NASCAR at Richmond 2016: Winners and Losers from the Toyota Owners 400

Brendan O'Meara@@BrendanOMearaFeatured ColumnistApril 24, 2016

NASCAR at Richmond 2016: Winners and Losers from the Toyota Owners 400

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    Chet Strange/Associated Press

    Pop quiz, hot shot*: What happens when one driver in a de facto match race drives not to lose while the other driver pilots to win?

    You get what happened in the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway.

    Kyle Busch raced not to lose, while his teammate, Carl Edwards, raced with purpose—bumped Busch—and became the first driver at RIR to make a pass on the final lap to win the race in one of the more unexpected finishes you’ll ever see**.

    Edwards, who won at Bristol last week, made it back-to-backflip at RIR.

    “Both those drivers drove a brilliant race,” said Jeff Gordon, Fox’s NASCAR analyst. “That last run was amazing. I didn’t think anybody was going to touch Kyle Busch. He was just sailing. On that last lap, his car just went away. He had to be more conservative and Carl Edwards took advantage.”

    And so he did.

    That, and more, in this week’s reprisal of winners and loser from Richmond.

    *: RIP Dennis Hopper.

    **: Because, you know, teammates.

Loser: No 'Smoke'-Ing

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    Chet Strange/Associated Press

    Tony Stewart finally got his swan-song season started by returning to a Cup car at Richmond, where he finished a surprising 19th.

    What’s the takeaway?

    “How much fun I had,” Stewart said during the Fox broadcast. “This place is so cool. It’s always been my favorite racetrack. We predicted we’d be all over the racetrack. The drivers got to dictate it today. You weren’t just stuck in one line.”

    A relief, no doubt, but his race soured 268 laps in, when contact with Joey Logano yielded a cut left-rear tire that went down hard.

    Stewart had been running right around 20th to 22nd place—far from inspiring—but what could be expected from the No. 14 car? Stewart hadn’t raced since 2015. The conditions of the race—no clouds, warm, sunny, daytime—played to Stewart’s strengths (Richmond hadn’t run a schedule day-time race in years.)

    NASCAR, though it has its quibbles with Smoke, granted him a waiver into the Chase should he win a race and crack the top 30. Stewart needs to average something like a 22nd-place finish the rest of the year heading into Richmond.

    Can he do it? Can he win?

    “He was in the top 20 most of the day,” said Fox’s Michael Waltrip during the broadcast. “That means he can win.”

    Well, shoot, I guess so.

Winner: First Top-Five Finish for No. 5

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    Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

    Kasey Kahne isn’t flat-out ridiculed in my humble NASCAR roundups, but he is, at times, bullied in that way the red-headed stepchild tends to get pushed around.

    With teammates like Jimmie "Mr. Six-Time" Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the upstart Chase Elliott, what other options do we have?

    Any hopes of Kahne stepping into the three-hole at Hendrick Motorsports with the exodus of Gordon promptly flew over the catch fence when Elliott won the pole at Daytona.

    And for the entirety of this young season, the No. 5 team has been looking for speed. Finally, at Richmond, it found it for its first top-five of 2016 and Kahne’s fifth top-five at RIR.

    “The whole race the pit stops were awesome and the communication with [crew chief] Keith Rodden was great,” Kahne said after the race on the Fox broadcast. “It’s been solid, and we’re heading in the right direction. I had pretty good restarts all day.”

    Despite being No. 4 on the HMS call sheet, Kahne has as many wins as Junior and Elliott, so maybe this is the time he takes this race at RIR and does something with it.

    If Kahne can hold strong until Charlotte at the end of May, he can parlay his four career wins there into something memorable.

Loser: The View

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    Chet Strange/Associated Press

    Time and time again, the television viewer hears how great the racing product is.

    Take Gordon, Fox’s rookie NASCAR analyst, who said during the broadcast, “I’ve never seen so many passes at Richmond.”

    Come to think of it, neither have we.

    NASCAR and its partners need to illustrate this better, broadcast it better, because most of the action takes place from 10th to 20th place. Lots of great racing, so we’re led to understand, takes place mid-pack.

    The best angles we see most often are the blimp shots of restarts that pull out far enough to see 10 to 20 cars, and yes, there we see the drivers battling for position.

    One of the best bouts of action was the restart after the fifth caution. With about 20 cars in view from the blimp, we saw Ryan Newman plummet through the field with a downed tire and how other drivers maneuvered around.

    There was other action too that we don’t typically see by constantly following the leader, “following the puck,” as I like to say.

    It’s old meets new: older broadcast technology with a newer aero package. That latter needs a wider-angle view.

    Most of us at home want what Gordon said to be true. I mean, we believe him, but we still need to see it.

Winner: Battery Change

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    Matt Kenseth looked like he was in for yet another dry day at the racetrack.

    No, he didn’t get the champagne shower that Edwards has stolen the past two weeks, but Kenseth’s day could have been far, far worse than his seventh-place finish.

