AP Photo/Gary C. Knapp
Start Your Engines
Has a short-track Saturday night ever looked better to NASCAR?
After the mayhem and near-disastrous finish that was Talladega last weekend, many drivers teed off on restrictor-plate racing ("Man, it sucks racing here," Jimmie Johnson said) and Sprint Cup officials backed into damage-control mode ("Talladega and Daytona are not the only racetracks that we have wrecks," Cup Series director John Darby said).
About the only thing both sides would likely agree on is that it's a good thing the restrictor plates are going back on the shelf until July for Daytona and fall for Talladega. There's ample time to discuss freight-train drafts and flying cars later.
In the meantime, a spring weekend at Richmond International Raceway sounds glorious. A racy three-quarter-mile oval is a fine antidote to the 2.66-mile high-banked behemoth.
"I think everybody loves Richmond," said Jeff Gordon, a two-time winner at the track. "Any time you go to a track that has multiple racing grooves, it's something that all the drivers are going to like."
Multiple grooves are also present at Bristol, but it's a newer phenomenon at that bullring and fans are split on whether it's an improvement on the "old" Bristol. Some drivers knock the Cup's other short track, Martinsville, for its paper-clip shape and full throttle-full brake-full throttle demands for 500 laps.
Yet Richmond avoids scrutiny. The track advertises itself as "racing perfection," which isn't hyperbole when one sees the attendance and continues to listen to the drivers.
"It is my favorite track. It's not one of them, it's the favorite track of mine on the circuit," said Tony Stewart, a five-time winner between Cup (three) and Trucks.
"It just reminds me of some of the shorter tracks that I've run. I think every driver has a track that they go to where they get that same feeling. There are just some places that you go to where you adjust, and it really suits your driving style."
Richmond's 14 degrees of banking in the turns isn't severe, but it's enough to hold 125 mph speeds and some of the best racing in the series. It is prone to incidents -- 12 of the past 15 races have had double-digit cautions -- but rarely the catastrophes of bigger tracks.
"Richmond is a great little short track that drives like a speedway. It is fast, but small so all the fans are close to the action," said former winner Matt Kenseth, 12th in points. "Both ends of the track are different. Turn 2 is a real tight turn and Turn 4 is more sweeping. You try to run on the bottom for a fast lap, but also have to be able to make the top work to pass."
Three-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has found the formula, winning three times in the past two years. Last spring, Denny Hamlin dominated the race only to have a late tire failure, setting up a Kyle Busch-Dale Earnhardt Jr. showdown that got a little too personal, leaving Junior spun out and Clint Bowyer with a clear path to a win in a green-white-checkered finish.
Boos rained down on Busch and a frustrated Earnhardt finished the race but shook his head at the misfortune. In other words, typical short-track stuff, the kind that NASCAR is more than ready for again after superspeedway trouble last week.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Now there's a quiet second-place run. Even if you're such a die-hard fan that you have an "88" tattoo in a place you wouldn't tell your mama, you could have easily missed Junior's runner-up at Dega. There were a few other things to see at the time.
But when the dust settled, the No. 88 Hendrick Chevy had a huge points day. When non-contenders for the Chase finish first, fourth, fifth and ninth and you're second with laps led, that's big. And Junior needed it, coming into the race 19th in points off finishes of 20th at Texas and 31st at Phoenix while teammates were cruising to wins.
He's now tied for 15th, 45 points out of the top 12, and heading to Richmond, a longtime Earnhardt haven. His 11.1 average finish at the short track is his best anywhere.
John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You Gotta See This
Carl Edwards: Gotta find love for Carl somewhere after Sunday, not only for surviving but having the presence of mind to jog to the finish line. We smell an ESPY for Best Comedic Performance After Near-Death Experience. All that was missing was for the No. 99 to be the Aflac Ford: Then the day at Talladega would have started with that ridiculous chicken dance and ended with a duck in a catch fence.
After all that mess and the subsequent 24th-place finish (Edwards was scored as the first car one lap down), he actually gained one place in the standings, moving up to seventh. And he went on "Larry King" and "Ellen." Take that, Brad Keselowski.
Off The Pace
Kevin Harvick: The No. 29 crew -- in its last race before switching to the 07 -- had to do wholesale fixes to the Richard Childress Racing Chevy after Harvick got caught in the early Big One at Talladega.
Pretty good effort to get him back out there to avoid the DNF, but it was still a 38th-place finish -- the fourth 30th or worse run in nine races for a driver who now faces a serious uphill battle to make a fourth consecutive Chase. Harvick is 20th in points, behind the likes of Marcos Ambrose, Brian Vickers and Juan Pablo Montoya.
Inside The Numbers
8 -- Consecutive races led by Jimmie Johnson
31st -- Starting position for Clint Bowyer in '08 Richmond win
381 -- Laps led by Denny Hamlin in that race
24th -- Where Hamlin finished
164 -- Laps led by Kurt Busch last year
314 -- Laps led by Busch in nine races this year
0.5, 0.625, 0.542 -- Old mileage configurations at Richmond