Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Roush Rewind: Air Guard 400

Once again, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series made a stop at Richmond International Raceway. The Air Guard 400 was the final race before the Chase. For those on the bubble, they needed great finishes to keep their championship hopes alive. For those locked in, it was a chance to win and earn those crucial 10 bonus points that could help them get ahead once the top 12 in the field were reset. Denny Hamlin proved he is well on his way to possibly becoming the 2010 Cup champion as he took the checkered flag at Richmond, therefore making him the points leader when they head to
New Hampshire this coming Sunday.

Roush Fenway Racing came to Richmond with Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth locked into the Chase. Greg Biffle only had to finish the race ahead of the 42nd position to earn his spot as a championship contender. For David Ragan, however, his hopes of making the Chase had been crushed months ago, but Ragan isn’t ready to give it up just yet since he is still working toward getting his first career Cup win. On Saturday night, Biffle and Ragan struggled while Edwards and Kenseth were both able to have strong runs and get good finishes.

Greg Biffle knew coming into Saturday night’s race that he could get a 42nd place finish and still make the Chase. However, he really didn’t plan on finishing that far back, but handling issues and an unplanned stop that resulted in him going two laps down prevented him from getting the better finish he might have been capable of. Loose-handling issues plagued Biffle in qualifying, which resulted in him earning a 24th place starting position. Before the race even started on Saturday, Biffle reported that the cooling system was basically fried and that his helmet had filled with smoke, which resulted in the air going into the helmet being warm and the smell of an electrical fire filling his helmet too throughout the race. Once the green flag waved, Biffle immediately reported to crew chief Greg Erwin that the No. 16 3M Ford was way too loose and lacked grip. The first caution came out on lap 58, and Biffle pitted from the 29th position for four fuel, and a track bar and shim adjustment. He was still 29th for the restart, tires, and it became evident that the handling had actually gotten worse. It got so bad in fact that Biffle eventually went a lap down, and the decision was made to make an unscheduled pit stop on lap 130. Biffle went back out in the 38th position, two laps down. The 2nd caution came out on lap 145, and Biffle stayed out to get the wave around to get a lap back, but as luck would have it, a tire went down and Biffle had to pit just when the field was restarting. He was still 38th and two laps down when he got lapped by Denny Hamlin on lap 202, which put him three laps down. Rain brought out a caution on lap 226, and Biffle pitted for four tires, fuel, and air pressure and wedge adjustments. It was during this stop that the 3M team discovered a hole in the nose of the car, which resulted in Biffle having to pit two more times for repairs. He restarted 35th and had gained two positions before he went down yet another lap down. He made a green-flag stop for fuel, tires, and a wedge adjustment to correct the tight-handling issues. Eventually, he went five laps down, but gained one back when the field cycled through green-flag stops shortly after he had made his stop. Biffle held on to gain one more position to finish 32nd. Biffle will start the Chase in the 7th position, 50 points behind points leader Denny Hamlin.

Richmond is actually one of David Ragan’s favorite tracks to visit on the circuit, but Saturday’s race proved to be more difficult than he thought it would be. The team’s optimistic outlook for the race soon dissipated as Ragan struggled in practice then qualified the No. 6 UPS Ford in the 26th position. The handling problems the team had struggled with in practice and qualifying returned the second the race started on Saturday. Ragan reported to crew chief Donnie Wingo the car was tight in the center of the turns, loose off. Under the caution that came out on lap 58, he pitted for four tires, fuel, and air pressure and track bar adjustments. A long green-flag run followed. Ragan was soon lapped by the leader despite the adjustments his crew had made. The car was running better through the turns, but it was still loose off the turns, which resulted in Ragan struggling to gain any ground on the drivers ahead of him. The next pit stop was for four tires, fuel, and a wedge adjustment. However, the changes still did nothing to help the loose-handling condition of the No. 6 Ford. When the caution flag waved on lap 226 due to rain, Ragan pitted for four tires, fuel, and air pressure and wedge adjustments. He was 22nd for the restart on lap 242, and immediately following the restart, reported the car was still too loose. A lack of cautions prevented Ragan from being able to pit and make the adjustments the car needed. He ultimately finished 23rd, 2 laps down. Ragan is 25th in the standings.

After missing the Chase in 2009, Matt Kenseth came to Richmond with no worries of that scenario playing out again in 2010. Kenseth and his team were looking to finish up the final pre-Chase race with a strong performance. He started Saturday night’s race from the 12th position, and cracked the top ten shortly after the green flag had waved. The lengthy opening green-flag run soon had Kenseth informing crew chief Jimmy Fennig that the No. 17 Crown Royal Ford was lacking grip and was tight in the center of the turns, loose off. Kenseth pitted under the lap 58 caution for four tires, fuel, and air pressure and track bar adjustments. He restarted 7th. The adjustments had helped the car gain more overall grip, but loose-handling conditions continued to plague Kenseth. The caution flag waved again on lap 145, and once more Kenseth pitted for more adjustments. He restarted 4th, but the changes made during the pit stop had hurt more than helped. The car had become so tight in the center of the turns that Kenseth couldn’t get it to roll through the turns like he needed it to. Any chance he got, Kenseth pitted so his crew could make adjustments to his car, but handling problems continued to hamper any progress he hoped to make. Kenseth battled hard to get a good finish. Kenseth finished 14th and is now 11th in the standings, 60 points behind Denny Hamlin.

On Friday, Carl Edwards looked like he would be the driver to beat at Richmond. Not only was he fastest in final practice, but he also claimed the pole, which was his 2nd of the season. Edwards led the first 53 laps in the No. 99 Cheez-It Ford before getting passed by the No. 48 of Jimmie Johnson. He pitted under the caution on lap 58, and thanks to a flawless stop by his crew, was able to lead the field back to green. He held onto the lead for the next 42 laps until being passed by the No. 33 of Clint Bowyer. Edwards then reported to crew chief Bob Osborne that the No. 99 Ford was losing grip. He fell back to the 9th position before pitting under the lap 145 caution so his crew could make a wedge adjustment. Edwards restarted 8th. The short runs seemed to be when Edwards’s car ran the best. He was up to 5th by lap 175, but unfortunately the car began to lose grip again. He was 13th when the final caution of the day came out on lap 226 due to rain. The weather looked like it wouldn’t cause the race to end early so Osborne called Edwards down pit road so the team could make an air pressure adjustment. He was 12th for the restart, but the car was still lacking the grip he needed to get back to the front. The No. 99 crew spent the last of the race trying to make the adjustments needed to get Edwards back to the lead. However, the adjustments they made just weren’t enough. Edwards finished 10th and is 9th in the standings, 60 points behind Denny Hamlin.

Virginia native Denny Hamlin won the Air Guard 400 at Richmond International Raceway in dominant fashion, leading 251 laps. He held off teammate Kyle Busch to get that victory, racking up his 6th victory of the season. It put him just 10 points ahead of four-time champion Jimmie Johnson. Congratulations to Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 team on their victory on Saturday and for rocketing to the top of the standings.

Roush Fenway Racing now occupies ¼ of the Chase. Will one of the three Roush Fenway drivers be able bring home a championship to the organization that last earned those honors in 2004? It’s a possibility, but with 12 very talented drivers vying for that top spot come Homestead, it’s anybody’s race…

The Chase is on!

Next up: Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, September 19, 2010.

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