Richmond International Raceway's unique track configuration has always produced some of NASCAR's best racing as its .75 mile surface is wide enough for cars to run high or low grooves and sometimes 3 different lines with the exception of turns 3 and 4 where the track's radius is a bit tighter to maneuver in. In addition both races are held on a Saturday night which always adds an extra element of excitement to the environment and there you have the recipe which helps to make RIR both a driver's and fan's favorite venue on the circuit.
RIR is also know for great finishes and so tonight was no different as the 400 lap event once again didn't disappoint and the COT (which I should really just be calling the car of today or just the car) played a substantial part in this as the "new" configuration seems to have found a handle on the competition giving drivers more options while even leveling the playing field a bit making for a seemingly enhanced competitiveness amongst the sport's drivers and not just the marquee names. Congratulations to Clint Bowyer on his first win of the season and the second of his career!
So why did this race leave me with such mixed feelings? Okay It wasn't that Jeff Gordon struggled for most of the evening with an ill handling car which eventually got him a lap down although he did recover strongly with a 9th place finish. It wasn't the wreck that Jimmie Johnson got caught up in which was of someone else's making seeing him end up way in the back at 30th with a badly damaged car. And it wasn't that Dale Jr. finished 15th after being just 4 laps from victory lane…it was how it "occurred." And I'm not referring to the late race contact between Dale Jr. and Kyle Busch which sent Jr. into the outside wall as a clear understanding between both drivers seems to have settled with the explanation that Kyle Busch got loose into the turn and while neither driver who was racing for the win at the time was giving the other much room to work with the almost inevitable occurred after contact was made by Busch who appeared to be turning into Jr. ever so slightly which was later explained as a technique used by drivers (albeit most commonly on short dirt tracks) to help regain control or turn the car by turning in the opposite direction of the actual track's turn. But it's none of this that bothers me.
It was Denny Hamlin's classless act which added yet another meaning to the word unsportsmanlike. After Denny Hamlin dominated tonight's event leading I think it was 381 laps out of the 400 he incurred what he felt was a tire going down and while a driver's intuition usually turns out to be correct he and his team chose to stay out and I can totally understand that as there was the possibility of 1: there being no tire issue at all or 2: the possibility of the issue not becoming a problem through the conclusion of the race, therefore keeping his track position from not falling off too much and finishing with a decent spot. Unfortunately for Hamlin neither occurred as his tire did eventually give out in the waning laps and his hopes of winning quickly dashed along with it, Hamlin made a conscious decision to help his team mate Kyle Busch with a better shot of winning the race. I'm in no way opposed to team mates helping team mates as it's really part of racing and how drivers should help each other on the track when possible it's just the way Hamlin went about it tonight. Helping a team mate in the draft, helping him lead a lap, blocking other drivers, etc. is all acceptable and in a way expected of team mates who race for not only themselves but their organization as a whole in seeing a victory of a team mate equaling a victory for everyone in their racing family. But Hamlin acted in an unacceptable manner at least for me, as he came to a complete stop on the track after his tire gave out in order to bring out the caution which wouldn't have come out otherwise as he was fully able to get around and head into the pits without incident it would seem. But with Dale Jr.'s comfortable lead over Hamlin's team mate Kyle Busch and with the laps quickly winding down Hamlin saw that as his opportunity to help give Busch a good chance at the win as he would then restart directly behind Dale Jr. in a single file restart which is implemented when there's less than 10 laps remaining in an event. And while there's no guarantee that Dale Jr. would've found victory lane had Hamlin not come to a complete stop on the track bringing out the caution he quickly weakened any possibility of any of that, hurting Dale Jr's chances of his first trip to victory lane in two years which he was appearing to sail towards as it would have just required him hitting his marks on the few final laps so it appeared. And NASCAR officials didn't allow Hamlin's actions to go unnoticed either as they penalized him by holding him for 2 laps in the pits while the race continued. And Hamlin's intent upon his actions is arguably without question as he quickly started to move again on track once he saw that the caution flag had waved due to his…….."stall."
So while Kyle Busch may have needed extra security in finding his way out of RIR tonight…it's Denny Hamlin's unsportsmanlike actions that I won't soon forget.
It was also heartbreaking to see and hear Dale Jr. talk to reporters afterwards…I'm just without words for that right now… 😦