The three-quarter mile Richmond International Raceway short track has traditionally been a happy hunting ground for race title sponsors Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing, and in particular for Kyle Busch who has won the spring race here for the last four years in a row. But this year it was the Chevrolet-powered Richard Childress Racing #29 that surprised them all and surged to a late race-winning lead in the confusion of a green-white-chequered finish.
It had started off with JGR looking in top form, with Matt Kenseth effortlessly converting pole position ahead of his team mate Brian Vickers to an easy early lead for the first 36 laps of the 400-lap race. Clint Bowyer - another Toyota entry in the Michael Waltrip Racing #15 - finally reeled Kenseth back in and took the lead, but Kenseth promptly took it back in the race off pit road under the first caution of the night on lap 42 for Josh Wise going for a slide in turn 3 after contact with Landon Cassill.
After the restart, Kenseth led the entirety of the next 69-lap green flag stint, pushing his margin over the rest of the field to over two seconds despite reporting some handling issues. The #20 was also sporting an errant piece of metal from the rear right side skirt that NASCAR required the team to attend to during the next round of pit stops, which took place under a caution on lap 111 after Marcos Ambrose's engine oil pressure died and left him coasting back to pit road.
“This is so disappointing for us. it appears we've blown an engine," said the Australian. "The racing gods aren't on our side this year. We were fast tonight and ran top ten. We are proud of that and will have to regroup and go to Talladega."Full race results
| Kevin Harvick interview
| Championship standings
That did cost Kenseth a few extra seconds in his pit stall, and so the race lead was handed back to Clint Bowyer - who liked the view up front so much that he stayed there for the next 107 laps. That included two more cautions, one for fluid on the backstretch on lap 146 and another for Brad Keselowski getting a puncture on lap 158 and ending up in the wall at turn 1, inflicting damage on the #2 that took much of the rest of the race to overcome and get back into contention. "It was a freak deal where something in the wheel broke and let all the air out of the tyres," explained Keselowski.
Once past mid-distance, Bowyer's pace started to drop off and Matt Kenseth reclaimed the lead again on lap 219. He was in front when Greg Biffle went for a spin through the infield grass on lap 232 after an evening spent battling with a broken shock absorber. Kenseth retained the lead by winning the race off pit road ahead of both Busch brothers, Kurt just ahead of younger sibling Kyle and then Jimmie Johnson in fourth ahead of Bowyer.
Kenseth continued to lead for another 14 laps at the restart but the bloom was now off the #20 and when his JGR team mate Kyle Busch took over at the front it was the last that Kenseth would see of the lead all evening, although he would never stray disastrously too far from the front. Kyle's own stint at the top lasted exactly 40 laps until Travis Kvapil brought out the sixth caution of the night on lap 293 by hitting the wall in turn 3; Kyle was then narrowly beaten off pit road by his brother with Carl Edwards also looking spritely in third place.
Kurt Busch led at the green flag and weathered a second restart after a second Kvapil-sparked caution on lap 309 as the damaged #93 leaked fluid onto the track as it limed into retirement. The timing of this new caution meant strategy came into play, with several cars including those of Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson opting to pit.
NASCAR looked set to ruin Kyle's strategy by handing the #18 a drive-thru penalty for not meeting the rules about observing the commitment line on pit entry: "Leave it to NASCAR or someone else to make a bad decision on your behalf - right, Joe?" radioed Busch, referring to the beating that Joe Gibbs and his team had taken at the hands of NASCAR officials midweek. But it seems that miracles do happen after all: after listening to the team's arguments that no special instructions had been handed down in the pre-race driver's meeting, NASCAR rescinded the penalty - a practically unheard-of occurrence.
Others drivers including race leaders Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards preferred to nurse their track position advantage for the time being, and it turned out that there's was the wiser call: eight laps after the restart, Jimmie Johnson found himself in the middle of the pack, tangling with Tony Stewart. The #14 got loose in turn 2 and took it out on Johnson, who was tipped into a spin of his own.
