Richmond will shine at night

May 10, 2005 6:22 AM

This week’s stop in Richmond is the third prime time NASCAR Nextel Cup event under the lights in four weeks.

Richmond is no stranger to the lights, writing the unofficial book on NASCAR nightlife etiquette. A night race at Richmond is a little bit of Mardi Gras mixed with some Oktoberfest and then splashed with some Fourth of July. The Capital of the Confederacy really knows how to celebrate a NASCAR weekend and does it better than anyone.

Beyond all the excitement going on in the stands with the fans, on the track is where the real fireworks erupt. This D-shaped three-quarter mile track annually produces some of the circuit’s best racing. The track has all the elements to produce great racing. It’s not too short to minimize the importance of horsepower and not too big to minimize the importance of the driver. The track is absolutely perfect and up there with Bristol as a spectator’s venue.

Because it’s a short track, driver’s tempers are sure to erupt. When that happens, the crowd goes wild like no other track. The fans love to see the drivers wear their emotions in plain view and roar with approval like Romans in the Coliseum. More than anything, they all seem to really appreciate any driver who takes Jeff Gordon out of the running for another victory.

With all the hoopla surrounding Jimmie Johnson at Talladega, he’s sure to join the list as well. The Commonwealth of Virginia’s favorite driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr, called Johnson "an idiot." Throw that in with the fact Johnson and Gordon are teammates, win with regularity, highly successful, from California, and are drivers Earnhardt has called out.

The fans perception was negatively shaped by the late Dale Earnhardt, who took about every shot at Gordon. The comments were usually something in regards to his young age where Earnhardt would always call him "Boy" in a teasing non-flattering way. That, coupled with the fact that wives and girlfriends of many fans rooted for "Wonder Boy" sealed the deal for a lifetime of taunting by male NASCAR fans. Nowhere is the dislike for Gordon more vocal and visible than Richmond.

Johnson was rapidly creating his own identity and niche in the Cup series. Though associated with Gordon’s reign like no other driver, he had a neutral appeal. That was until the Bud King (Dale Junior) made the "idiot" remark. That alone may have turned more than half of NASCAR nation (Junior’s fans) against Johnson, much like Dale Sr. did with Gordon.

The elder statesmen of NASCAR, the respected veterans, aren’t as present or at least as vocal like they used to be. The new NASCAR is full of young drivers and the opinions of many aren’t taken to heart like they used to be. When Darrell Waltrip said something about a driver, people took notice. When Kevin Harvick says something about someone, it doesn’t hold any real merit. Of all the young drivers Junior, with his legions of fans, has the credibility to really make something stick.

So how will all this affect Gordon and Johnson this week? Gordon (11-1) has a better handle on things because he’s booed everywhere he goes. Richmond boos are much louder, poignant, and personal, but Gordon has had tons of practice with it.

Of all the short tracks on tour, Gordon has had the least success at Richmond. He had won twice at Richmond, compared to five victories at Bristol and six at Martinsville. His last Richmond victory came in 2000, his worst career season other than his rookie year. Since Robbie Loomis took over as crew chief, Gordon has never won at Richmond.

Johnson (10-1) has already had a few scraps on that track. He finished 35th last year after leading 32 of the first 33 laps. Johnson was second last spring, but in all other previous runs never posted a top 10. He has probably the most complete car of anyone on tour, but sometimes certain tracks just have your number. When mixing intangibles such as the crowd reaction when he’s announced, how does he deal with that?

I could be wrong, but I believe strongly in the power Dale Earnhardt Jr has over NASCAR nation and particularly Richmond. It doesn’t mean he can’t win the race, because a car’s engine or setup has never had its feelings hurt. However, it would create an element that Johnson hasn’t dealt with over his young career on a track that’s already been tough on him.

The driver we’ll look to key on this week is Ryan Newman (10-1). In six career starts, Newman has a win and two seconds. Those three outstanding performances were all in Newman’s first four Richmond races. Since then, he’s been quite average there other than sitting on the front row of both races last year.

Last season he didn’t win his first race of the year until late June after winning eight in 2003. He is winless up to this point, but this week could present great opportunity. Last week at Darlington he ran a great race and would have won had there not been a late caution. He can build off that run and use his past Richmond success to help motivate him and his team.

Michael Waltrip (17-1) could again be the beneficiary of driving Junior’s hand-me-downs. The DEI teams switched their entire operations before the season started, moving Junior and his sponsors to Waltrip’s and vice versa. Junior had some dominant cars last year and Waltrip almost drove those to victory lane at Phoenix and Talladega. Meanwhile, Junior has struggled with Waltrip’s old junk.

Junior won at Phoenix and Talladega last year so Waltrip wisely used the exact same car, with a NAPA logo on it this year, and ran well. Junior also won at Richmond last year, so it would seem logical that crew chief Tony Eury Jr would use the same exact chassis that he set up for Junior last year. It was promising to see Waltrip almost contend for a non-plate race win at Phoenix, but again we wonder if Waltrip can actually win his first Cup race without a restrictor plate.

Other drivers to watch:

”¡ Tony Stewart (12-1): three career Richmond wins, none since 2002.

”¡ Kasey Kahne (10-1): Struggled in both race last season, but should have Jeremy Mayfield’s winning notes from last season to help.

”¡ Mayfield (15-1): Has a win and a runnerup finish in his last three Richmond races for Ray Evernham.

”¡ Roush Racing: Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle, and Mark Martin are all 11-1, but the drivers to look at seriously may be Matt Kenseth (17-1) and Carl Edwards (18-1). .