currently standing at zero, it’s easy to note the odd turn of events especially in light of NASCAR’s playoff system overhaul that placed more emphasis on regular season wins.

Friday morning at Richmond, Johnson didn’t exactly beam with confidence.

“We suck here. We’re terrible. Hopefully we’re a lot better this weekend,” Johnson said. “The last couple of trips here especially — we’ve been junk.”

A three-time track winner, Johnson’s candid remarks seem a bit of a stretch. But as of late, Johnson’s Richmond sledding hasn’t been easy. He’s landed just one top 10 in the last five races against two finishes of 31st or worse.

Kenseth, meanwhile, is trending toward his second win at the track. He notched two top-10 finishes last season at RIR and led more laps in the spring race than any of his previous Richmond starts.

What to make of Swan Racing’s surprising downfall?
Parker Kligerman doesn’t have a ride this weekend at Richmond and Cole Whitt will be in a No. 26 officially owned by another team. The No. 30 was sold and Swan Racing has technically become dormant — if not dead.

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That’s a quick departure from the team’s previously announced plans to race full-time in 2014 with both cars.

But it’s indicative of what can happen to underfunded teams that start a season in a miserable fashion. Swan started 2014 with five DNFs, zero lead lap finishes and a best of 18th (Whitt) in California. The team also lost several race cars at Daytona thanks to both race and practice crashes.

Those results combined with team owner Brandon Davis unsuccessfully locating external funding — his self-owned oil company was footing the majority of the team’s bill — led Swan to its current position. It’s not an indictment of Davis, Kligerman or Whitt. It’s just a fact of life in today’s NASCAR that has little room for startups and small budgets.

Early strength missing again from Kasey Kahne  
Last we knew from Kasey Kahne, he was leaving a dark Darlington Raceway garage area without comment. He had just crashed his No. 5 and hit hard enough to prevent repair. Expectedly, Kahne wasn’t pleased.

Kahne’s crash continued a season marked by both the ho-hum and the disappointing. He finished eight laps off the pace at Daytona and has averaged a finish of 21st since. He’s 22nd in points.

It’s a trend Kahne has become all too familiar with — but one he seemed to break last year.

From 2009 to 2012, Kahne was a slow starter averaging a points standing rank of 19th after eight races. Last year, though, Kahne broke the cycle with a win and four top-5 finishes in the first eight races to sit second in points.

The King returns after wife’s passing
Seven-time NASCAR champion and team owner Richard Petty can’t remember the last time he was gone from racing for so long now that he’s back at the track following his wife’s passing.

“I have never been gone that long. Never,” Petty, 76, said in a team release Friday. “I have never missed two or three races in a row. Maybe one from time to time but never more than that.”

Petty’s wife Lynda passed away March 25 after a lengthy cancer battle. She was 72. Understandably, Petty needed time to his wife of 55 years.

“I just felt like I needed to sort of have a little time on (my) own so I have been gone for two or three weeks but I am back in the saddle again now,” Petty said. “I am just learning to live all over again.”

Lynda Petty, like her husband, was a fixture around the sport for decades.

“I am surviving. It is going to be different I guess,” Petty said. “After 55 years I have to start all over again. I was fortunate that all the kids came home for Easter. We had all the kids and grandkids home and that really made things work good.”

Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.