    After Lap 196 and the race’s second caution, Kenseth took an unabridged pit stop, which was, at the time, a mystery to all. It looked like trouble with a capital T.

    We soon found that both his batteries were dead or malfunction.

    The No. 20 pit crew took extra time and replaced the batteries. Instead of a death knell, Kenseth crawled up through the field to ensure that his seventh-place finish was the worst—repeat, worst—for Joe Gibbs Racing.

    Not a bad day to keep JGR burning hotter than liquid hot magma.

Loser: Kurt Busch's Fall Through the Field

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    Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images

    Everyone was confused, like, head-scratching confused.

    With 41 laps to go, Kurt Busch, the defending winner of this race, entered pit road first, exited fifth, then fell to 10th after the restart in the time in took to say, “What the heck, Tony Gibson?”

    “Kurt Busch is not handling well,” Gordon said. He even wondered if the air pressures were changed.

    A moment later…

    “No changes, no changes to air pressure,” said commentator Mike Joy.

    Because of this precipitous fall, Busch either cordially or not so cordially denied a post-race interview.

    This likely meant he had nothing nice to say about his team and decided not to say anything at all. Mama Busch may be proud?

    Maybe we’ll know by Monday once he puts out that fire.

    In any case, when it was time to get serious and drive fast, the No. 41 car showed no initiative.

Winner: The Persistence of Joey Logano

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    Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

    Logano took the scenic view around RIR Sunday afternoon.

    He started on the front row and quickly fell like the proverbial rock through the field. At one point, he was a lap down and in 28th position.

    Then he did what all great drivers do: He didn’t panic, and he slowly climbed through the field to finish eighth.

    “Logano did a great job of rallying back,” Waltrip said during the broadcast. “We haven’t seen that kind of performance from those Penske Fords that we’re used to. Those guys are going to have to get their things together if they’re to be in the championship battle.”

    Sure, Brad Keselowski won earlier this year, but neither of these cars feel ready to challenge the Gibbs cars and contend for a title.

    Being a quarter of the way through the season, we can give the first-quarter trophy to JGR. Now it’s up to Team Penske, among others, to show it can play in the same sandbox.

Loser: Racing Not to Lose

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    Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

    Samantha Busch, Kyle Busch’s wife, ripped off her headphones from the No. 18 pit box at the end of the race. It didn’t take an advanced degree in lip reading to know she dropped a severe synonym for doo-doo when her husband decidedly lost the Toyota Owners 400.

    Yes, he lost this race.

    “It’s racing, I guess,” Busch said after the race on the broadcast.

    For the final 15 laps, Edwards knocked on Busch’s door with no answer. Then, suddenly, when the race was all but Busch’s, the door inexplicably swung open.

    Busch likely didn’t expect he’d get bumped by anyone in that final lap, let alone a teammate. It appeared Busch expected a handout on that final lap, but what he got as a near spinout.

    “We were fast,” said Busch, “maybe not as good as Carl on the long runs, but we did everything right. We did everything we were supposed to do to put ourselves in the right position.”

    Except finish the race.

    Busch led 78 laps, and he led them with zero temerity.

    He failed to lead 79 laps because, for some reason, he fell asleep at the wheel.

    It cost him the race and, it appears, cost his wife a good mood.

Winner: Racing to Win

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    Chet Strange/Associated Press

    Edwards won a week ago at Bristol, and then he won again.

    That’s what you call back-to-backflip for the No. 19 Toyota in the Toyota Owners 400.

    How he won the race is the story. For the final 15 laps, he tried—and failed—to get past Busch. You figured he’d concede once the white flag waved, but then a funny thing happened. Busch slowed down.

    The door opened, and Edwards surged into position—a winning position. He questioned whether he should give Busch the bump-and-run and sprint to Victory Lane.

    Edwards said after the race:

    It was a huge question. Kyle’s an amazing teammate. It’s like he got really slow there at the end, like something happened that last lap, like his rear tires went off or something. He went down into [Turn] 1 and I dove it in and I got to him and I thought, ‘Man, I got something here.’

    Then he went to get down on the bottom and parked it. At that point I thought I’m going to give him a little nudge. We both got wins and we’re racing for fun getting these trophies.

    Ask Busch if this was fun and he’ll show you why his nickname is Rowdy.

    “That’s a teammate!” yelled Fox analyst Darrell Waltrip. It appeared Edwards got some exterior encouragement from the pit box. Teammates in NASCAR don’t act like links in a red-rover chain.

    “I didn’t think we had anything,” said Edwards. “Kyle was so good for that run. I was doing everything I could. He never spun his tires. If [crew chief] Dave [Rogers] hadn’t screamed at me on the radio to just go get him on the last lap I don’t know if I’d have dived down as hard.”

    Maybe if Busch didn’t already have a win, Edwards lets him have it. Seeing as the playoff futures of these two are secure, Edwards went for the trophy, the glory and dumped his teammate in the process.

    That Monday morning meeting could be a tad awkward.

    “Carl wanted it, man, he wanted it,” Waltrip said.

    Yes, and that was the difference.