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Rewind: Confusion and flags at Richmond

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Sunday, Apr. 29, 2012

Looking back at the Capital City 400 at Richmond International Raceway:

Observations

As confusing as the issue surrounding Carl Edwards getting black-flagged late in Saturday night's race may sound, it's actually very simple. When the caution came out on Lap 312, Edwards was the only car not to have made a green-flag pit stop. Thus, there were only three cars on the lead lap at that time, including Edwards. He then pitted. There is no way you can be the only car to pit and still be the race leader. Regardless of who told who what, Edwards should have known the moment he went down pit road he was no longer the race leader.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. remains mired in his career-worst winless streak, yet his consistently strong finishes have him trailing Sprint Cup series points leader Greg Biffle by just five points entering next weekend's race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. Who doesn't think Earnhardt has a chance to leave Alabama next weekend as the series points leader?

Jimmie Johnson seems snake-bitten this season. Again, Johnson appeared to have a car capable of winning and a costly pit-road penalty for a loose tire on his final stop kept him out of contention for the victory. Could more pit crew changes be in store?

Notes

Earnhardt comes close

Dale Earnhardt Jr. unexpectedly found himself with a chance to end his career-worst winless streak late in Saturday night's race, but couldn't quite capitalize.

When the lead-lap cars pitted with 12 laps left, Kyle Busch came off pit road with the lead, followed by Tony Stewart and Earnhardt. Earnhardt was able to get around Stewart but couldn't make up any ground on Busch.

“You just try to do the best you can to win the race and be smart doing it,” Earnhardt said. “Our team did a good job on pit road. We're just trying to click away some good runs. We want to win a race. If we keep running up front, that will happen.”

Earnhardt is now second in the series standings, five points behind leader Greg Biffle.

Kahne continues rebound

After a disastrous start to the 2012 season, Kasey Kahne continued his comeback, finishing fifth Saturday night – his third consecutive top-10 finish.

“We're definitely trying to run top-10, top-five; do the best we can,” Kahne said. “Once we get things figured out, hopefully, we can get a couple of wins. Right now, the guys are doing a good job. We had good pit stops. It was a pretty solid race for us.”

Kahne, who had dropped as low as 32nd in the series standings after a 37th-place finish at Bristol, is now 23rd after nine races.

Martin stands out

Here's another sign of Michael Waltrip Racing's improvement this season: While Mark Martin has run only seven of nine races this season, he is still 19th in the series standings and ranked higher than 15 drivers who have competed in every race.

Martin started from the pole Saturday night, but struggled early in the race. He finished eighth, his fourth top-10 finish.

“I've never seen a guy (Rodney Childers, crew chief) improve one of my cars that much in one race,” Martin said. “You've got to be able to do that. I'm really surprised.”

3 keys to victory

1. As an early sign he would be a factor, Kyle Busch runs down and passes then-leader Tony Stewart on Lap 286, taking the lead for the first time.

2. Carl Edwards is eliminated from contention when he is black-flagged for jumping the start on the restart on Lap 319. Edwards led the most laps in the race (206).

3. Busch’s pit crew gets him off pit road first on the final round of stops on Lap 389, saving their best performance for last in the race.

Turning point

On Lap 387 of 400, NASCAR throws a caution for debris on the track and the lead-lap cars pit. Busch got off pit road first, giving him an advantage on the restart.

Things would have been different if …

No late-race debris caution would likely have meant a Tony Stewart victory. No black-flag of Carl Edwards on the next-to-last restart would have left one additional contender in the hunt at the end.

Next race

Aaron's 499

Where: Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.

When: 1 p.m. Sunday.

TV: Fox.

Radio: Motor Racing Network.

Last year’s winner: Jimmie Johnson.

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