Busch breaks through with fourth straight victory at Richmond
After past difficulties, Kyle Busch came through with big win at Richmond
An ill-timed restart error likely cost Carl Edwards a chance at the checkered flag
Tony Stewart's pit crew botched a pit stop late that spoiled his shot at a victory
It wouldn't be a Saturday night at the short tracks of NASCAR without controversy, and there was plenty of that in Saturday night's Capital City 400 at Richmond International Raceway. The controversy involved the two drivers that battled it out for last year's Sprint Cup title.
A black flag on a restart proved costly to Carl Edwards, who was trying to win his first race of the year, and that appeared to give Tony Stewart a chance to score his third win in the first nine races of the season.
But not so fast.
A late-race caution allowed Kyle Busch to get out of the pits ahead of Stewart, breaking a 22-race winless streak to take the spring race at Richmond for the fourth year in a row, barely beating out Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
It was a fantastic weekend for Busch, who scored his first NASCAR Nationwide Series victory as a team owner when older brother Kurt drove to the win on Friday night at Richmond.
There were many great storylines that came out of Saturday night, so let's get to the five best in Five Things We Learned from NASCAR at Richmond:
1. Busch breaks through in a big way. Entering Saturday night's race Kyle Busch was in a group of top-name NASCAR stars that hadn't won a race this season. He had great company because drivers such as Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Jeff Gordon have all remained winless this season.
But Busch's story goes much deeper. He was suspended by NASCAR for intentionally crashing Ron Hornaday, Jr. in a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Texas Motor Speedway, falling into disfavor with team owner Joe Gibbs and major sponsor M&M's. Already considered by many NASCAR fans as public enemy No. 1, Busch knew he had to grow up and do it fast. He even doubted himself after his case of road rage nearly cost him his ride.
So when the 2012 season began, Busch may have been overly cautious to maintain his good behavior. Rather than rough it up with his competition, he has decided to race clean. But the results did not follow suit until he had his chance Saturday night at Richmond.
Stewart was the leader when NASCAR threw a yellow flag because of debris on the racetrack. Stewart and Busch led the contenders onto pit road but Busch's crew was able to get him out of the pits in the lead.
The green flag flew with nine laps to go alongside Stewart, whose car got slightly sideways. That allowed Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to dive underneath Stewart for second place as Busch sailed away with the lead. Earnhardt tried to track down Busch's Toyota with five laps to go with a good run off the corners, but laps were running out for Earnhardt to try to break his 138-race winless streak.
It was Busch's 24th career Cup victory and his fourth in a row in the spring race at Richmond. In fact, Busch has finished in the top five in every spring race he has ever started at Richmond.
"I have a great team and great cars and being aggressive when it matters but saving your tires for the end," Busch said. "That last caution was our saving grace at the end. Racing this car is fun, man."
When Busch began his Cup career he was at Hendrick Motorsports. He was let go by the team in 2007 and replaced by Earnhardt, who finished second to the race winner at Richmond.
"We had some brake problems all race long and I ran really great for one lap and had to pump it up all the way down the straightaway," Earnhardt said. "Even with the brakes working the 18 (Busch) was better than us all night. It was a great car and it's been fun this year."
Busch went to Victory Lane on Friday night as the winning team owner helping his older brother Kurt celebrate their first Nationwide win together. Kyle was emotional after watching Kurt hold off the sliding Denny Hamlin at the checkered flag.
"This is the most emotional I've ever been for a win," said Kyle, himself a prolific past winner in the No. 18 Toyota that Hamlin drove Friday night. "Man, this is cool. When you're behind the wheel, it's a lot easier to do. When you're standing here watching the guy behind you close in on you ... Kurt ran him really tough, and then Denny ran us clean."
Older brother Kurt, who is also trying to clean up his image, spoke of how much that victory meant to Kyle.
"He just couldn't believe that we got this car to victory lane," Kurt said Friday night. "You could just feel his hand trembling of, 'I'm an owner. I don't know what to think,' but he knows he could have drove this car today as well. I'm so proud of you. He (Kyle) told me what to do driving at like lap 40 and I was like, 'Here we go. Here's the owner telling the driver how to drive.'"
Friday night's Nationwide victory may have been emotional, but Saturday night's Cup win was satisfying to Kyle Busch. When it comes to raw racing talent, Busch is in the same category as three-time Cup champion Stewart and five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.
