RICHMOND — For sheer memorability, the Toyota Owners 400 earned its place on the list of unforgettable Sprint Cup Series races at Richmond International Raceway.
Crazy start. Twenty lead changes. Multiple car fires. Great beat-and-bang finish. The 400-lap, 300-mile race never failed to offer the kind of Saturday night short-track atmosphere so many fans crave, and even threw in a good fistfight afterward.
Joey Logano emerged victorious in a multi-car battle for the checkered flag over the final laps, with Jeff Gordon second, Kyle Busch third, Brad Keselowski fourth and Matt Kenseth fifth. While Logano was happy to virtually nail down a Chase for the Cup spot with his second victory of the season, even the guys who appeared most likely to win until his late charge acknowledged it was a fun ride.
“That was one of the wildest races with 10 [laps] to go that I have ever seen here at Richmond,” said Cup points leader Gordon, who led a race-high 173 laps.
Keselowski, who was next with 114 laps led, said, “Yeah, it was a wild finish. It just came down to really a four-way battle between [his own car], the 20 [Kenseth], the 24 [Gordon] and the 22 [Logano].
Logano took advantage of a three-way battle for the lead with Kenseth in the middle, Keselowski outside and Gordon inside of them with four laps to go on the three-quarters of a mile oval. As they rubbed and raced, Logano shot inside of them on the bottom and drove off to victory.
"[Kenseth] started blocking the top because [Keselowski] was so fast up top for the first 10 laps of a run,” Logano said. “Eventually the seas parted because I got all the air on the nose while they were up there racing each other.
“I was able to get underneath and pass them both in one shot, so it all worked out for me.”
On-track at least, that was the finale of non-stop action that began immediately at the drop of the green flag more than three hours earlier. Rookie phenom Kyle Larson started on the pole for the first time in his Cup career, but his stay up front didn’t last even to the first turn.
Larson ran a high line into the turn next to No. 2-starter Keselowski, while Clint Bowyer, who started on the inside of the second row, attempted to drive into the void left at the bottom. Larson did not appear to see Bowyer, and spun from contact with him when he dropped low.
It was hard to fault Bowyer, who wanted anything but to start the race by hitting the pole-sitter after playing the villain at Richmond in September with his intentional spin.
“I really hate that happened,” Bowyer said. “I was like, ‘OK, I guess I’m going to the bottom if you’re going to give me the bottom.’
“Then at the last minute he arced it in and I just wasn’t ready for him. I tried to get on the brakes and just got into him.”
One scribe observed that Bowyer got his comeuppance in the race, not for hitting Larson but for the ill-advised September spin he made in an attempt to get a teammate into the Chase. That comeuppance was a last-place finish — the result of car fire after his right-front tire shredded.
Bowyer was far from alone in that respect. Cole Whitt, Reed Sorenson and Ricky Stenhouse also saw their cars go up flames after shredded right-front-tire rubber made contact with hot brakes.
As spectacular as some of those flames were, the fireworks ignited in the postrace fight between Marcos Ambrose and Casey Mears were more kinetic. Mears, who finished 19th, shoved 18th-place Ambrose, who responded by landing a right cross.
Ambrose took a sucker-punch uppercut to the chin from someone in the large flock of crew members surrounding the two drivers. NASCAR is investigating the incident.
It was a fitting ending to a Richmond classic somewhere on the track-best list below the 1986 dust-up between Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip. Like that afternoon, when Kyle Petty won his first race, Logano, who had averaged an 18th-place finish at RIR, was a somewhat surprising winner.
“This isn’t a very good track for me in the past, but we had a really good Shell Pennzoil Ford today and were able to put it in Victory Lane,” Logano said. “This is so cool to win two races already this season, and it is just going to be one heck of a season.
“I can’t wait to get to the track next week."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times