Dropping the Hammer: A Preview of the Russell Friedman 400 & NASCAR News

Rob TiongsonSenior Analyst IMay 1, 2009

RICHMOND, VA - MAY 03:  Cars race during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Crown Royal Presents the Dan Lowry 400 at Richmond International Raceway on May 3, 2008 in Richmond, Virginia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

With Adrenaline April coming to an eventful end, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series tour strikes it up with Manic May at the Richmond International Raceway for this Saturday night's Russell Friedman 400 presented by Crown Royal.

In what has been a barometer for the Chase for the Sprint Cup field in the past five years, the nighttime spring annual at the three-quarter mile short track has provided some intense moments in recent memory.

Richmond International Raceway is a small race course that acts like a superspeedway. How is that so, if, on record, it's just under a mile in length with corners banked at 14 degrees?

Well, the front chute isn't exactly your typical flat, drawn out straight such that it is similar to a race at Phoenix or Indianapolis.

With a dog-leg shaped front stretch banked at eight degrees, teams can expect their drivers to carry some speed and momentum heading into the first corner, reaching up to 140 mph before slowing down to 90-100 mph in the corners.

The backstretch is a different story, as it is a relatively flat portion of the speedway that is banked at two degrees.

This segment of the race course is another passing opportunity for the drivers—a mini drag-strip, if you will.

It is often an area of the track where the drivers will get a fender alongside their peers on their opposite lane, due to the run off the second corner.

Short track in terms of the heavy breaking into the turns, but a superspeedway in terms of speed, this track creates a potent combination and recipe for side-by-side racing. This has remained possible, even with the Car of Tomorrow.

Now, why would this race, which is still four months away from the Chase, be so important when there's 16 races left before the playoffs begin?

As I mentioned earlier, the 400-miler in May often serves as a gauge as to who makes it into postseason play.

Of the 56 previous total slots that have comprised the title field, 43 of the drivers who were potential Cup contenders successfully made it into the Chase.

That translates into a 77 percent success rate of making up the 12 driver field for the championship. Not bad, considering we're just talking about a race in May.

The Contenders

It sounds like a broken record and quite trite to keep making note of this, but Richmond International Raceway has favored the Chevrolet camp in the 2000s.

Of the past 18 races held at the Henrico County track during this decade, 10 of those events were won by those driving under the banner General Motors fray. 

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Jimmie Johnson have each won three races at this three-quarter mile long facility, carrying the Chevy banner with victories by Jeff Gordon in 2000, Joe Nemechek in 2003, Kevin Harvick in 2006, and Clint Bowyer last season.

If Earnhardt, Jr. looks to continue to make up ground to make the Chase, a solid finish at RIR has to be the No. 88 team's priority. Finishing runner-up in a spectacular Talladega finish last Sunday, a win or top-five is definitely not out of the question.

The seasons of Gordon and Johnson have hit a sort of nosedive as of late, but nothing short on performance.

Gordon made an errant, early race move that ultimately created the first big crash last weekend, costing him a solid finish that relegated the No. 24 team back into the 37th spot.

Coupled with Gordon's back problems and a sub top-20 finish at Phoenix, we are starting to see the DuPont team's signs of weakness following the first quarter of the season.

Still, you can't count out Four-Time to contend for the win on Saturday night, where the Rainbow Warriors also have a win in 1996 to boot with their win in 2000.

Johnson seems to have an interest in season sweeps, and in the 2007 racing season, the ownership of RIR belonged to the No. 48 team. Winners of the fall 2008 race, don't be surprised to see the Lowe's team look to go for their fourth win in the past six races run at Richmond.

Harvick and Bowyer are solid short track performers, and without a doubt, have to be potent contenders for the win against the Hendrick trio. While Bowyer has looked solid all season long, Harvick's 2009 campaign has been anything but happy.

After they reunite with crew chief Gil Martin, who last worked with the Bakersfield, California, native in 2002, it will be interesting to see how the No. 29 team performs, as well as the No. 07 team of Casey Mears.

Mears will be working with essentially the former No. 29 team, as the two Richard Childress Racing teams swapped personnel and crew this week.

You may also want to keep an eye on Tony Stewart, who looks to have his breakthrough debut win as a car owner and driver in his No. 14 Chevy.

