NASCAR: Round 26 – Air Guard 400, Richmond International Raceway – Sep 11

Denny Hamlin bounced back from the disappointment of last week’s race at Atlanta – where he retired with an engine blow-up while in a strong position in the lead – to dominate at Richmond instead, leading 251 of the race’s 400 laps and seeing off a strong late race challenge from his team mate Kyle Busch to claim his sixth victory of the season and put him into the top position in the modified Chase points standings. Clearly Saturday night racing suits him.

After the usual pre-race anthem and invocation – more emotional resonant than ever given that the race fell on 9/11 – Carl Edwards brought the field round to the green flag shortly before 8pm in Richmond. There was the usual jockeying for position before the cars started to string out into a single file, with Juan Montoya, AJ Allmendinger, Clint Bowyer and Jimmie Johnson settling into the top spots. Further back, Tony Stewart was making his way up into the top 10 having qualified 15th, while Kyle Busch was slowly making up places from his 32nd spot following qualifying. Kevin Harvick was complaining about the loose handling of his car, and generally everyone was settling in for a long haul.

Carl Edwards continued to lead through to lap 54, when Jimmie Johnson pulled off a pass for the lead only for the race to then go to the first caution after David Reutimann blew a tyre after contact with Kurt Busch. He spun but didn’t do any damage, and armed with a new set of tyres after everyone filtered through pit lane he was good to go – and Edwards was back in front, having beaten Johnson, Bowyer, Montoya and Stewart off pit lane.

Johnson was left rather loose after his pit stop and ceded second to Clint Bowyer, while further back Marcos Ambrose and Denny Hamlin were starting to move into the top ten. Bowyer was over a second behind Edwards on lap 90, but ten laps later the lead had evaporated and Bowyer passed on by and took the lead for the first time that night. But the real car on form was that of Denny Hamlin, and he cruised through the leaders to take the lead from Bowyer on lap 11, quickly opening up a huge lead over Bowyer and stamping his claim of ownership on proceedings that would prove almost impossible for anyone to dispute for the rest of the evening. One of the drivers who liked like he might take issue with that was Kyle Busch, who by lap 137 was up 22 positions to crack the top ten

The second yellow came on lap 145 for Terry Labonte hitting the wall with a flat tyre just after Hamlin had put Joey Logano a lap down – Logano promptly got the free pass and could breath again. At the restart, Jimmie Johnson made a big play for the lead by going to the low side and forcing Hamlin to drive way up into turn 1: Johnson was credited with two laps in the lead but then Hamlin was back in charge again. The next person to lay siege to Hamlin’s command of the race was Clint Bowyer, and the two traded the top spot over the course of the next 25 laps until Hamlin finally came out on top as they hit the 200 lap milestone; and all the while, Kyle Busch was working his way up until he was challenging Jimmie Johnson for third place.

A light shower interrupted proceedings on lap 226, with the race running 14 laps under caution while they waited for conditions to dry out. Jeff Burton opted to stay out when the leaders pitted and duly got bonus points for leading the race, but it was clear that the shower was brief and there was no chance of the race being red flagged, so Burton pitted just before the green flag came out handing Hamlin the job of taking the field back to racing on lap 240, followed by Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch and Juan Montoya. Interestingly, the top four drivers have between them won all the past seven races at Richmond – quality will out.

Slight rain continued to flirt with the raceway, but there were to be no more cautions for the rest of the race, making it a remarkable 160 lap green flag stint. That meant the final pit stops of the night which began around lap 325 were held under green flag conditions, with Juan Montoya briefly holding the lead as the stops cycled through but Hamlin firmly back in control once everyone was done. Bowyer, however, fell back a couple of positions after being beaten off pit road by Kyle Busch whose #18 crew is always winning him positions with some of the best pit stop performances of the entire field.

That set Kyle perfectly to mount a last quarter assault on Hamlin for the victory, especially when Hamlin lost time slowing up to weave through lapped traffic. He got right on Hamlin’s back bumper, but still couldn’t make the pass stick coming out of the turns whatever he threw into it. Hamlin simply had the better car, and as the laps counted down to the end of the race it was clear that he had Busch firmly under control. One last lunge on lap 389 sent Kyle sliding through turn 2, and while he managed to hold it together it seemed that this had been the last throw of the dice: with the #18 running super hot tyres and brake rotors it had found its limit and Kyle would have to settle for second place faced with a dominant drive by his team mate.

