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Busch stretches fuel to win at Richmond

1 May 2011

Kyle Busch and his Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Denny Hamlin stormed to the front of the field during an opening green flag stint of 107 laps, then managed to survive an eventful mid-section of the race that saw numerous cautions one of which claimed the scalp of Jeff Gordon, and then pursued a knife-edge fuel conservation strategy to get them to the end of an 86-lap green flag finish to the race.

The floodlights were already blazing as polesitter Juan Montoya led the field to the green flag at 7.45pm alongside Regan Smith, both drivers hoping for a famous win at Richmond International Roadway despite it being a traditional stronghold of the Joe Gibbs Racing duo of Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin.

Hamlin was starting from 11th but Kyle was all the way back in 20th and looked to have some work ahead of him, so for the first 25 lap of the race Montoya was able to cruise around untroubled. Smith, on the other hand, was immediately losing positions to Clint Bowyer, Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne.

Montoya had a good lead over Bowyer up to lap 25 when he came up on the back markers. He needed to start negotiating traffic but found his handling too tight to mention. Straight away he was dropping back like a stone and quickly shuffled down to fourth place, with Bowyer and Kahne taking up the lead.

As the race hit lap 60, Kahne, Bowyer and Gordon continued to run in the top three spots, but ominously Denny Hamlin was now up to fourth place - and running right behind him was Kyle Busch, having worked his way steadily up from that disappointing qualifying position. Hamlin continued to apply the pressure, and finally on lap 73 he passed Kasey Kahne at the start/finish line to become the fourth leader of the night.

There had been no caution so far, and with Richmond International Raceway being a scant three quarter mile oval in length the leaders were now starting to lap some big names: Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Marcos Ambrose were already off the lead lap and Hamlin was also soon past Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte and Jimmie Johnson as the first round of pit stops loomed.

Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne all hit pit road on lap 88, with Hamlin staying out an extra lap and suffering from a slow pit stop. Kyle's crew were, as ever, lightning fast and so the #18 took over the top spot on lap 90, with Hamlin dropping down to fourth behind Bowyer and Mark Martin. Hamlin managed to pass Martin to reclaim third position as the race topped 105 laps of unbroken green flag racing.

But Ryan Newman and Juan Montoya were about to put a stop to that: they had been racing hard coming onto the backstretch when Newman clipped Montoya's rear bumper and bumped him into hard contact with the outside wall. The incident itself didn't trigger a caution, but debris from Montoya's #42 forced race control's hand and the yellow was out on lap 107.

"He crashed himself, basically," said an unrepentant Newman afterwards. "I don't know if he didn't know he wasn't clear or what but he crashed himself off of turn 2. I don't know if he thought it was me on purpose, but the message was delivered that it wasn't intentional."

Montoya needed multiple stops under the caution to allow his pit crew time to repair the bodywork, which meant he dropped to 22nd but stayed on the lead lap. The caution also allowed other cars to come in and do some much-needed fine-tuning: Jimmie Johnson needed the #48 tightening up, Bowyer needed an air adjustment - but the JGR duo were completely happy and just took four tyres and gas and were good to go again.

When the caution came out there had been 20 cars on the lead lap, with Brad Keselowski the first car a lap down and duly in line to receive the free pass before the green flag came out, just thwarting Tony Stewart who had been next in line before Keselowski was passed by Busch. Bobby Labonte, Travis Kvapil and Dale Earnhardt Jr. also got back on the lead lap by opting to stay out and take the wave-around rather than pit.

Racing resumed on lap 115 and after a three-wide restart, Kyle Busch once again leapt away in the lead with Denny Hamlin while Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer tussled over third. Busch didn't have the same edge during this part of the race, however, and confirmed it with a radio message to his pit crew: "We're a little bit tight on this set of tyres in the centre. A little loose off."

Another 70-lap green flag stint ensued. Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson made contact early on but without any major consequences, although Johnson was off the lead lap and down into 30th; Montoya (the "wounded #42" as Kyle's spotter dubbed him) was soon a lap down too, and so were Paul Menard, Bobby Labonte, Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and several others. On the plus side, several drivers were quietly plugging away and putting together some very solid performances, such as Jamie McMurray, David Reutimann and Greg Biffle (running around 12th-14th positions).

The next yellow came out on lap 185 for debris coming off the #22 of Kurt Busch that had got up into the wall on the previous lap. Earnhardt Jr was the recipient of the free pass this time around as the leaders hit pit road, and now everyone was having to dial in adjustments to compensate for the cooling evening conditions: Gordon asked for a track bar adjustment, Hamlin a right-rear tweak, and Busch acting on that earlier observation about being tight with an air pressure adjustment.