Now that he has finally found his winning stride, look for Busch to kick it into high gear in the upcoming races on the schedule. And for the driver that turns 27 this coming Wednesday, maybe he is finally coming of age.
2. To go or not to go -- that is the question. Carl Edwards thought he was the race leader as the field headed to the restart on lap 82 but it was actually Tony Stewart. So when Edwards hit the gas before the restart box on the front stretch, it appeared that Stewart laid back just enough to magnify Edwards' mistake.
Edwards got black-flagged for jumping the start when NASCAR ruled Stewart was the leader and Edwards left before the restart box which ruined Edwards's shot at the victory while crew chief Bob Osborne tried to plead his case to NASCAR officials on pit road.
Edwards was able to serve the pass-through penalty without losing a lap but it took away any legitimate shot he had at winning the race.
"Did we get the black flag because we beat the 14 or did we get the black flag because we went early?" Edwards asked on the team's radio.
"Both," Osborne said.
"Both?" Edwards asked. "How can it be both?"
"NASCAR told me you weren't the leader," Osborne said.
"That's a way to get a race taken from you like that," Edwards said.
After the race, Edwards tried to explain his position when he saw a replay of the restart.
"I'll try not to say something stupid," Edwards said. "Right before that start my spotter told me the 99 (Edwards) is the leader. I thought about getting the best start I could get right then. It looks like Tony waited -- or spun his tires -- but they black-flagged me. I restarted the best I could given the restart position I was in. If NASCAR says I jumped the start that would be real frustrating."
NASCAR race control said that Edwards was never scored as the leader on that restart and that is why he was handed the black flag. That appeared to be all Stewart needed to win the race but the final yellow flag. Edwards met with NASCAR officials after the race to get a better understanding of why he was penalized.
"We had to just agree to disagree and that's the way it is," Edwards said. "They run the sport and they do the best job they can, and I drive a race car and do the very best job I can. I'd rather not say what was said in there. This whole thing is very frustrating. I don't feel like we did the wrong thing."
In 48 short-track starts Edwards had never led the most laps until Saturday night's race. But the lap he wasn't the leader is the one that cost him the race.
At lap 250 it seemed like old times as Stewart and Edwards battled each other reminiscent of last year's Chase for the Championship when the two drivers tied for the points title with Stewart winning on tiebreaker of most victories. Stewart was able to pass Edwards' Ford with each preparing for the final portion of the race before both drivers would encounter mistakes that proved costly.
3. For Stewart, it's the pits. When NASCAR officials saw debris on the race course and decided to throw the yellow flag with 13 laps left, Stewart was in command of the race but saw his advantage disappear. But he lost the lead when his team botched the final pit stop which allowed Busch to get off pit road just ahead of Stewart in what would determine the outcome of the race.
"When there is a caution for a plastic bottle on the backstretch it's hard to feel good about losing that one and then we gave it away on pit road," Stewart said. "We did everything we could to throw it away and it got taken away from us. We have some work to do on pit stops right now. I don't know what their malfunction was but I'm pretty ticked off about it."
4. Johnson also had pit road cost him a chance to win. Jimmie Johnson was able to overcome a 27th-place starting position to race his way to second place by lap 235. But in a series of pit-stop errors, Johnson got nailed for a penalty when his crew member rolled a tire back to the wall during confusion on the pit stop -- a violation of NASCAR rules which sent Johnson to the back of the longest line on the restart.
Johnson finished sixth despite his pit-road penalty
"It's racing and we had a tire get away from us and that put us toward the back but we had a very fast race car," Johnson said. "To pass 70 race cars all night long was great. Mistakes happen and I hate it when it lands on my shoulders. I don't want to beat anyone up."
Johnson's winless streak is now at 15 races but it's only a matter of time before he finally gets back to Victory Lane.
5. Jeff Gordon can't catch a break. Jeff Gordon had one of the most competitive cars in the race at the drop of the green flag. Too bad he didn't have the same dominance at the drop of the second green flag. It was during the first restart of the race that Gordon made contact with several cars, including Kurt Busch, and his car suffered a cut tire. Gordon had to pit under green flag conditions and dropped two laps down to the leaders and was never a factor again finishing 23rd.
Gordon's season of bad luck continues and at the one-quarter mark of the schedule the four-time Cup champion could already be in jeopardy of making the 12-driver Chase for the Championship.