Tom Bowles
Sunday May 2nd, 2010

A big complaint from NASCAR fans this year concerned Jimmie Johnson threatening to turn a fifth straight Sprint Cup title bid into a rout. Winning three of the first five races, the new "four-time" appeared to be toying with the rest of the field in building a 108-point lead through Texas in mid-April.

But just as April showers bring May flowers, the race to the Chase has changed drastically in just one month. Three of his biggest rivals -- Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, and Kyle Busch -- have made on-track statements with victories while a fourth, Jeff Gordon, did it off the track with his mouth. Meanwhile, Johnson's gone five races without a victory and slipped to second in the standings, the most vulnerable he's looked since the season started.

Which contender is in the best position to make a run at the No. 48? Right now, Busch has the edge as we look at Five Things We Learned From Richmond:

1. Kyle Busch and Dave Rogers have the monkey off their back ...

When Busch missed the Chase in '09, Joe Gibbs Racing officials made a risky move with their driver's blessing, replacing crew chief Steve Addington just one year after the team won eight races and the regular-season points title. Pairing up with former Nationwide head wrench Dave Rogers, the younger Busch hoped for a quick fix right out of the box. But in the duo's first race together, a troubling pattern developed that haunted them the next five months: in position to win at Texas, a bad call by Rogers caused the No. 18 to run out of gas while leading.

Older brother Kurt Busch took the checkers that day, scoring another win in 2010 with a new head wrench of his own: Addington. That put the pressure squarely on the Kyle/Dave combo, and after a litany of near-misses based on Rogers' pit calls JGR's primary driver had to add a new word to his vocabulary: patience.

"I felt like Dave needed some time to get going and get everything organized, to get the team behind him," Kyle Busch said. "You got to give and take sometimes."

Shocking words from a driver who always had a "checkers or wreckers" philosophy, but that's how this duo worked through an 0-for-12 drought together. The driver did his best to keep a fiery temper in check, and when it blew the crew chief let it brush right off his back.

"Dave and I, we have a lot of same mentality, which maybe is scary to some," Busch added after scoring the victory Saturday. "But to us, it actually works pretty good. We're both fiery competitors. We both want to win, and we both get upset when we don't or things don't go our way. We understand each other."

Their comfort level clearly paid off at Richmond, where Busch led 221 of 229 laps before sliding backwards like he'd hit a patch of ice. Before you could blink, the No. 18 was fifth and Jeff Gordon appeared to be rocketing towards the victory. The "old" Busch would have panicked; instead, a maturing one (who turns 25 today) kept the confidence up and waited for Rogers to make a fix. Then, with 30 to go, the crew chief hit on the right strategy of bringing Busch in for tires when the top 5 stayed out under caution. While they restarted sixth, fresh rubber proved the difference in getting them back to Victory Lane on a night that had them flexing championship muscle.

"I'm real proud," said Rogers of how they fought. "It would have been great to lead all the laps. But, you know, winning it the way we did is probably more special, a greater lesson to our race team."

"That's what it's going to take to compete with the 48 year in and year out, try to make a run at the championship."

2. While Jeff Gordon doesn't.

Busch's gain was Gordon's loss, dropping to a runner-up finish after getting beat on a green-flag restart with five laps to go. That's the eighth second-place for Gordon in his last 38 starts, symptomatic of a troubling inability to close the deal on Victory Lane. Armed with the best car in most of those, he's been robbed so often car owner Rick Hendrick needs to form a Neighborhood Watch around his pit box.

"I've been doing this long enough to know they don't give out trophies for leading any lap other than the last one," Gordon said afterwards, emphasizing he's not frustrated by flying high over so many solid runs. "We're a team that's made huge strides. Even though we finished third in the points last year, I don't feel we were near as competitive as we are right now. That's what I'm excited about. We're leading laps, a bunch of laps, at a lot of different types of tracks."

He's led 599, in fact, leading that category by more than 100 over the Busch brothers and Jimmie Johnson. It's a hollow victory, though, when you consider he's the only one of those four drivers to still post a shutout on Victory Lane in 2010.

"I think our team is really on top of our game," he said. "We got to keep putting ourselves in position."

True. But you can only talk the talk so many times before you have to walk the walk. No question, everyone involved with the No. 24 is ready to throw their hands up and yell, "What do we have to do?" That's not a good thing.

3. NASCAR's "wave around" rule needs to be waved good-bye.

After Busch dominated the first half of the race, he'd lapped all but eight cars by the time a second caution came out for debris. But by the time the green flag waved once again, that number was up to 27. Why? The sport's "wave around" rule, put in place with last year's change to double-file restarts, gives any car their lap back if they don't pit under caution when the lead lap cars do. Once all eight of them dove down pit road, a record 19 stayed out to get their reward of starting right behind the leader.

"It would have been great to keep that many cars a lap down," said Rogers. "[But] everybody behind us was going to pit. The seven guys behind us are going to drive by us, and we're going to lose our track position just to keep cars a lap down. It's not worth it."

It's also not fair. NASCAR's policy gives too many cars a "free pass" for being off the pace early in races, giving no incentive for drivers to race hard early. Look at Jamie McMurray: he dropped to 19th with all those cars back on the lead lap after having a top-10 finish in the bag. NASCAR also added insult to injury Saturday night, throwing another questionable debris caution right afterwards (for a water bottle) to ensure those drivers all got their lap back. Last time I checked, there was only one WWE, and this rule turns the sport too much towards pure entertainment.

4. Richard Childress Racing has its short-track program back in order.

No one would argue RCR's reestablished itself as one of Sprint Cup's elite teams. But Childress' short track program -- always its bread-and-butter -- had produced zero top-5 finishes in six 2010 starts. Richmond was important to show RCR's three cars could compete anytime, anywhere, and both Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton came through with third and fourth-place runs, respectively.

"It's fun to been racing for wins," said Harvick, who also took over the point lead. "We've led the points at the end of 10 weeks now so there is no reason we can't make it after the last ten."


5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. blew a big opportunity -- literally.

Earnhardt's long had Richmond on the calendar as one of his favorite tracks. Entering the weekend off a landmark announcement he'd run his dad's No. 3 this July, hopes were high he'd leave it with a top-5 finish.

But it wasn't to be. An unscheduled green-flag pit stop left him off sequence and several laps down to the leaders, a 32nd-place finish that knocked him outside the top 12 in points. As we talked about last week, that's more damaging than you think because of a tough slate of tracks coming up (Pocono, Infineon) that serve as his weak point. Junior leaves the track just five positions higher (13th) than he was in 2009 during a poor start that got old crew chief Tony Eury Jr. fired.

Race Grade: C. Again, this grade is adjusted due to Richmond's high expectations. Often the best track on the circuit, two dominating green-flag runs (first by Busch, then Gordon) up front turned this race into a snoozer. Only the luck of some late-race cautions bunched up the field and gave us an exciting finish.

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