NASCAR: Round 26 – Chevy Rock and Roll 400, Richmond

And so we reach the end of the Race for the Chase. For all but 12 drivers, the season effectively ends here; and some big names were having to come to the realisation that they were left out in the cold.

The Race for the Chase overshadowed the race itself, with the tension tick in the Richmond night-time under the floodlights of Richmond, acting as a high-intensity crucible for the occasion. As Mark Martin got them under way after a short delay while the track was dried after some earlier race, we was one of the eleven drivers yet to mathematically secure their Chase position. Perhaps mindful that a good finish – not a win – was what was really important here, Martin’s time at the top lasted just four lap before Denny Hamlin took over.

In reality, Martin was safe unless there was a serious disaster. The real attention of the evening was on three drivers who were very close in points and all squabbling over the 12th and final position for the Chase: Kyle Busch, Brian Vickers and Matt Kenseth. There could be only one …

And it was clear from early on that the one was not going to be Matt Kenseth. Starting from 28th place, he laboured for much of the day round about that position without making much headway, complaining of poor handling that the crew seemed unable to get to grips with. He didn’t help his own campaign when he overshot his box at the first round of pit stops and had to be hauled back into his own pit stall; it was symptomatic of his evening, and Kenseth – who should have been the favourite to take the final Chase spot after coming in 20pts ahead of his nearest challenges – was emphatically out of contention for the night.

That left the battle between Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers. Kyle had an uneven time of it, with a particularly bad stretch after the first round of pit stops seeing him complain of the handling and dropping backwards, but things looked better after the second sequence of stops and he was usually to be found in the top ten and ahead of Vickers, who was consistent but not continually close enough to Kyle to outpoint him for the Chase. As the race wore on, Vickers seemed to adopt a strategy of shadowing the 18 car: when Kyle moved up a place, Brian would too, keeping the Sprint points difference the same – and himself in the Chase. Could he keep that up down to the wire, though?

Up front, Hamlin settled into the lead that lasted until lap 67, when Jeff Gordon’s car proved too strong after the first round of pit stops. Gordon led Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin for nearly a hundred laps, though another pit stop sequence, until Gordon started getting held up by lapped traffic and Hamlin passed him to take the lead again on lap 151.

Gordon retook the lead at the next round of pit stops on lap 176, and then a period of yo-yo-ing lead changes saw Hamlin and Gordon trading the position four times running close on track until the next caution period. Gordon had just reclaimed the lead when the yellows came out on lap 204, but Hamlin took it right back in the pit stops – and this time held firmly on to it.

The running order settled down during this third quarter of the race, with everyone treading very carefully – unwilling to be the cause of or involved in a catastrophic wreck that would undo the Chase hopes of the front runners. Tony Stewart was busy working his way up the running order, and Sam Hornish Jr had a terrific run into the top six, only for both of them to have their efforts undone by poor pit stops; Clint Bowyer was also working up a storm and cracking the top ten. Jimmie Johnson, meanwhile, was suffering handling problems and falling backwards. In the Busch/Vickers Race for the Chase, Vickers’ pit crew pulled off a significant coup in the penultimate pit stop on lap 321 to put their guy out ahead of Busch, gaining three spots.

At the restart on lap 325 it was Hamlin leading Gordon, Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Mark Martin to the green flag; Bowyer and Gordon had a disagreement over the second spot and Gordon came off the worse for it, dropping back to sixth place just before another yellow briefly interrupted proceedings. At the next attempt at a restart it was Kyle Busch suddenly coming on strong and making a bid for he lead he needed to be sure of qualifying for the chase; he made it as high as 4th before starting to fall back again to 8th place, and time was definitely running out for him.

At the final pit stops on lap 382, Busch managed to get off pit road in 6th one spot ahead of Vickers; not enough of a margin to get the Chase spot, and there were only 14 laps of racing to go after the restart. Busch tried and failed to take the 4th spot from Jeff Gordon but the 18 simply didn’t have the pace; the writing was on the wall for Kyle now. Vickers stayed two slots behind, and that meant – as they crossed the finish line – Vickers had taken the final Chase position by a mere 8pts from Busch.

Up front, there really was no one to match Hamlin, although Kurt Busch gave it a solid try in the closing laps. Hamlin had run well at Richmond before but always been thwarted at the last moment from the win; no such problem this time around. After dominating the race, he took the chequered flag and basked in the long-delayed gratification of the win. It meant he finished the Race for the Chase in 4th place, and the win gave him an extra 10pts when the Chase points scheme were applied, consolidating that position for next week.

