The field for the Chase for the Championship, which gets under way next weekend in Chicago, was set Saturday night after Kevin Harvick won the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Richmond, Va.
Harvick and Kyle Busch, with four wins apiece, start even at the top of the heap. Jeff Gordon, with three wins, starts off three points behind with Matt Kenseth (two wins) six back and Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman (one win apiece) all at nine back. Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. start nine and ten places back with a deficit of 12 points, as do wild card entrants Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin.
Harvick was chased to the line Saturday night by Carl Edwards and Gordon, with David Ragan and Kurt Busch fourth and fifth.
For a race with a lot on the line – Stewart had to finish 20th or better and Earnhardt had to be 18th or better to hold onto their Chase spots – it was largedly uneventful. Yes, there were a ton of yellow flags (Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson traded spin-outs and insults; more about that later) but Richmond is less than a mile in length and most of the time the drivers could get their cars stopped before too much damage was done.
One time that didn’t happen was when Marcos Ambrose got into Brian Vickers and forced him up the track and into the side of his teammate, Kasey Kahne, doing sufficient damage that Kahne was out for the night.
Vickers was browned right off. He pulled up in front of Ambrose and stopped on the track, refusing to let him past. When Ambrose backed up and then tried to drive around him on the low side, Vickers rolled backwards to cut him off. And so on.
Finally, NASCAR told Vickers to knock it off and to take his car to the garage area and to stay there until they told him it was okay to come out.
Note to IndyCar offiicials: that’s the way to officiate.
– The Richmond race used to be called the "Chevy Rock ‘n Roll 400," which I thought was a terrific name for a race. Now it’s the "Wonderful Pistachios 400." Just doesn’t have that ring.
– Kyle Busch, who made his reputation as an arrogant, foul-mouthed, threatening, on-track and off-track bully, is a changed man these days. Mild-mannered, happy, co-operative, laid-back – whatever – he’s a pleasure to have around and to be around.
A reporter asked him about the personality change. "I got some bad advice," he said. "I listened to a guy who told me to act like that, that it would get me attention, so I did. I’m sorry now that I did that. It really wasn’t me."
If that’s the case, and Busch the younger is really telling the truth, you have to wonder if his older brother Kurt hasn’t been listening to the same guy because Kurt Busch is now, officially, a nasty, insulting, royal pain-in-the-butt again.
He always has been an embarrassment but he laid off, mostly, for the last year or so. Now he’s at it again and he’s turned up the volume.
Asked about their little contretempts during the "Wonderful Pistachios 400," Bush called five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson a "five-time chump" and said he was "in his head" and when a reporter asked him what he meant by saying that, he had to be restrained from attacking the writer.
Then, when he denied saying what he’d just said, the reporter gave him a printout of the televised interview and Kurt Busch, employee of Penske Racing and representative of Shell Oil and how many other sponsors, walked up to the reporter, took the printout and ripped it up.
He really is the epitome of the "how to win friends and influence people’ way of life, isn’t he?
Of course, it could be all an act. His brother has passed off his earlier behaviour as being imaginary so perhaps that’s also the case with Kurt.
But I wouldn’t bet on it.
At some point, it will lose him that ride at Penske. Bet on it.
– Jimmie Johnson has won five consecutive NASCAR championships by driving cleanly. He just doesn’t know how to "drive dirty."
So Saturday night at Richmond, Kurt Busch ran into Johnson. Johnson decided to retaliate. So he tried to spin out Bush but nearly missed. Bush eventually spun but Johnson pretty much got the worst of it.
Rough racing is just not in his nature.
– The 10-race NASCAR Chase for the Championship looks like an IndyCar schedule, so far as television is concerned.
Only one of the races is being carried by a network – ABC – and that’s the prime-time Saturday night race from Charlotte Motor Speedway on Oct. 15. The other nine – all on Sunday afternoons – will be carried by the U.S. cable network ESPN, including the finale from Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 20.
There was nearly a 20 per cent drop in overall viewership last year, as compared to 2009, when the races initially moved from ABC to ESPN. Although numbers seemed to have bounced back earlier this season, there is still concern going into the Chase because the Goliath known as the National Football League is now up and running.
If ratings for the Chase tank again this year, NASCAR might well have to consider racing exclusively on Saturday nights after Labour Day.
With college football clogging up the U.S. airwaves on Saturday afternoons and the NFL on Sunday, prime-time on Saturday might be the only chance NASCAR has of regaining the numbers it’s lost.