While the attention was on the duel up front, Joey Logano had been on a tear through the field, really finding his pace after briefly going a lap down a third of the way through, to work his way up into the top ten and then past Montoya and Bowyer before lining up Johnson in his sights in the closing laps. Jimmie just managed to hold him off, but it was one of the strongest drives we’ve seen from Logono in quite a while. Just behind him, Marcos Ambrose had also put in a strong final stint to get past Clint Bowyer for fifth, but Bowyer nonetheless had one of the biggest smiles in pit lane when he came in, because sixth was more than enough to secure his spot in the Chase.

Denny Hamlin was already firmly in the Chase before tonight, but the victory here was still all-important as it took his win tally to an unrivalled six for the year, and under the Chase points system that means he will go into the final ten races of the year in pole position. And with form like he’s shown here (and in Atlanta before his engine let him down), you wouldn’t bet against him going all the way and claiming the title come November.

Game on – for Hamlin, and for the other eleven drivers now in contention for the Sprint Cup. Here’s where it gets serious, boys.

Race result

FIN DRIVER             MAKE       PTS/BNS LAP  STATUS
1.  Denny Hamlin       Toyota     195/10  400  
2.  Kyle Busch         Toyota     170/0   400  
3.  Jimmie Johnson     Chevrolet  170/5   400  
4.  Joey Logano        Toyota     160/0   400  
5.  Marcos Ambrose     Toyota     155/0   400  
6.  Clint Bowyer       Chevrolet  155/5   400  
7.  Juan Montoya       Chevrolet  151/5   400  
8.  A.J. Allmendinger  Ford       142/0   400  
9.  Kevin Harvick      Chevrolet  138/0   400  
10. Carl Edwards       Ford       139/5   400  
11. Ryan Newman        Chevrolet  130/0   400  
12. Jeff Gordon        Chevrolet  127/0   400  
13. Jeff Burton        Chevrolet  129/5   400  
14. Matt Kenseth       Ford       121/0   400  
15. Brad Keselowski    Dodge      118/0   400  
16. Tony Stewart       Chevrolet  115/0   400  
17. Jamie McMurray     Chevrolet  112/0   400  
18. Kurt Busch         Dodge      109/0   400  
19. David Reutimann    Toyota     106/0   398  
20. Mark Martin        Chevrolet  103/0   398  
21. Casey Mears        Toyota     100/0   398  
22. Martin Truex Jr.   Toyota     97/0    398  
23. David Ragan        Ford       94/0    398  
24. Scott Speed        Toyota     91/0    398  
25. Regan Smith        Chevrolet  88/0    398  
26. Paul Menard        Ford       85/0    397  
27. Elliott Sadler     Ford       82/0    397  
28. Sam Hornish Jr.    Dodge      79/0    397  
29. Kasey Kahne        Ford       76/0    396  
30. Dave Blaney        Chevrolet  73/0    396  
31. Mattias Ekstrom    Toyota     70/0    396  
32. Greg Biffle        Ford       67/0    395  
33. Landon Cassill     Chevrolet  64/0    395  
34. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet  61/0    394  
35. Travis Kvapil      Ford       58/0    393  
36. Jeff Green         Ford       55/0    393  
37. David Gilliland    Ford       52/0    393  
38. Tony Raines        Ford       49/0    392  
39. Bobby Labonte      Chevrolet  46/0    324  Electrical
40. Terry Labonte      Toyota     43/0    143  Accident
41. Kevin Conway *     Toyota     40/0    118  Brakes
42. Joe Nemechek       Toyota     37/0    61   Rear Gear
43. Jason Leffler      Toyota     34/0    30   Brakes
* Denotes Rookie 

