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Late caution puts Busch back on top

29 April 2012

After an uncharacteristically sluggish start to the new season, Kyle Busch shrugged off the early 2012 malaise that had seemingly been afflicting him, to return to victory lane at the circuit he knows best and which seems to suit him down to the ground in return.

"What up, boys: we're back!" yelled Busch over the team radio as he took the chequered flag.

Victory in this year's Saturday night floodlit event was the fourth consecutive spring win for Kyle on the three-quarter mile oval Richmond International Raceway, and came at the end of a three-hour event that just managed to dodge the weather fronts and showers moving through the Virginia area.

After rain earlier in the day and some frenzied work by the jet dryers, it had been a bit of a surprise to see the race get underway more-or-less on time - although there ended up being a five minute delay in the green flag, that was due to a glitch with some of the floodlights on the backstretch rather than the rain.

Polesitter Mark Martin led the field away and continued in the lead for the first 29 laps, after which his fellow front row starter Carl Edwards decided that it was his turn to get some clear air and he proceeded to lead the race through to lap 50, which is when NASCAR had scheduled a so-called 'competition' caution to enable all teams to bring their cars in to make changes and check out tyre wear on the track given that it had been washed clean by the rain since the last time the cars had been out for practice and qualifying on Friday.

Carl Edwards remained in front for the restart ahead of Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, and were ahead of a bumpy green flag for some of those behind them triggered by Jeff Gordon getting sideways as he put the power down and causing some contact with championship leader Greg Biffle and also with Kurt Busch. The incident put Gordon back onto pit road with a slashed tyre from the collision, putting him a lap down as the race continued under green; and also affected the Phoenix Racing car, leaving Busch off the pace and dropping backwards.

None of this affected the lead, and Edwards was driving away from the rest of the field and rapidly leaving Hamlin and Harvick behind. The only cars with any sort of comparable pace at this point appeared to be Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson who were working their way up into the top ten from poor starting positions.

A 60-lap green flag period came to an end on lap 116 when Kurt Busch spun on the front straightaway, although he managed to keep it off the wall. That allowed everyone to come in for pit stops under yellow, after which Edwards was back in front for the restart ahead of Hamlin, Harvick and Kyle Busch. Busch went side-by-side with Harvick for third place at the green flag and won the position, but it was another 30 laps before the #18 was able to catch Hamlin and make a successful play for second place. Harvick followed Busch past the #11 as Hamlin appeared on the wane, but Harvick himself was soon edged out by the still-surging Tony Stewart.

Stewart continued his march forward, getting past Busch and then as the race hit the halfway point (and therefore being 'legal', should a late shower roll in) Stewart made a run on his 2011 championship rival for the lead - and pulled it off, albeit only just in time for the next round of pit stops - the first of the night under green flag conditions - which saw him hand the spot back to Edwards again, after Edwards himself had won it back from Harvick who had had the best stop of all of the leaders. By contrast, Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. had poor stops, Busch falling back to eighth place as a result but still looking strong enough to make up the lost ground.

That would have to wait a little while, however, as the hundred-plus green flag stint came to an end with a debris caution on lap 227, which was good news for Greg Biffle who had just been knocked off the lead lap and was duly the recipient of the lucky dog free pass before the prompt restart.

Edwards got a great restart ahead of Jimmie Johnson (who absolutely did not!), Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch, already back to fifth place. Edwards was threatening to pull away into the distance, but Stewart hung on and over the next dozen laps challenged hard for the lead - and finally won it down the inside of turn 2 on lap 250, after which Edwards fell back to fourth as a result of losing the clean air that had suited the #99 so well up till then.

Stewart on the other hand almost had the reverse problem: after the #14 had been mighty at navigating traffic to get to the front, now it was there it seemed pegged by the challenge of Busch's #18 and Johnson's #48. The two of them finally made their move past the current Cup champion on lap 286, leaving Stewart speculating that he had a tyre going down on him although not sure enough of the problem to take to pit road ahead of the next round of pit stops.

A few cars that had stayed out during the last caution to get a lap back through the wave-around had to pit first, among them Joey Logano, Casey Mears and Marcos Ambrose - the Australian having made the start despite suffering from back-spasms before the start that had led Richard Petty Motorsports to line up Trevor Bayne as a possible mid-race replacement for Ambrose should he be unable to see out the full 400 laps.

Kyle Busch was among those sounding the official starting gun on lap 307 for what was looking like being just a bit too early to the final round of pit stops of the night. Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson were also in over successive laps, but Carl Edwards missed his entry at just the moment when Jeff Burton managed to find the wall in turn 4 and give it a sharp hit.

With NASCAR trying not to affect the race with a caution in the middle of a round of pit stops, officials tried not to immediately bring out the caution for Burton's hit but then found that the impact had left debris on the track that could not be ignored, and that there was no option but to throw the yellow.

Edwards had been the only driver not to have pitted before the caution, but with only four cars classed on the lead lap it didn't seem like much of a big deal for him to come in under the caution. Certainly not as bad as the turn that Jimmie Johnson's race had just taken: a penalty imposed after one of his crewmen rolled a tyre unattended toward the pit wall put him at the back of the field for the restart.

"I think a wheel got away or something on the pit stops," Johnson confirmed. "Equipment leaving the pit box required us to go to the tail end of the lead lap. We had a couple of little mistakes like that today unfortunately. We had a really fast race car."

