Saturday evening’s Capital City 400 at Richmond International Raceway was not unlike many of the NASCAR Sprint Cup events over the past month. A dearth of cautions — only five, the second-least at RIR in 14 years — pockmarked the 300-mile event.
However, Richmond provided an exciting, and controversial, finish that produced an all-too-familiar victor in Kyle Busch.
While Busch had yet to win in the 2012 season, his victory marked the fourth consecutive win in Richmond’s spring race for the 26-year-old Las Vegas native. But while his past wins have been dominant, it took a string of bizarre events late in the race for Busch to cash in.
“Wherever that last caution came from, that was the saving grace — just the luck of the day,” Busch said of a debris caution on lap 388 of 400. “The guys did a fast pit stop, got us the lead off pit road, which was a huge advantage, just being able to give me the control of the restart and not have to wait on Tony (Stewart) or cause myself to spin my tires or what have you and get behind.
The fireworks started well before then, though.
A caution for debris on lap 311 changed the complexion of the race. Busch was awarded the Lucky Dog, placing him on the lead lap after being down one.
Race leader Jimmie Johnson was then issued a pit road penalty during his stop, sending him to the rear of the field. The subsequent restart found Tony Stewart the leader, with Carl Edwards to his outside. Edwards, though, believed his No. 99 Ford to be the lead car, and when the green waved, Stewart spun his tires, allowing Edwards to sprint away. NASCAR ruled that Edwards “jumped the restart” by taking off before crossing into the “restart box” — a pair of painted lines on the track prior to the start/finish line that mark when the leader can hit the gas.
Edwards was assessed a black flag, handing the lead back to Stewart. But just as it appeared Stewart would cruise to his third win of the season, the final debris caution was thrown, reportedly for an aluminum can on the backstretch.
When the field hit pit road for a final set of tires, Busch beat Stewart out and quickly jumped to a sizable lead on the restart.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. also got by Stewart, but when his brakes began to fade, the race was clearly in Busch’s hands.
“That’s what it looked like to me,” a curt Stewart said of the debris afterwards. “I mean, it was out of the groove. It had been sitting there for eight laps. When the caution is for a plastic bottle on the backstretch, it’s hard to feel good about losing that one.”
As for Edwards’ penalty, he and crew chief Bob Osborne questioned NASCAR about it during and after the race, even meeting with officials in the NASCAR hauler.
Their contention was that the team’s spotter was told by an official that they were the lead car, prompting Edwards to bring the field to green. He was also posted on the track’s pylon as the leader.
NASCAR vice president of competition, Robin Pemberton, made it clear after the race that Edwards was not the leader and that he did jump the start. So his point was moot regardless.
“We had to just agree to disagree, and that’s the way it is,” Edwards said after his meeting with NASCAR. “They run the sport, and they do the best job they can, and I drive a racecar and do the very best job I can.”