Sprint Cup standings

POS +/-  DRIVER              PTS   GAP     ST  P  W  T5  T10
1   --   Kevin Harvick       3723  Leader  26  0  3  11  17
2   +1   Kyle Busch          3495  -228    26  2  3  8   14
3   -1   Jeff Gordon         3493  -230    26  0  0  10  13
4   +1   Carl Edwards        3427  -296    26  2  0  6   14
5   +2   Jimmie Johnson      3417  -306    26  1  5  10  14
6   -2   Tony Stewart        3417  -306    26  2  1  7   14
7   -1   Jeff Burton         3390  -333    26  0  0  5   13
8   +1   Matt Kenseth        3346  -377    26  0  0  5   10
9   +1   Denny Hamlin        3342  -381    26  1  6  10  11
10  -2   Kurt Busch          3337  -386    26  2  2  8   15
11  +1   Clint Bowyer        3221  -502    26  0  0  4   14
12  -1   Greg Biffle         3177  -546    26  0  1  5   14
====== CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS ======
13  --   Ryan Newman         3079  -644    26  1  1  2   8
14  --   Jamie McMurray      3050  -673    26  3  2  7   9
15  --   Mark Martin         3022  -701    26  1  0  5   7
16  +1   Juan Montoya        3017  -706    26  2  1  5   13
17  -1   David Reutimann     2986  -737    26  0  1  5   5
18  --   Kasey Kahne         2932  -791    26  2  0  6   8
19  --   Dale Earnhardt Jr.  2908  -815    26  1  0  2   6
20  --   Martin Truex Jr.    2884  -839    26  1  0  1   6
21  --   Joey Logano         2878  -845    26  1  0  3   10
22  --   A.J. Allmendinger   2820  -903    26  1  0  1   5
23  --   Paul Menard         2642  -1081   26  0  0  1   3
24  +1   Marcos Ambrose      2565  -1158   26  0  0  2   5
25  -1   David Ragan         2550  -1173   26  0  0  0   1
26  --   Brad Keselowski     2515  -1208   26  0  0  0   0
27  --   Scott Speed         2349  -1374   26  0  0  0   2
28  --   Sam Hornish Jr.     2331  -1392   26  0  0  0   0
29  --   Elliott Sadler      2277  -1446   26  0  0  0   1
30  --   Regan Smith         2197  -1526   26  0  0  0   0
31  --   Bobby Labonte       1903  -1820   26  0  0  0   0
32  --   Travis Kvapil       1857  -1866   25  0  0  0   0
33  --   David Gilliland     1710  -2013   22  0  0  0   0
34  --   Kevin Conway*       1586  -2137   24  0  0  0   0
35  --   Robby Gordon        1536  -2187   21  0  0  1   1
36  --   Brian Vickers       1158  -2565   11  0  0  0   3
37  --   Joe Nemechek        1020  -2703   24  0  0  0   0
38  --   Max Papis           907   -2816   18  0  0  0   0
39  +5   Casey Mears         885   -2838   12  0  0  0   0
40  -1   Reed Sorenson       884   -2839   11  0  0  0   1
41  +2   Dave Blaney         863   -2860   19  0  0  0   0
42  -2   Mike Bliss          836   -2887   12  0  0  0   2
43  -2   David Stremme       825   -2898   11  0  0  0   0
44  -2   Bill Elliott        800   -2923   9   0  0  0   0
45  --   Michael McDowell    696   -3027   18  0  0  0   0
46  --   J.J. Yeley          588   -3135   10  0  0  0   0
47  --   Boris Said          448   -3275   6   0  0  0   1
48  +1   Landon Cassill      351   -3372   7   0  0  0   0
49  -1   Todd Bodine         313   -3410   7   0  0  0   0
50  --   Patrick Carpentier  255   -3468   3   0  0  0   0
* Denotes Rookie 

2010 Chase standings

With the Chase points system enacted, here’s what the top 12 look like going into the first race:

Pos Driver          W  Pts    Gap
1.  Denny Hamlin    6  5,060  
2.  Jimmie Johnson  5  5,050  -10
3.  Kevin Harvick   3  5,030  -30
4.  Kyle Busch      3  5,030  -30
5.  Kurt Busch      2  5,020  -40
6.  Tony Stewart    1  5,010  -50
7.  Greg Biffle     1  5,010  -50
8.  Jeff Gordon     0  5,000  -60
9.  Carl Edwards    0  5,000  -60
10. Jeff Burton     0  5,000  -60
11. Matt Kenseth    0  5,000  -60
12. Clint Bowyer    0  5,000  -60
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