In the meantime, Kyle Busch was able to pull off a cunning move: although off Edwards' lead lap when the caution initially came out, he was classified in the lucky dog position and promoted back up - allowing him to then follow Edwards onto pit lane for a second 'free' pit stop for fuel and new tyres, while still lining up for the restart in third place. behind Edwards and Stewart.

Or was it Stewart and Edwards? This was no minor query of style or etiquette: in fact, it was about to decide the race. Edwards was told that he was on pole for the restart and despite his own private doubts he acted accordingly as the green flag came out; but NASCAR had a different view of the situation. They had Stewart listed as the leader, and that meant Edwards had technically jumped the start.

"Right before that start, my spotter Jason Hedleskey was told by NASCAR officials that the #99 was the leader," he said later. "Jason told me and I had a split second to decide what I was going to do. I thought, okay, NASCAR made a mistake and they lined us up wrong.

"I thought I was getting the best start I could get, it looked like Tony waited or spun his tyres," continued Edwards. "So they black flagged me. I still don't understand why they black flagged me. They said we were the leader and I restarted the best I could.

"I don't think it is right and I don't agree with it," finished Edwards, still unclear at the time exactly what the reason for the black flag had been for. "Before I say something stupid because I am real frustrated I would like to go talk to them."

"We were the first one to line up and we were the leader on the board," insisted Stewart for his part. "I don't know how much clearer it could be that we were the leader. If that was the case then they should have put the caution out and given him the opportunity to choose the lane that he wanted. It's a miscommunication between upstairs and the drivers," he added.

That dropped Edwards down to 15th place although he stayed on the lead lap at least, while Stewart, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne and AJ Allmendinger led the race up front. With 50 laps to go it was emerging as a two-man race, with Stewart in control but Busch riding those fresher tyres for all they were worth so that both men were pulling away from Earnhardt behind them.

Edwards' fury was complete on lap 373 when Tony Stewart put him a lap down; Stewart now had a 1.8s lead over Busch and was starting to look a dead cert for the win, while further back Jimmie Johnson had clawed his way from that tyre violation drive-thru to get back up to sixth place behind Hendrick Motorsport team mate Kasey Kahne, while Allmendinger's pace had dropped off a cliff after light contact with Juan Montoya and he fell out of the top ten altogether.

With just 15 laps to go, it seemed that Stewart had broken Busch's resolve and was now three seconds ahead; but a lap later, a stray waterbottle in turn 2 was enough to trigger a debris caution and suddenly all bets were off for the restart.

All the leaders came in for a fuel top-up and more over a full set of new tyres - even Busch, who had sneaked in that 'free' stop during the previous caution. He couldn't afford to be caught out on older rubber than the others for the last ten-lap shoot-out or else he would be swamped, but he did at least get the best pit stop of those who came in and popped to the front for the restart, while Tony Stewart's stop was slightly sluggish and he had to settle for second on the more difficult, dirtier line.

Busch got a great restart; but Stewart - as had been his frustrating habit all evening - spun his wheels. Not only wasn't he able to stick with the #18, but he was also passed for second place by Dale Earnhardt Jr. who was determined to stick as close to Busch as he possibly could.

Earnhardt's challenge for the victory was thwarted by a last-minute brake issue, and while he had just enough to stay in front of Stewart there was nothing he could do about the race winner.

"We had some brake problems all race long," explained Earnhardt later. "I had a great re-start and I ran really great for one lap and the pedal went back to the floor. I just had to pump it up all the way down the straightaway and I didn't have any front brakes getting into the corner so I couldn't get in real hard. It would just get loose locking the rears up."

However, Earnhardt was quick to add that he didn't think he could have changed the result even without the last-minute issue: "Even with the brakes working, I think the #18 was just a little bit better than us all night."

"I don't know where that last caution came from, but it was our saving grace," said Kyle Busch in victory lane. "It was a gift. We came down pit road and Dave Rogers and the guys went to work and gave us a great pit stop, got me out front ... That was the win right there.

"No catching Stewart without that caution," Busch admitted. "I was losing half a tenth to a tenth on every lap to what Tony was doing up there. He was just so fast ... I hate it for him that we had a caution like that. He deserved to win the race."

Stewart was indeed clearly unhappy with the way that the race victory had slipped through his fingers when it had been all-but assured: "When the caution is for a plastic bottle on the backstretch, it's hard to feel good about losing that one," he said.

Stewart's competition director Greg Zipadelli sympathised with his boss's evident disappointment. "He's got the right [to be] because he drove his ass off. Nobody gave him anything. He started in the back, qualified [in 22nd] and worked his tail off and passed a lot of race cars," he said. "It's a shame that when you're that good, a caution comes out with [12 laps] to go and changes the outcome of the race because of circumstances."

But for Busch, it was a wonderful end to a successful weekend at Richmond, coming on top of his maiden win as a nationwide Series team owner the previous night, watching from pit road as his brother Kurt had raced to victory. On the whole, Richmond is the place to be this week if your surname is 'Busch'.

In the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, Greg Biffle continues to lead but now by just five points over this season's surprising Mr Consistency so far, second-place man Dale Earnhardt Jr. Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth also continue to run the leader close, while a poor Richmond for Martin Truex Jr. drops him back three spots this week. Tony Stewart is in eighth place in the standings just ahead of Carl Edwards, while race winner Kyle Busch climbs two places in the positions to 11th.

Full race results and championship standings available.


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