Arriving on Thursday night in Indy the Richard Childress Racing Team expected big things from their drivers but after first practice on Friday the only RCR driver to post a speed in the top ten was Jeff Burton. Second practice on Friday afternoon found Kevin Harvick 5th fast and Jeff Burton 9th quickest. The third practice session on Saturday morning, and the final practice before qualifications ended without any Richard Childress Chevy drivers on the top ten list.
Qualifications came and went without any of the RCR teams cracking the front five rows. The highest starter among the four teams would be Jeff Burton, who would start 13th on Sunday. Paul Menard would roll off the starting grid in 15th position, Kevin Harvick would start 19th, and Clint Bowyer would begin on the outside of the 13th row for the 18th running of the Brickyard 400.
The Brickyard 400
The opening laps of the Brickyard 400 found the RCR drivers settling in for a long day. Jeff Burton gained six positions in the opening 20 laps and was shown in 9th place as lap 20 was in books. Paul Menard and Kevin Harvick teamed up to find 14th and 15th place, respectively on lap 25 when the first round of green flag pits stops began. Once the pit stops had cycled through, lap 20 found Harvick running 12th and Menard in 13th position. Bowyer was in 16th place and Burton, back in traffic was shown in the 33rd spot.
The first caution of the day flew on lap 35 for debris; Harvick dropped to 23rd on the restart after choosing to take two tires during his previous pit stop. By lap 41 Kevin was still mired back in 23rd place. In front of Harvick, Menard was shown in 18th place, Bowyer in 17th running position, and Burton in 15th place. By lap 42 the RCR drivers had grouped together to form a chain starting with Bowyer in 16th, followed by Bowyer in 17th, Menard in 18th, and Harvick in the 19th position on the track.
Each RCR driver had improved one spot when the yellow waved on lap 50 for David Reutimann's run in with the wall. After a slow stop for Paul under yellow Menard would restart in 30th position. Bowyer restarted in 17th place, Harvick in 19th position, and Burton 21st on the grid. By lap 63, 10 laps after the restart Bowyer had improved to 13th on the track, Harvick was shown 15th, Burton in 17th position, and Menard was running 27th.
Green flag pit stops were again underway as the race reached the halfway mark. Burton, Bowyer, and Harvick all headed to the pits on lap 80 but Menard opted to remain on the track where he inherited the lead on lap 84 before coming to the pits on the next lap. Once all stops were made Bowyer was shown in 12th position, Harvick was running 15th, Burton was in 19th place, and Menard in the 28th position.
When the yellow came out on lap 94 Menard again took over the lead when he stayed on the track as many other headed in for service. Lap 99 showed Menard as leader, Harvick running 14th, Bowyer in 18th position, and Burton in 19th. Menard held onto the lead until a bump from the 17 of Matt Kenseth on lap 16 caused him shuffle back to the 4th position. With 50 to go Menard was 4th, Harvick was 12th, Bowyer was 13th, and Burton was 31st.
Kyle Busch brought out the next caution on lap 112 as he kissed the wall in turn two; this time around Burton opted to stay out when others went for fuel and tires. Menard took four tires and fuel, whereas Bowyer and Harvick took the gamble with two tires on their stops. The restart on lap 117 would see Burton in the 2nd position, Harvick 8th, Bowyer 10th, and Menard in 12th place. Bowyer got in a hurry as the green flag dropped and made his way to 6th position by lap 119. A scary moment on lap 120 when Landon Cassill spun saw the 27 car of Paul Menard dive low to avoid the crash; all RCR drivers made it through safely.
The closing laps of the 2011 Brickyard 400 came down to fuel conservation. With 10 laps to go, Menard was leading and crew chief Slugger Labbe was on the radio instructing his driver to save fuel. Menard let then second place driver Jamie McMurray pass him and ducked behind McMurray in hopes of saving a bit of fuel from the draft. By the time the call from the pits came with four to go that it was go time for Menard and he no longer needed to conserve fuel, Paul was ready.
With Jeff Gordon coming up strong from behind, Menard passed McMurray
Menard moved up five positions in the Chase to 12th place in the standings; Paul's win also puts into contention for one of the two wild card spots in the Chase. Kevin Harvick improved one spot with his 11th place finish at the Brickyard and now shows in the 3rd position for the Championship race. Clint Bowyer held steady in the Chase standings in 10th position after finishing 13th in Sunday's race. Jeff Burton's standing also remains unchanged as he will still show 25th in points totals after a finish of 35th due to a late race engine failure with just seven laps to go.
Looking Ahead to Pocono...
Paul Menard has a good chance of putting two good weeks together as we look forward to Pocono. Menard started from the 2nd position in Pocono's earlier race this season and finished his day in the 14th position. Menard will be looking for a top ten finish and hoping for a continuation of his Chase standing improvement next week. With a fifth place finish in the 5-Hour Energy 500 at Pocono in the spring Kevin Harvick is going into next weekend with confidence for his chances at Pocono; Harvick is another RCR driver who wants to keep rising to the top of the Points leader board.
Jeff Burton had 8th and 7th place finishes at least year's Pocono races but was able to only finish 20th at the 2011 spring race in Pennsylvania. Burton is still looking for his first top ten finish in the 2011 season; Pocono provides a good possibility for a breakthrough race for Jeff with his experience and past history at the track. Clint Bowyer needs a solid performance at Pocono to keep himself in the top ten for the Chase. With just five races left before the Chase cut off, Bowyer cannot afford any mistakes that could take his team out of contention.
Richard Childress Racing and the other NASCAR teams will roll into Long Pond Pennsylvania for first practice on Friday at noon; second and final practice will take place later that afternoon at 4pm. Qualifications will begin Saturday morning at 10:40am. Cup drivers will roll off the starting grid on Sunday for the Good Sam RV Insurance 500 just after 1pm. Tune in to watch the Richard Childress drivers fight their way around the Tricky Triangle and see if RCR can come out on top for a second week in a row.
Amy McHargue has followed various forms of auto racing since she was a child. She was born and raised in southern Indiana, where she still resides with her teen son, cat, and Doberman-Jack Russell Terrier mix. Amy makes attempts to get to the track as often as possible, currently works for a self-publishing organization, and recently graduated college with a Bachelor Degree in Organizational Security. Amy can be reached by email at email@example.com or at www.twitter.com/amymack74