NASCAR

Several struggling Cup teams make gains

Brian Vickers
Brian Vickers ended early struggles at Richmond.
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Larry McReynolds

Larry McReynolds has more than 30 years of NASCAR experience as a mechanic, Daytona 500-winning crew chief and broadcaster. He earned 23 Sprint Cup wins as a crew chief, including two victories in the prestigious Daytona 500, as well as a pair of non-points victories in the annual all-star race. Follow him on Twitter.

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When you look at the results from Richmond International Raceway on Saturday night, you will see teams with top-15 finishes that needed this kind of result for a lot of different reasons.

Most notable of those was Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team that finished second. That team and its struggles so far this NASCAR Sprint Cup season were pretty much the focus of our broadcast the other night.

This is a team that won eight races last year. It had the championship in its grasp, but it slipped away. Hamlin had no top-five finishes entering the weekend, since he won the Texas race last November. The team's best in 2011, until Richmond, was a top-10 finish in Las Vegas.

Hamlin was well outside the top 10 in points this year. Rumors were starting to fly that there was going to be a crew chief swap between the No. 11 Hamlin team and the No. 20 group with Joey Logano.

So Denny pulls into Richmond, wins his Late Model charity race on Thursday night, wins the Nationwide Series race on Friday night and then finishes second in the Sprint Cup race on Saturday night.

Then throw into the mix that the No. 20 car, despite a late-race wreck with Jimmie Johnson, rallies back to finish 11th. If that wasn’t enough good news for Joe Gibbs Racing, its other driver, Kyle Busch, won Saturday’s race.

So despite all the turmoil surrounding two of its three cars, JGR enjoyed sweeping the top two spots plus put all three of its cars in the top 11.

If you go on down the list, you will find others that stepped up as well. The Red Bull cars both had top-10 finishes. That was a much needed shot in the arm to that organization.

The Comeback of the Race Award, in my book, has to go to Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team. That bunch qualified 30th, they got lapped a couple of times, ran outside the top 20 for the majority of the night, yet pulled off an eighth-place finish.

That’s a perfect example of why the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team has won five consecutive championships. The team takes take bad days and makes them good days. It takes good days and makes them great days.

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Saturday night at Richmond, Jimmie and the No. 48 crew took what was looking like a disastrous evening and turned it into a pretty darn good night.

There were a couple of others who caught my eye Saturday night, including AJ Allmendinger. He had his best run of 2011.

Tony Stewart has been struggling of late. His night pretty much mirrored Johnson’s. Stewart qualified 31st. He also got lapped and was outside the top 20 most of the night. Like Jimmie, Tony was able to rebound and came home in ninth.

The other one I wanted to point out — and I think we documented it pretty well during the broadcast — is Dave Blaney. He and that No. 36 team had a great run going at Talladega Superspeedway in the previous race but didn’t get the finish to show for it.

Saturday night at Richmond, Dave brings that car home in the 13th spot. Now, for the first time in the three-year history of Tommy Baldwin Racing, the team enters the next race not having to worry about qualifying. They are in the top 35 in owners points and are guaranteed a spot in this Saturday’s race at Darlington Raceway.

Circle back

This weekend's action at Richmond will make your head spin. PHOTOS.

Also take a look at David Ragan in the No. 6 car. He was the top finishing Ford the other night. David hasn’t had a top-five finish in almost two-and-a-half years. His previous top five was in Talladega in October 2008.

Had the Richmond race gone to one of those green-white-checkered finishes, we actually might be talking about David getting his first win in Sprint Cup. David was the only one who would have had enough fuel to make it should the race go into overtime.

So now we are essentially one-third of the way through the first 26 races. Three of the last four races in the NASCAR on FOX portion of the season are at tracks that will be in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. That includes Dover International Speedway in two weeks, then Charlotte Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway.

Unfortunately, Darlington, which hosts the race this weekend, doesn’t have a second race.

So, like Richmond on Saturday night, these are tracks that these teams will have to deal with again, and they all are very important.

Richmond, for example, is the last race before the start of the 2011 Chase. The field for the Chase will be set after the September Richmond race. So these next handful of races are going to be pivotal to the teams that will be back here in the fall racing for the championship.

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