After what can only be described as an unbelievable week in the world of NASCAR, that has seemingly seen everyone and anyone connected with a race team fined in some way it feels a relief to finally get back to some racing. This week sees the NASCAR circus arrive in Virginia and the short, three-quarter mile, Richmond International Raceway for the second night race of the season.
Friday evening’s qualifying session was once again a record breaker as the top five drivers all broke the previous track record set by Brian Vickers in 2004 of 129.983 mph (20.772 seconds). But top of the tree, as with last week, was Matt Kenseth with a time of 20.716 seconds (130.334 mph) for his tenth career pole. After effectively being stripped of his pole position after his engine was found to be using an ‘illegal’ part, harshly some would say, it seemed only fitting that he once again would be starting at the front of the field. But short track racing is an unpredictable beast and pole position is no guarantee of an easy race.
As the drivers take the green flag Kenseth easily takes the lead as Brian Vickers and Jeff Gordon go side by side for second place as Clint Bowyer tries to get involved in the fight as he tries to stick his nose down the inside. But Vickers in the 11 car gets a much better drive coming off the turns and is able to get a little bit of clear air and move in front of Gordon for second place; the rest of the pack fall into a single file as they get used to the handling of their cars. Kenseth is setting a blistering pace, almost as if he’s got something to prove, as only 12 laps in his lead is up to a massive 2.1 seconds! While the 20 car dominates it is not a great start for Gordon who is complaining over his radio that his handling is awful and he starts slipping down the field. Bad handling cars should be expected at this stage in the race as the teams have never raced here in the gen 6 cars in the current conditions of cooling air and track temperatures. The key will be who can handle these changes and adapt to them best.
Because of his pace Kenseth soon comes up on back markers and as a result his two second lead virtually evaporates and lets Bowyer, who had managed to get round the 11 car, close right up to his rear bumper. More back markers causes Kenseth to have to slow slightly and this gives Bowyer the chance he needs to throw his car inside the 20 and take the lead. But he isn’t able to establish a lead as the first caution of the day comes out when Josh Wise gets hit by Landon Cassill and slides up the track. Not only is it great car control by Wise to not spin but it also happens right in front of Bowyer who is very lucky not to get caught up in it. The restart isn’t a good one for Bowyer as the 20 car re-establishes his lead and he loses second to Vickers and has to battle hard with Martin Truex Jr for third. While things stay relative static for the front-runners back down the pack the ‘man on the move’ is Jimmie Johnson, after starting a very poor 26th he is now up to 13th. It should be noted though that his car wasn’t properly setup for qualifying as the 48 team were trying out some different settings, knowing full well that Johnson has the skills to make up the places in the race, as he is proving. However, Johnson’s team-mate Gordon is still struggling after starting 3rd he has now fallen back into the 20s and is going to need some drastic changes to be competitive.