With everyone being so careful around the Race for the Chase, we had few incidents of any severity for a total of ten yellow flags during the evening: Scott Speed got a tap from Jeff Burton and spun on lap 5; Tony Stewart got loose while three-wide with Reed Sorenson and David Stremme on lap 44, rolling himself and Sorenson into a slow-speed spin; Regan Smith stopped on track on lap 57 with technical problems but was refired back in the pits; and there was debris on lap 106 and 172.

Regan Smith featured in the sixth caution on lap 204 when he blew a tyre and hit the wall; Martin Truex Jr had a tyre go down on lap 278 sending him up into the wall; Jeff Burton suffered a cut tyre on lap 318 from a clash with David Stremme, which brought out a yellow on the next lap as the tyre left debris on the track; Michael Waltrip spun on the front straight on lap 327; and a final yellow with twenty laps to go came out as a result of Brad Keselowski blowing an engine on lap 380.

Race result

Pos  Driver             Car        Laps
 1.  Denny Hamlin       Toyota     
 2.  Kurt Busch         Dodge      
 3.  Jeff Gordon        Chevrolet  
 4.  Mark Martin        Chevrolet  
 5.  Kyle Busch         Toyota     
 6.  Clint Bowyer       Chevrolet  
 7.  Brian Vickers      Toyota     
 8.  Sam Hornish Jr     Dodge      
 9.  Kevin Harvick      Chevrolet  
10.  Ryan Newman        Chevrolet  
11.  Jimmie Johnson     Chevrolet  
12.  Kasey Kahne        Dodge      
13.  Greg Biffle        Ford       
14.  Joey Logano        Toyota     
15.  Carl Edwards       Ford       
16.  Reed Sorenson      Dodge      
17.  Tony Stewart       Chevrolet  
18.  Jeff Burton        Chevrolet  
19.  Juan Montoya       Chevrolet  
20.  David Reutimann    Toyota     
21.  Dale Earnhardt Jr  Chevrolet  
22.  Marcos Ambrose     Toyota     
23.  AJ Allmendinger    Dodge      
24.  David Gilliland    Toyota     
25.  Matt Kenseth       Ford       
26.  David Stremme      Dodge      
27.  Jamie McMurray     Ford       
28.  Paul Menard        Ford       -  1
29.  John Andretti      Chevrolet  -  1
30.  Casey Mears        Chevrolet  -  2
31.  Bobby Labonte      Ford       -  2
32.  Michael Waltrip    Toyota     -  2
33.  David Ragan        Ford       -  2
34.  Elliott Sadler     Dodge      -  4
35.  Joe Nemechek       Toyota     -  4
36.  Scott Speed        Toyota     -  4
37.  Max Papis          Toyota     -  6
38.  Brad Keselowski    Chevrolet  - 24
39.  Martin Truex Jr    Chevrolet  - 75
40.  Regan Smith        Chevrolet  -126
41.  Michael McDowell   Toyota     -187
42.  Mike Bliss         Chevrolet  -262
43.  Dave Blaney        Toyota     -264

Sprint Cup standings

With the end of the Race for the Chase, the points are reset: the top 12 all get 5000pts, plus 10pts for each race win they’ve chalked up. That puts Mark Martin on top of the pile despite how close he came to not making the cut – coincidentally making him the oldest man to ever lead the NASCAR standings – while the only other driver with 4 wins this season, Kyle Busch, is now out of the running. Racing sometimes just ain’t fair!

“It’s very, very frustrating. I’m heartbroken, but the good Lord put me in this predicament for some reason and someday I’ll find out what it is and be able to tell you guys,” said Busch.

“Well, that’s certainly cool,” said Martin about taking the Sprint championship lead. “I’m certainly going to enjoy that for a week here. I feel like a whole new person, huge weight off my shoulders.”

It’s a bad blow for Busch who has made the Chase for the last three years, and in 2008 went into the final rounds as th favourite for the title – before things went terribly wrong, a blow from which he still seems to be dealing with. But it’s an even bigger blow for Matt Kenseth, who has made the Chase in every season he’s competed in NASCAR.