"Sorry guys, it was 100 per cent my fault," Stewart radioed. "Would you please go down and tell the #48 I'm sorry?”
Kyle Busch, approaching the accident scene at some speed, sought to avoid the incident only to end up getting trapped against the inside retaining wall and hit hard by the #48. Johnson escaped with mostly cosmetic damage, but the #18 JGR car was more significantly wounded and had to make repeated calls to pit road for repairs.
While able to continue running, Kyle Busch soon went a lap down and only got the free pass back onto the lead lap in the very last caution of the race. That at least allowed him to salvage 24th place, but it was a disappointing outcome to one of his favourite, strongest venues - and an end to that four-race winning streak at Richmond in the springtime.
Most of the leaders who'd stayed out before now opted to pit, with Juan Pablo Montoya and Kevin Harvick staying out to lead the field to the green flag; but it was a short run before the next caution, caused by a heavy crash between Kasey Kahne and Mark Martin on the backstretch that also caught up Brian Vickers. Harvick opted to pit this time around leaving Montoya in charge of things alongside Martin Truex Jr., but the latter driver got spun out at the restart by a nudge from behind from Kurt Busch that forced an immediate return to yellow once again.
"He had me hooked on the straightaway," said Truex later. "I was trying to stay up the race track, but he had me in the left rear and he was kind of driving me down the straightaway a little bit ... He had me jacked up the whole way.
"When he let off, my car got on the left rear and went straight and then I got up in the marbles and then I just had to spin it out," he continued. "It was either spin it out in the marbles or drive it straight in the fence. He just had us in a bad position and wouldn't let off the gas.
"I was going to give him the inside going into three - I had given him the whole inside the lap before that," Truex added. "I ran him hard, I ran him tight, but I gave him plenty of room. He didn't need to do that. He was driving in over his head trying to get a win I guess."
Finally the race got underway again with 51 laps to run, and Montoya was looking in top form as he started to pull away from Kurt Busch. It was easily the best performance from the Colombian in a couple of years - and not too shabby for Kurt either. However both men were nursing older tyres and vulnerable to someone making a late charge on fresher rubber. That man proved to be Kevin Harvick, who soon ousted Kurt from second spot and set his sights on hunting down the leader - but as the final laps ticked away it seemed that Harvick wasn't going to be able to make it. The biggest threat to Montoya was the prospect of a late race caution, since on his older tyres he would be easy prey at a tightly packed restart for any cars that had stopped later.
Montoya held his breath when Brad Keselowski slowed on the track with ten laps remaining: the Ford engine in the #2 had dropped a cylinder, just after the reigning Cup champion had managed to race his way back from that earlier puncture and hit against the wall. Fortunately for the Colombian, Keselowski's problems didn't bring out a yellow.
"Something broke in the engine," signed Keselowski of a fruitless hard night's work." I thought I had a tyre going down again and didn't ... Then whatever happened with the engine. It was just one of those deals and a long day but we kept finding a way to get back through all the adversity but there was nothing we could do about the last one.
"We got hit by a lot of freak deals tonight," he added. "I felt like we would have a top ten day at the worst. We were on the same strategy as Kevin and he won the race - it would have been a great battle!"
It looked like Montoya had been given the all-clear to bring the #42 to victory lane for the first time in 94 races; and then disaster struck as Brian Vickers went into the wall in turn 3 with six laps remaining. That would force the race into overtime - a two-lap green-white-chequered sprint to the finish - and moreover meant that everyone needed to make a call about whether to pit beforehand for fresh tyres.
Many considered it a no-brainer. They'd be sitting ducks on tyres with more than 60 laps on them to anyone on a fresh set, so a majority of cars streamed in to pit lane leaving only those with little to lose and possibly everything to gain to stay out: Jeff Burton, Jamie McMurray and AJ Allmendinger led the field round for climactic shootout, with Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart and Juan Pablo Montoya ready to pounce on fresh rubber.