Ranked fourth in the points standings, Smoke is a past winner at Richmond, taking the spring races of 2001 and 2002, but as a member of the Joe Gibbs Racing fold, which utilized the Pontiac Grand Prix (RIP Pontiac, by the way).

Kurt Busch is probably the driver under the radar in 2009. Yes, he's got the points lead, the spring race win at Atlanta, and the unique reverse victory lap that briefly put the 30-year-old Las Vegas native on the racing radar.

But if Busch were to win on Saturday night, the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge team will definitely have the proverbial bulls-eye on their rear wings.

And then there's Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, the Gibbs aces who are amped to avenge of their defeats of last season. Busch had winning Toyotas in both events last year, only to get swept up in incidents involving Earnhardt, Jr.

No. 88 fans will definitely remember last spring's race as a cheap shot finish for their man, but Hamlin fans know that their driver saw a certain victory slip away by the fate of a cut tire late in the going last May.

If I had to pick a race winner for this Saturday night, I'd look for Hamlin and his No. 11 Fed Ex Toyota Camry team to rebound from their defeat of a year ago and find their way into Victory Lane for the first time this season.

My two cents

A lot has happened over the past week that I regret not being able to write about. I'd like to say my two cents on the the Talladega finish and tragic passing of David Poole.

Say what you want about Brad Keselowski's amazing first victory, but something must be done at the plate racing tracks to improve spectator safety in the future.

Initially, I thought that Keselowski's move was a dirty tactic, as I saw him just blatantly tapping Carl Edwards out of the lead and into a frightful accident in the tri-oval on the last lap of the Aaron's 499.

But then, as I watched over the replays of the final lap, I realized that both drivers simply fought for the same inch of real estate and, more importantly, for the victory. Keselowski clearly had a run on Edwards, but the No. 99 driver simply was not going to relinquish the lead.

Sure, we pay the price of admission to get front row seats to see the cars speed by us at over 200 miles per hour, with the wind in our hair and the loud screams of 3400 pound stock cars.

But when one flies at you towards the fence at 140 miles per hour, don't tell me that it's impossible to find a way to prevent such a repeat incident in future NASCAR races.

Fortunately for Blake Bobbitt, her most severe injury is a broken jaw that required reconstructive surgery. It's not like Carl Edwards went, "Yea, I think I'll let my No. 99 car just fly into the fence where the front end's pieces will fly and impact the fans along the front row seats."

But this is something that NASCAR must fix. We can agree that restrictor plate racing offers a brand of competition that is both harrowing and exciting.

But it should not come at a cost of someone's life, from the drivers on the track, the crew members in the pits, and, certainly, not a race fan who shelves out a lot of money just to see their man or woman boldly compete for over three hours of racing.

I'm still pretty shell shocked about this next bit of news from the week of racing.

When I started to read NASCAR articles in magazines and newspapers in the mid 1990s, the name that I often came across in those works were by The Charlotte Observer's David Poole.

From race recaps to opinions, Poole was, in every right, a true blooded racer, turning us fans who pretend to be racers into knowledgeable fans of our favorite sport.

All week long, you've heard how he's written his works to the full extent of getting the truth, no matter how hard it was to obtain such information.

What probably impressed me more about Poole than anything else was that he was virtually a celebrity in his own way without ever driving these cars. Drivers, crew members and officials of the sport respected this North Carolinian like a friend, a brother, and proud ambassador of stock car racing.

When it comes to my personal favorites in terms of sports writing, I look up to Bob Ryan, Mitch Albom, Jenna Fryer, Jay Hart, Bob Margolis, and definitely David Poole. Poole was the successor to Tom Higgins, who was also a dean of motorsports journalism.

Poole passed away earlier this week at the age of 50, and his sudden passing reminds us all of how precious life is, moment to moment. No matter how bad or good your day is, take a moment to realize how special each day of life really is.

God bless and speed to the Poole family and friends who now have an angel looking over them for eternity.

On some personal notes, I want to personally congratulate Ben Bombeger and his wife Tinsel on becoming the proud parents of baby Sydney Rhayne.

And also, happy travels and race weekend festivities to Kara Martin, a regular NASCAR and Sprint Cup writer on B/R.

Martin will be attending and covering some of the happenings at Richmond in the Nationwide and Cup garages. We'll definitely be keeping an eye on what goes at RIR with our Kenny Mayne of racing at the track.

And happy Richmond racing weekend to you all!