RICHMOND — Richmond International Raceway lived up to its billing as “the home of racing excitement” on Saturday night as its 400-lap NASCAR race opened with a first-turn crash and ended with a furious four-car scramble that produced a familiar winner and scads of irked also-rans.
As Joey Logano exulted over his victory after streaking past a thicket of bumping and banging front-runners, the 18th-place finisher punched the 19th-place finisher in the face and at least three drivers rammed fifth-place Matt Kenseth to vent their anger over blocking efforts they felt had cost them a shot at the spoils.
And in between the first crash and the last, a rash of tire woes sparked flash fires under at least five cars, injuring no one but raising alarm about a new Goodyear rubber compound that’s proving more incendiary than durable.
“That was one of the wildest races with 10 [laps] to go I’ve ever seen,” said four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon, who finished second after leading a race-high 173 laps. “Joey was in the right position. He was really fast when Matt [Kenseth] was running every lane trying to win the race.”
Kyle Busch came home third, scarcely believing how many cars he passed after taking four fresh tires on the final restart rather than two.
“I was shaking in my seat at just how fast I was passing guys,” said Busch, who zoomed from 16th to third over the final eight laps. Busch credited the heroics to great tire-strategy by his crew chief and “bad-ass driving by me!”
With rain washing out Friday’s qualifying session, the starting order for the Toyota Owners 400 was set according to drivers’ practice speeds. That put rookie Kyle Larson on the pole, marking the first time the 21-year-old had led a 43-car Sprint Cup field into Turn 1.
Sadly, that’s as far as Larson got — the first turn of the opening lap — before he was rear-ended by Clint Bowyer and sent spinning into the wall. Bowyer motored on unscathed, voicing bewilderment via his radio over why Larson “cut back down” on him, essentially accusing the rookie of wrecking himself from behind.
Few saw it that way. And few could overlook the irony of Bowyer playing the meanie yet again at Richmond, where the last time NASCAR competed he was accused of intentionally wrecking to deny one rival the victory and help teammate Martin Truex Jr. clinch a spot in NASCAR’s 12-driver post-season. NASCAR responded by fining Bowyer’s team $300,000, suspending its president indefinitely, fining Bowyer $50,000 and replacing his teammate with the wronged driver in the postseason.
At three-quarters of a mile, the high banks and cramped confines of Richmond International Raceway make for thrilling racing for fans.
A certain amount of rubbing, scraping and flat-out wrecking is inevitable as drivers jockey for position over 400 laps.
But its irregular layout poses a challenge for mechanics because the chassis setups that make a racecar go fast through Turns 1 and 2 work at cross-purposes through Turns 3 and 4. There’s no such thing as a perfect-handling car at Richmond; the best a driver can hope for is a compromise he can manage.
And Saturday, complicating that challenge was the new Goodyear tire. As the race unfolded, it became clear the tire couldn’t stand up to the beating of a full fuel-run, wearing down before the gas tank emptied, which played havoc with pit strategy. Worse, in at least five cases, battered tires caught fire, the heat of shredded bits of rubber apparently igniting oil lines and brakes lines.
Bowyer was a bit early. He exited pit road with a small clump of burning rubber under his right front fender, and it erupted as the car gained speed. Bowyer was forced to return to the pits, the right front of his car melted and his windshield caked in tire smoke.
“I guess I got my payback,” Bowyer said, climbing from the car after conceding his night was over before the halfway point.
Meanwhile, Gordon charged through the field and seized the lead on Lap 103, with Logano and Brad Keselowski in hot pursuit.
Under caution lap 230, Reed Sorenson ducked onto pit road with his Chevrolet’s under-carriage ablaze — another tire-related calamity. He was pulled from the car by a crew member from a rival team.
With 100 laps to go, Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the lead for the first time.
Gordon was out front with 50 to go, Earnhardt Jr. on his tail. Suddenly, Kenseth overtook him, putting Gibbs Racing in sniffing distance of victory for the first time all night.
From there, the race boiled down to white-knuckle restarts. Just as soon as the action got started, another caution flew to bunch up the field. That was bad luck for Gordon and Earnhardt Jr., whose cars were strongest on long green-flag runs, but it played into the hands of Logano, whose car was lighting fast for 10 or 20 laps at a time.
“What a crazy finish,” said Logano, who joins Kevin Harvick as the season’s only two-time winner. “The heck with it! If we crash, we crash! We’re going for wins!”