Instead, all six got punk'd by the driver in seventh place. Kevin Harvick got an astonishing run and stormed past all of them, even his RCR team mate Burton, to take the lead by the time the leaders came round and took the white flag.
"That was a heck of a first lap of the restart," grinned the race winner. "I thought that the outside line might have the advantage because it had a couple of guys with new tyres in the second row, and lined up on the outside.
"It all worked out, and here we are," he added. "I just want to thank everybody. It's been a tough start to the season [even though] our cars have been really fast ... It was a great night."
He'd certainly laid to rest speculation that he and the team would be lame ducks in 2013, after the announcement that he is leaving RCR for Tony Stewart's team at the end of the year. "A lot of people thought we might lay down this year," said Harvick as he received a hug in victory lane from team owner Richard Childress. "There ain't no way with that game, is there?"
Everyone else was left scrambling for the leftover scraps, with Bowyer emerging in second place ahead of Joey Logano and the near-winner Montoya having to settle for a disappointing fourth place in the end ahead of Jeff Burton and Carl Edwards.
"We had a good car, we just didn't have a great car," admitted the runner-up, Clint Bowyer. "It really got wild there at the end, I was just lucky enough to be on the bottom. They started making holes up there in front of me and the seas parted, and I just followed suit behind Harvick."
"P***ed off," replied Montoya when asked how he was feeling. "We made the right calls when we pitted and when we stayed out and everything, but we got that caution at the end and it was a no-brainer to take tyres. I think what hurt us is we restarted on the outside and when you restart on the outside and people got really bad tires, everything packs up. And when you're on the outside, you can't; where are you going to jump?"
As for Burton, he explained his decision to stay out under that final yellow despite knowing full well that he's pay for it at the restart: "We were seventh there," he said. "The caution came out and what the heck, we might as well try something. ... Obviously new tyres a lot better, but [it was] worth a shot. We were going to maybe finish sixth without the caution so to pick up a spot from it was worth a shot."
Longtime leader Matt Kenseth completed the race in seventh place just in front of Aric Almirola. "It was up and down," said Kenseth of his evening. "In the beginning of the race, we were real strong and in the middle of the race we probably had a fifth to sixth-place car or something like that."
He added it had been a wild finish: "Just two laps, everybody is going to go for it and go for every hole they've got," he said. "If I could have drawn the inside line instead of the outside line then maybe I could have ran second. Just starting on the top you knew they were going to be three and four-wide and it was just tough."
As Harvick performed his celebratory burnouts, the fireworks were going off elsewhere: Tony Stewart was taking serious exception to being nudged wide from behind by Kurt Busch in the final stages of the race, a move that dropped him from fifth place all the way to 18th at the flag. He expressed his displeasure by repeatedly muscling the #78 in the side as the two headed back to pit road.
"It's a free-for-all at the end," said Busch. "There is rubber build-up in the outside groove. There are cars sliding up with old tyres. So, I don't know what the #14 was upset about. I got hit from behind, I got hit every which-way. So did he."
It wasn't just Stewart upset with him: Busch, who finally finished in ninth place, likely won't be the most popular man in the NASCAR paddock as he'd tried similar hard-nosed tricks on a number of other drivers during the closing laps.
"That last restart, just being on the outside and the #78 drove up through there and knocked my whole side off and put me in the marbles," grumbled Kenseth.
"I'll remember if we get in that position again what I'll do to Kurt," fumed Truex, recalling being spun out of the front at an earlier restart. "Just destroyed the back of the car."
Behind Busch there was a threesome of Hendrick Motorsports drivers: a newly-beardless Dale Earnhardt Jr. captured the final top ten place, with Jeff Gordon in 11th and Jimmie Johnson nursing the damaged #48 home in 12th, a solid result in the circumstances that means his lead in the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship standings is now 43pts over Carl EdwardsFull race results
| Kevin Harvick interview
| Championship standings