Lights shine bright on Richmond race

May 11, 2004 3:17 AM

This weekend’s Saturday night special at Richmond will be a welcome sight for many fans across the country, not only because the Cup drivers have been off for a week and their competition is missed, but because we all get to watch a little short track racing under the lights.

When the lights come on during a Richmond race and the moon is hovering, the freaks come out. Not only do the normally reserved attitudes of drivers and crews in the pits freakishly change, but in the stands, it becomes a Richmond boys and girls gone wild episode.

The contingency at this annual race in the Capital of the Confederacy uses these events to show just how loud and exciting they can make a race look from the stands to the entire NASCAR nation on national television. Known for their wild antics and harsh taunting directed at a few select drivers, this week we might expect more fireworks than usual from them. After all, they were one upped the last few weeks by Talladega, and of all places, California!

In the last two races, coincidentally won by everyone’s favorite boo-bird Jeff Gordon, the fans littered the track with garbage, bottles, and anything else they could chuck at the winning No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet. The Talladega fans, even though they dislike Gordon almost as much as Richmond fans, were protesting the decision to run the last four laps under caution.

Not to mention the fact that it failed to give their hero, Dale Earnhardt Jr, who finished second, a chance to win for the fifth time in six races. What that reaction by the fans at Talladega did was have a copycat effect for the next race. When Gordon won in his home state of California, the copycats (likely loyal Jr fans) decided to throw garbage at his car. The amount wasn’t nearly as much as Talladega, but the thought was planted in their heads prior because of what they had witnessed at Talladega.

Kyle Petty had a harsh suggestion, but one that made sense and would have the most impact. Petty advocated taking away the track’s date for the next season. Fans would really think twice about throwing anything then.

There is hope that the tradition rich NASCAR fans of Richmond will be above all that sort of behavior and show that they’re better than Talladega and California. However, I got a bad feeling that if Gordon or Tony Stewart win the race, debris will come out of the stands like we have never seen before. Hopefully, it doesn’t come to that and this will be a phase that passes. If it doesn’t end, then let’s see some harsh penalties go out to the tossers.

The scenario of Gordon (10-1) or Stewart (8-1) winning at Richmond this Saturday night is a realistic one. Gordon is coming off of back to back wins and is a two time champ at Richmond, the last being in 2000. Stewart is a three-time winner at Richmond, but hasn’t had any success there in the last three races.

Gordon will be able to mentally distract himself from the fans during the race while not having to worry about cheap shots on the track. He has earned the respect of all the drivers and as one of the elder statesmen on the tour he now commands respect more so than ever before.

Stewart will not have that luxury this week. There have been two weeks for him to sit and "stew" reading all the commentaries and opinions from drivers and writers across the country about his steak of being involved in the middle of something. The most notable ringleader against Stewart is Rusty Wallace, who isn’t exactly the cleanest pig in the pen himself.

Other drivers have commented as well, but none with Wallace’s anger. It’ll be interesting to see how they all hook up this week, but the drivers also need to be fair to Stewart. NASCAR has cleared him and it’s a matter of him just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’s an aggressive high energy driver and has always gone all out, which has always been the key to his success.

Hopefully, Stewart will get some advice from some respected drivers on the tour that he can actually use, unlike the criticism thrown his way by Wallace. His teammate, Bobby Labonte, would seem like the perfect candidate to help him change public perception in a diplomatic fashion.

Sometimes trouble seems to follow a certain driver in streaks and even though he may have someone like Wallace gunning for him this Saturday, Stewart definitely is still someone to respect at the betting window.

Another driver that has caught on to Richmond success right of the gate is Ryan Newman (7-1), who had the best car on the track in the only four races he’s run there. In his first year, he finished second twice. Last season he led 25 laps a quarter of the way through the race until car problems took him out.

Newman followed that great early run with a win later in the season. He hasn’t shown that sense of dominance like we saw in the later two-thirds of the season last year, but has stayed clear from the brutal start of a year ago. Look for Newman to be very competitive this week and show why he’s the favorite.

Dale Earnhardt Jr (8-1) has been just about as cool on the track as he’s ever been in his career. Junior’s goal is winning a championship and he’s definitely on the right pace. This week he goes to a track where no one has a better average finish over a career nine-race span. In that time frame, Junior has four top 5 finishes that includes a victory in 2000.

Matt Kenseth (14-1) has been on a run of four straight top 7 finishes at Richmond, one of which is a win in the fall of ’02. It seems like ages ago since Kenseth won at Vegas coming off back to back wins, but don’t forget about him. No matter where he qualifies or practices, Kenseth is always one to consider, much in the same way we used to think about Jeff Burton (50-1).

A nice long shot to take a look at may be Kenseth’s teammate and boss Mark Martin (25-1), who hasn’t won at Richmond since 1990. Martin has been very competitive the last few seasons there, more so than any other track since his decline from being one of the top 5 drivers on the tour. In his last seven races there, he’s finished no worse than 19th with two 13’s, a 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th, the best average finish of anyone over that same span.

Twenty drivers drove in a test session at Richmond last weekend and all agreed that the track qualifying record will be broken this weekend due to the newly laid asphalt. It’s been 15 years since the track was last repaved. This makes the race hard to determine. Since the cars will all be going faster, it could equate to more cautions than usual. The over/under cautions is 11½.