Champagne! (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Kevin Harvick backed up his rep as a formidable 'closer' with a furious finish to win Saturday night's curious Richmond 400, in overtime, taking advantage of a late caution that doomed surprising Juan Pablo Montoya.
Montoya, who has won only twice since joining the Sprint Cup tour in 2006 and who has had a long run of mediocre finishes since his last top-10 nearly a year ago, was the man to beat down the stretch. And he was hitting his marks perfectly, holding Harvick at bay...when Brian Vickers crashed hard, bringing out the yellow with only six laps to go at this three-quarter-mile track. Without that yellow, Harvick said he didn't think he could have overtaken Montoya.
In a surprising move, most of the front runners pitted for fresh tires, giving up track position, including Montoya and Harvick.
Jeff Burton, Jamie McMurray and AJ Allmendinger stayed out and were at the head of the pack for the last restart, but with tires 60 laps more worn than those behind. And fresh tires did trump that track position.
Harvick was seventh on the restart but quickly blitzed through to the lead at the white and pulled away from Clint Bowyer and Joey Logano for his first win of the season -- a season that will be his last with team owner Richard Childress after 13 years as the man hired to fill the void left by the 2001 death of Dale Earnhardt.
"A lot of people thought we might lay down this year, but no way," Harvick said. Next season he is to drive for Tony Stewart.
The final restart, with Jeff Burton on the inside, Jamie McMurray on the outside, and Kevin Harvick stuck back in seventh (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
For most of the 3-1/2-hour race, the action was generally follow-the-leader, with Toyota's Matt Kenseth, Bowyer and Kyle Busch dominating.
Then with 90 laps to go in the 400-lapper things got crazy quickly.
Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch were hot and heavy when the yellow came out, for a blown engine. Everyone pitted, and NASCAR officials first ruled against Kyle Busch that, in pitting routinely, he did not have his two left-side tires below the 'commitment line.' That would have all but taken him out of the race, by putting him at the rear of the field.
However after several minutes checking replays officials gave Kyle Busch the benefit of the doubt, putting Kyle sixth on the restart.
But moments after that restart Tony Stewart slid up into Jimmie Johnson, triggering a crash that took out Kyle Busch. Stewart quickly took the blame and apologized.
The crashing -- temper tantrums perhaps -- continued. Kasey Kahne took out Mark Martin. Then Kurt Busch put Martin Truex Jr. in the wall in a battle for second place.
During the melees and pit stops, Montoya wound up in the lead, and Harvick appeared not quite strong enough to run him down.
Then the final yellow, the stunning pit stops, and Harvick's victorious charge.
Yet the crashing was still not over.
Stewart, who has had a rough season, got bounced around and shuffled from eighth to 18 in those final minutes. And he and Kurt Busch tangled hard, including several hard bumps after the race, followed by an angry encounter in the garage.
Kyle Busch on the inside, brother Kurt on the outside, dueling late in the Richmond 400. Both had great shots to win (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"You have to take chances," Harvick said of that last pit call. "But we've been beaten by (fresher) tires this year, and Gil Martin (his crew chief) made the right call. The guys on 'no tires' were sitting ducks.
"The seas parted on the restart. I didn't know how those guys on old tires would do. But we got through."
Kurt Busch, who has struggled this season, had a brilliant night, perhaps his best since joining Barney Visser and crew chief Todd Berrier. And Busch had a great shot at the win. That, he said, was more important than the banging with Stewart.
"This was a solid run. We were there, top-five all night. A great night for us," Kurt Busch said.
"You could tell, green-white-checkered, it was just a free-for-all. There was heavy rubber up high (difficult to race on), and everyone was pushing and gouging.
"I don't know what Tony was upset about. I was getting hit from all sides. Matt Kenseth hit me at the end, and I didn't like that.
"But today was a great day. We've got to go for wins."
The night's surprising loser was Montoya. He was poised to win....though team owner Chip Ganassi wasn't even at the track.
"It was no-brainer to take tires," Montoya said of that end-game strategy.
"But what hurt us was restarting on the outside. Where can you jump? On the inside you can jump up.
"But we've had six really bad weeks, so I'm really proud of these guys."
Gil Martin's crew spot-on in Saturday night's Richmond 400. Maybe that will overshadow Friday night's controversies (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)