RICHMOND — After 200 miles of orderly racing at Richmond International Raceway, the temperatures dropped, the full moon rose and NASCAR drivers desperate for a victory staged a short-track, Saturday night show of old.
Fenders banged and tempers flared over the final two laps of the Toyota Owners 400, in which Kevin Harvick exploded from seventh on the final restart and rocketed through traffic on brand-new tires — darting low, then high — to win his first Sprint Cup Series race of the year.
Harvick’s brute display of power and guts with the trophy on the line left Clint Bowyer grateful to come home second, just 0.343 of a second behind, as less fortunate contenders bumped and banged in his rear-view mirror.
Until the 11th and final caution came out, when Brian Vickers’s Toyota seemingly wouldn’t turn entering Turn 3, sending him hard into the wall, the race was Juan Pablo Montoya’s to lose.
Montoya, a former Indy Car champion and Formula One racer, had yet to win on an oval since abandoning open-wheel racing for NASCAR in 2006. And he hadn’t won any race since August 2010.
But the Colombian ended up the beneficiary with roughly 80 laps remaining when three-time champion Tony Stewart attacked the Turn 2 corner with a bit too much gusto and lost control of his Chevy’s rear end, which kicked around and snared Jimmie Johnson, running alongside in the track’s high groove. As the two cars spun in tandem, the onrushing Kyle Busch had no place to go and plowed into the wreck.
Stewart immediately shouldered responsibility and asked his crew over the radio to tell Johnson he was sorry.
When the smoke cleared and green-flag racing resumed, Montoya was out front and battled hard to keep Harvick behind. The strategy worked until the final caution bunched up the field and scrambled the running order, with the front-runners ducking into the pits for four new tires, others gambling that quicker, two-tire changes would be enough to get them to victory and a few drivers taking no tires.
Harvick was clearly helped by the traction of new tires but deserved enormous credit for attacking the narrow openings in traffic with total abandon.
“That was vintage Kevin Harvick,” said car owner Richard Childress. “He found the hole, drove it through there and won the race.”
Finishing third was Joey Logano, the brash 22-year-old who has irritated veteran drivers at nearly every turn this season. “I didn’t [tick] anyone off tonight!” Logano exulted.
Still, there was no shortage of hard feelings on the track and in the garage afterward.
Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth rammed each other hurtling down the backstretch as they diced for a top-10 finish. And Busch got an earful in the garage the moment Stewart climbed from his car, irate that Busch had knocked him out of the racing groove on the final lap.
But it was exactly the sort of show NASCAR fans have come to expect at Richmond’s three-quarter mile oval—full of contact, gutsy moves and no injuries other than bruised feelings.
“It’s just short-track racing at its best,” said Bowyer, an old-school stock-car racer at heart. “Once those cautions start coming out, I think you see all you want to see. I did! I was wanting it to be over.
“We haven’t seen racing like that in years. When you can leave a racetrack and there are people in tears ‘cause they won and in tears ‘cause they got crashed, that’s what brings us to the track — that kind of determination and passion.”
Harvick’s victory in NASCAR’s first night-time short-track race of the season, the Toyota Owners 400, snapped Kyle Busch’s streak of four consecutive wins in Richmond’s spring race. After leading 40 laps, he finished 24th.
That was only part of what amounted to a disappointing night for Joe Gibbs Racing after a promising start. Matt Kenseth started from the pole, earning a measure of redemption after being docked 50 points after his race-winning car at Kansas last weekend failed NASCAR’s post-race inspection. After leading a race-high 140 laps, he finished seventh. Gibbs’s third driver, Vickers, was 35th.