Kyle certainly looked instantly better for it and leapt away in the lead at the double file restart; Jeff Gordon used the opportunity to follow him through on the inside to get past Denny Hamlin for second, and a few laps later found he had the track position and raw speed to force his way past the #18 as well to take the lead, although Busch fought back and the position see-sawed between the two over the next few laps.

But there was trouble brewing elsewhere on track. Ryan Newman had survived his earlier collision with Juan Montoya with no ill effects and was running a strong eighth position, but he was coming up on the back of Montoya who was two laps down. And Montoya was looking for some payback: sure enough on lap 236 he was able to send the #39 spinning around and into the wall, where he promptly collected a hapless Kurt Busch as well and brought out the third caution of the evening.

"He finished our day off later in the race, on purpose," said Newman. "I'd say right now it probably isn't a good time for either of us to talk."

Denny Hamlin spoke up instead with his view of the situation: "Every time Montoya has damage, you see who did it, they usually end up getting wrecked. You usually know that's coming, " he said. "Montoya, I like him, I think he's a hell of a driver, but you can't wreck everyone every time you get in an accident. Accidents happen. Guys make mistakes. Why hold grudges? Makes it tough to get in the Chase, too."

More pit stops, more changes: Jeff Gordon was twiddling with his track bar again, Kyle Busch was making multiple adjustments, but Hamlin only required minor attention and duly got the better pit stop and emerged in front to lead at the restart, followed by Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer. Further back, the restart ironically lined up Montoya and Newman side-by-side, but NASCAR made their annoyance with the simmering grudge match known and told Montoya to run clean for the rest of the night or he would be disqualified altogether.

Kyle jumped the restart and had to slow up, which presented Martin Truex Jr. with the opportunity to get past and surge from fourth place into the lead for the first time in the race. But the race was about to turn rather scrappy, with first a collision between Landon Cassill and Marcos Ambrose that Ambrose was lucky to save, and then a clash between Jimmie Johnson and Joey Logano that Logano wasn't able to save, the #20 sent spinning into contact with the wall that brought out the fourth yellow on lap 255. At least it finally gave Tony Stewart the opportunity he needed to claim the lucky dog and get back on the lead lap at long last.

Matt Kenseth and David Reutimann opted not to take to pit road and duly led the field at the restart, but the race almost immediately went back to yellow after Casey Mears spun in turn 1. The next restart attempt still had Kenseth in the top spot, followed by Kasey Kahne, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. with Reutimann down to fifth this time and clearly struggling with the older tyres.

The green lasted only nine laps this time before Brad Keselowski and Landon Cassill got together in turn 2. Keselowski was turned around but kept it off the wall, but the sixth caution had already been declared. A number of cars including Dale Earnhardt Jr., David Reutimann, Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart opted to pit at this point, leaving Hamlin at the head of the field leading Truex Jr., Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne to the restart.

Despite being very friendly as team mates, there was no love lost between Hamlin and Busch as they bumped and tussled side-by-side over the lead until Kyle finally got his way and reclaimed the top spot, and any response from Hamlin was postponed by the seventh caution which was for another spin and a stall by Keselowski; a couple of laps previously there had also been a multi-car clash between David Reutimann, Kurt Busch and Marcos Ambrose that had left Kurt with a nasty tyre rub that needed attention.

The leaders hit pit road leaving Carl Edwards minding the store at the front ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton, David Ragan and A.J. Allmendinger. But it proved to be a messy restart, the front getting bunched up and breaking out four-wide and inevitably the confusion had a knock-on effect through the field: with everyone running so close, a multi-car accident was just begging to happen and on lap 300 it duly occurred.

Jeff Gordon was the biggest loser in the ensuing wreck: he got spun and hit the wall hard after Clint Bowyer got into Matt Kenseth's right rear, which sent Kenseth loose and into Gordon. Menard, Reutimann, Martin, Bobby Labonte and Jamie McMurray all sustained varying levels of damage from the accident; Gordon's only comment over the radio was "Oh ****, that hurt," adding later: "It definitely got my attention. That is for sure. It rang my bell.

"It knocked the wind out of me," added Gordon, ruing the fact that he'd found one of the rare points of the track lacking a SAFER barrier to cushion the blow. "I just saw the corner through my mirror, a car come into my left rear, and around I went in a hurry. I was hoping that I spun quick enough that I wasn't going to spin to the inside wall. And then I hit really, really hard."

Gordon was out of the race, while the others involved all limped to pit road for running repairs. Jeff Burton stayed out and led Dale Earnhardt Jr., Greg Biffle, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin away at the restart on lap 313. The drivers would have been forgiven for expecting at least one further caution on the horizon after such a stop-start period in the race, but in fact they had seen their last yellow flag of the evening and the race now ran uninterrupted to the chequered flag. That wasn't entirely great news, because it meant almost everyone was very marginal on fuel, or just plain short.