“We just haven’t been competitive,” admitted Kenseth. “So, really since California it’s been a downhill slide for us. We slowly fell back in the points every week, so I can’t say I’m very surprised we didn’t make it.”

But it’s great news for Juan Montoya, who played a careful game at Richmond in order to secure his place in the Chase – the first driver from outside the United States to do so, since the Chase format was introduced in 2004.

“It’s weird,” said Montoya. “We work all year for this and today we run pretty conservative, pits were pretty slow but we did what we had do to get in.

“I should be really pumped up and excited and right now I’m just thinking about [how] we need to run better every week.”

The race for the Chase may be over, but the ten-race Chase itself is just about to begin. That’s where it gets real interesting.

Here’s how the pre-Chase points ended up for the top twelve:

Pos +/- Driver              PTS
1   --  Tony Stewart        3806
2   --  Jeff Gordon         3627
3   --  Jimmie Johnson      3534
4   --  Denny Hamlin        3491
5   +2  Kurt Busch          3322
6   +4  Mark Martin         3291
7   -1  Kasey Kahne         3280
8   -3  Carl Edwards        3280
9   --  Ryan Newman         3272
10  -1  Juan Montoya        3251
11  --  Greg Biffle         3249
12  +1  Brian Vickers       3203

And here’s the standings now that the Chase is underway:

    +/- DRIVER              PTS     BEHIND  ST  P   W   T5  T10
1   +9  Mark Martin         5040    Leader  26  6   4   9   14
2   -1  Tony Stewart        5030     -10    26  0   3   13  18
3   --  Jimmie Johnson      5030     -10    26  1   3   9   15
4   --  Denny Hamlin        5020     -20    26  0   2   9   14
5   +1  Kasey Kahne         5020     -20    26  0   2   5   10
6   -4  Jeff Gordon         5010     -30    26  0   1   12  18
7   --  Kurt Busch          5010     -30    26  0   1   7   14
8   +5  Brian Vickers       5010     -30    26  6   1   4   13
9   -4  Carl Edwards        5000     -40    26  0   0   7   11
10  -1  Ryan Newman         5000     -40    26  1   0   5   12
11  -3  Juan Montoya        5000     -40    26  1   0   2   12
12  -1  Greg Biffle         5000     -40    26  0   0   8   12
======== CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS =======
13  +1  Kyle Busch          3195    -1845   26  1   4   7   9
14  -2  Matt Kenseth        3165    -1875   26  1   2   4   9
15  +1  Clint Bowyer        3059    -1981   26  0   0   4   11
16  -1  David Reutimann     3048    -1992   26  2   1   5   8
17  --  Marcos Ambrose      2830    -2210   26  0   0   4   7
18  --  Jeff Burton         2738    -2302   26  0   0   2   6
19  --  Joey Logano*        2705    -2335   26  0   1   1   5
20  --  Casey Mears         2639    -2401   26  0   0   0   3
21  --  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  2628    -2412   26  0   0   2   5
22  +1  Kevin Harvick       2613    -2427   26  0   0   3   5
23  -1  Jamie McMurray      2564    -2476   26  0   0   0   3
24  +1  A.J. Allmendinger   2455    -2585   26  0   0   1   3
25  -1  Martin Truex Jr.    2455    -2585   26  2   0   0   3
26  +1  Sam Hornish Jr.     2434    -2606   26  0   0   2   7
27  -1  Elliott Sadler      2416    -2624   26  0   0   1   3
28  --  Reed Sorenson       2390    -2650   26  0   0   0   1
29  --  David Ragan         2319    -2721   26  0   0   0   1
30  --  Bobby Labonte       2299    -2741   26  0   0   1   1
31  --  David Stremme       2289    -2751   26  0   0   0   0
32  --  Paul Menard         2207    -2833   26  0   0   0   0
33  +1  Michael Waltrip     2018    -3022   24  0   0   0   1
34  -1  Robby Gordon        2015    -3025   25  0   0   1   1
35  --  Scott Speed*        1864    -3176   25  0   0   1   1
36  --  John Andretti       1790    -3250   24  0   0   0   0
37  --  David Gilliland     1473    -3567   24  0   0   0   0
38  --  Regan Smith         1114    -3926   13  0   0   0   0
39  --  Joe Nemechek         979    -4061   21  0   0   0   0
40  --  Brad Keselowski      927    -4113   9   0   1   1   3
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