Sunday's wild finish at Talladega has been the talk all week, but that buzz will end Saturday at Richmond International Raceway, the site of another controversial finish last spring.

It occurred with two laps to go when Kyle Busch made contact with leader Dale Earnhardt Jr, sending him on a slow spin into the wall. Clint Bowyer, running third, drove underneath both cars and went on to victory.

When the resident bad boy knocks out the sport's biggest name, you know there is going to be fallout - and plenty of video replays before the running of Saturday night's Sprint Cup Series race at Richmond.

"When he wrecked Junior, there were a lot of number ones from the fans, and it wasn't with their index fingers," Bowyer recalled this week, "That was probably the most fun I've ever had winning a race. I've never had one of those surprise, shocker, hand-it-to-you wins, and I thought to myself 'wow, this is awesome'. I thought we were going to have a third-place finish and then, bam, that happened and we won."

Bowyer hasn't returned to victory lane since, and he enters Saturday's race on a string of poor finishes that have dropped him from second in the standings to eighth. Last week, he was caught up in 'the big one' early on at Talladega and finished 39th, adding to his previous two race results of 26th at Phoenix and 22nd at Texas.

Kurt Busch, however, emerged from Talladega with the points lead for the first time since early 2005, and heads to Richmond five points ahead of Jeff Gordon.

"Being in the points lead is great and is something to be proud of, but we know we have to keep all that pride and emotion in check," Busch said, "There is just so much more racing to be done. We can't let any of the early success we've enjoyed so far go to our heads."

Of Busch's 19 career Cup wins, seven have come at short tracks, including one at three-quarter-mile Richmond. He'll be driving the same car that finished sixth at New Hampshire last September, second at Phoenix in November and a third at Phoenix last month.

"Kurt really likes the car, and we all are confident that we can get the job done with it and reach our goal at Richmond on Saturday night," said crew chief Pat Tryson

Busch moved up two spots in the standings last week, following his sixth-place finish at Talladega, but has had mixed success at Richmond. In 16 career starts there, he has that one win - from September 2005 - two top fives and five top tens, but only an average finish of 19.1.

"I really enjoy racing at Richmond," he nevertheless admitted, "Both of the races there are pure excitement. They call Richmond the 'action track.' We can race low, we can race in the middle or you can race in the high groove. There's always some good action on the race track."

Richmond has also proven to be pivotal to the hopes of potential Chase for the Cup contenders, as nearly 80 per cent of the drivers who have been Chase-eligible coming out of the spring race there have gone on to qualify for the Chase, with the championship field set following the second Richmond race. As a result, the drivers know good and well that how they stand after Saturday night's 300-miler at the 0.75-mile D-shaped oval will serve as a good barometer in gauging their championship hopes.

Three-time defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson will be aiming for his fourth trip to Victory Lane at Richmond, as all three of his wins at RIR have come in the last two seasons, including last year's Chevy Rock & Roll 400 in September and a Richmond sweep in 2007. Considering his recent success at Martinsville Speedway as well, Johnson has been dominant in the Commonwealth of Virginia of late. winning five of the last six races at Martinsville dating back to 2006, and an amazing eight of the last ten Cup Series races in Virginia.

And what of Earnhardt Jr, who came so close last year? The #88 Chevy driver is looking to build upon some momentum he created with a second-place finish last week at Talladega. The finish moved Earnhardt up four positions in the point standings to 15th, currently 45 points out of the top 12. Richmond has been one of Earnhardt's most successful tracks, as he's posted three wins, eight top fives and ten top tens there, and he is hoping to extend that record this weekend.

"I like Richmond a lot," he emphasised, "We always thought we run good there 'cause it's a lot like Myrtle Beach, where I ran a lot in the late models. There's a lot of similarities.

"But I just like short-track racing. We seem to do really good on the short tracks. It's got a lot of different grooves that you can run. You can move around. I think it puts on one of the more exciting races in the season. It ranks right up there as some of the best.

"We just have to finish like we did Sunday, and not have any problems. I think we're doing a better job on pit-road. I think we changed some things around with individuals, and we got a little bit faster pit crew. Other than that, we have a couple of good race tracks coming up - we do pretty good at Darlington, and I always love running at Charlotte. I can't wait to get there....

"This year, we started out so slow and terrible, and we're in a hole now. We're going to be fighting our way to try to get in the Chase all year, I'm pretty sure. We're gonna have to step our performance up in the summer way beyond what we were capable of doing last year. That's gonna be what decides whether we make the Chase or not."

by Bill Marx
Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service

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