Earnhardt Jr. squandered the restart opportunity by spinning his tyres, giving Kyle a free pass into second and from there able to go to the outside to best Jeff Burton as well and reclaim the lead. Burton was no match for Hamlin or Truex Jr. either and promptly dropped back to fourth. Everything now was coming down to fuel: Greg Biffle climbed up to third but would have to make another visit to pit lane as would Burton and Earnhardt Jr., while Kyle Busch was said to be "iffy". The best-placed drivers seemed to be Denny Hamlin and Kasey Kahne who were said to be good to reach lap 399-400 - and just hoped there wouldn't be any problems in the final laps extending the race distance through green/white checkered conditions.

Martin Truex Jr. was still in with a chance of making it all the way to the end, but then it all went pear-shaped for the #56 when he found he had a tyre going down on lap 371 and had to come into pit lane anyway; worse, he exited with a missing lugnut and got black flagged to come back in, which ended up with him three laps off the lead and his race irretrievably wrecked.

Kyle had a 1.7s advantage over his team mate with 20 to go, and while Hamlin started to cut into that lead it was the #11's pit chief Mike Ford that came on the road cautioning his man to save fuel or risk not making it to the finish. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was evidence of how costly this could be, when as predicted he came in for a late pit stop on lap 390 and dropped out of the top ten and two laps off the lead, down to 19th place by the chequered flag.

Everyone held their breath as the cars took the white flag and started their final lap: but there was to be no last minute shocks of cars stuttering to a halt. Everyone left on track now had enough to make that last revolution, and Kyle had enough left in the tank to stop Hamlin from threatening - although not, it turned out, enough to carry out his traditional post-race burn-outs after taking the chequered flag. "We were late to the celebration," admitted Busch after having to get a push into victory lane, but otherwise was delighted with how it had gone: "This is pretty awesome!"

"We knew pretty early on, [Kyle] was going to be tough," said Hamlin. "It's tough when you share notebooks. You know those guys have got exactly what you got." Hamlin gave it his all in his effort to make it a double-win weekend after his success in Friday's Nationwide race, but admitted "It's all we had. My plan was to really conserve the first part of the last run and let him go out there and run. I was going to just kind of sit back and wait and save my tyres [but] when I tried to make a run, I didn't have the grip I needed to close in enough."

The win is a great early birthday present for Kyle, who turns 26 on Monday. He won this race in 2009 and 2010 making this a hattrick of Crown Royal Presents 400 victories, and also makes him only the second driver (alongside Kevin Harvick) to win more than one race in 2011. It's Kyle's 21st Sprint Cup series victory in total, and Joe Gibbs Racing's 90th; and Busch's number of laps led so far this year (719) is now over twice that of any of his rivals. The win also helps boost him back up to third in the championship, after a difficult outing at Talladega saw him involved in a crash that resulted in him slumping to sixth in the points.

But Carl Edwards still leads the Sprint Cup series after bouncing back from a sluggish start to claim fifth place. "We were hoping we were in the right position there," he said afterwards. "We had fuel. I thought those guys were going to run out. I didn't think they would be able to make it but that is the way it goes. We are still leading the points and we have stretched it out a little bit which is great."

Another driver to stick with it after a dispiriting first half was Jimmie Johnson, down to 30th after clashing with Edwards early on but ending up finishing back on the lead lap in eighth thanks to that messy mid-race period of multiple cautions. "We got a good finish out of it but it was a long, long night," he said. "Hats off to the team for not giving up, for sticking with it and staying after it. We got the car semi-competitive and then finally got some strategy and finally got back on the lead lap and we went from there. So a frustrating night but a good points night."

Tony Stewart was another driver to bounceback and finish on the lead lap, but his frustration was evident. "We couldn't make our car turn for anything. I mean, we have a lot of work to do right now," he said. "We suck right now. I am embarrassed about how bad our stuff is." Despite that, Stewart is up two places in the points in tenth position.

Kasey Kahne was more upbeat after finishing in a strong third place - his best since switching to Red Bull Racing - despite recent surgery to his right knee. "It's actually a little bit tight, a bit swelled up maybe. But other than that, it feels fine. I never thought about it once throughout the race."

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Juan Montoya was quick to get away from the track as soon as possible without talking to the media, while Ryan Newman was heading for the Sprint Cup officials' mobile offices to discuss what had happened between himself and the Colombian. He wanted to know "just how to deal with things," he said going in, and afterwards confirmed "I got a few answers ... I'm not really sure the direction it's going to go, but I got a few answers."

We wait to see how those answers will play out between them on the track when NASCAR hits Darlington Raceway for another Saturday evening event, the Showtime Southern 500 on May 7.


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