Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Crown Royal presents the Russ Friedman 400 Preview

It's time to go Saturday night short track racing again, as the Sprint Cup Series moves into Richmond International Raceway for this weekend's Crown Royal presents the Russ Friedman 400. If most drivers hate the high speeds and tight packs of Talladega, then almost all of them love the side-by-side action that Richmond provides.

Not only do the drivers love it, so do the fans. The 3/4-mile tri-oval traditionally produces some of the best racing in the series, regardless of which car is being run. Though the September event is arguably more important -- being the final race before the Chase for the Sprint Cup field is set -- the May race isn't any less dramatic.

Just ask Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Or Clint Bowyer, who found himself in Victory Lane last May despite only leading the last two laps.

Denny Hamlin dominated last May, leading 381 of the 400 laps. He had a tire leak, though, losing the lead to Earnhardt with 17 to go. Earnhardt appeared to be on his way to his first points-paying victory with Hendrick Motorsports, but Hamlin slowed at the top of the track to bring out the caution and bunch the field again.

On the ensuing restart, Earnhardt couldn't hold the bottom line, and within two laps, Busch had a run on the inside. Earnhardt held on to the lead thanks to the momentum the high side let him carry onto the straightaway, but as the two cars entered the third turn with three laps to go, chaos ensued.

Busch tapped Earnhardt, sending him spinning into the wall. Bowyer slid by to take the lead before the caution came out, and an already-budding rivalry was born. Busch insisted it wasn't intentional, Earnhardt took the high road -- and just about everyone else considered Busch Public Enemy No. 1.

An already-despised driver made himself the bad guy, probably for the rest of his career. Not that Busch minded.

Earnhardt took the high road -- at least, in the immediate aftermath. In his ESPN documentary series Shifting Gears, Earnhardt said of Busch, "I would've been more surprised if he hadn't hit us. It really goes back to the kind of person he is."

Not to mention, Busch was still bitter over Rick Hendrick kicking him out and bringing in Earnhardt -- never mind the nice situation in which Busch found himself, where in a little more than one full season with Joe Gibbs Racing he's won 10 Sprint Cup races and was a championship favorite last year until a series of mechanical issues derailed the team.

Will we see a repeat Saturday night? Probably not, but Richmond always finds a way to make things dramatic. Who would've thought Ricky Rudd would ever get in Kevin Harvick's grill after a race? It happened at Richmond.

Jimmie Johnson has won three races at Richmond, including last September's event. He's the only driver with multiple wins at Richmond to have won in both the old car and the new model. Earnhardt and Tony Stewart have also won at Richmond three times, all in the old car.

Two of Johnson's three Richmond wins came on Sunday afternoons, so if Saturday night gets rained out, pay close attention to the No. 48.

Earnhardt and Stewart will be factors, as will Busch, but don't sleep on Hamlin. His luck notwithstanding, Richmond is one of Hamlin's favorite tracks. Not just because it's 18 miles from Chesterfield, where he grew up, but because he runs a lot better at that track than last May's result would indicate.

His 24th-place effort in May aside, Hamlin has career finishes of second, third, third, sixth and 15th at Richmond. He's also won two poles in that span. Hamlin, who covets his Martinsville win from last year -- the last time he visited Victory Lane -- has said a win at Richmond for him would be as big as if he won the Daytona 500.

Look for it to finally happen this weekend. Hamlin takes the checkered flag, and more importantly, all the cars stay on the ground.

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