Brett Poirier · Tuesday September 11, 2012
Jeff Gordon climbed from his car and raised his fists in the air after 400 miles at Richmond. Never has someone been so excited to finish second (At least, not since Alan Kulwicki in 1992 at Atlanta). Clint Bowyer’s victory was an afterthought and so was the performance of nearly every other driver besides Kyle Busch.
However, Gordon wasn’t the only to driver to exit his car at Richmond after a top-five finish to breathe a sigh of relief. After a four-race slide in which Tony Stewart nearly fell out of the top 10 in points, he finally stopped the bleeding at Richmond.
Stewart didn’t finish better than 19th in the four previous races before Saturday. He certainly didn’t have any momentum on his side. Smoke was locked into the playoffs before the race started, but didn’t know if he’d be slotted second (with his three wins) at the start of Chicago or at the back as a wild card.
It would be easy say it didn’t matter after watching what Stewart did last year (five wins in The Chase), but it did. How was that team going to perform in the playoffs after five straight poor finishes and the bonus points from their three wins stripped away? I’d guess, not well. That was why Stewart’s fourth-place finish after a dismal start to the weekend was so important. Even Smoke can recognize that momentum matters, and thanks to that finish, he is in a better position than he was last year to win another Sprint Cup title.
After a spin at Watkins Glen on the last lap and an engine failure at Michigan, even more pressure was placed on the shoulders of Jeff Gordon, but he responded the way one would expect a four-time champion to. Gordon was third at Bristol, second at Atlanta and with all of the cards stacked against him halfway through the race, second at Richmond.
Just like the rain gave Gordon his lone win of the season at Pocono, it once again came to his aid at Richmond. Alan Gustafson took big swings at the No. 24 car in pit stops before the red flag, but missed on both occasions. He finally hit it during the red flag and Gordon began his drive back to the front.
Gordon edged Kyle Busch by only three points to take the final spot. Three positions were all that separated success from failure. Busch’s year is all but finished, while Gordon is arguably the hottest driver in the series heading into the playoffs.
Denny Hamlin might have something to say about Gordon being the hottest driver in Sprint Cup. Hamlin has dominated each of the last three races, combining to lead 377 laps. The Virginia native led a race-high 202 laps on Saturday night and clearly was the car to beat, but strategy kept him from his third consecutive win.
Hamlin wound up 18th in the finishing order, but easily had a top-5 if he hadn’t been called to the pits in the final laps to help his teammate gain another position. Either way, Hamlin has the points lead (four wins) heading into Chicago — another 1.5-mile track where he should excel.
Clint Bowyer was sure to thank the No. 1 person who helped him reach Victory Lane on Saturday. It wasn’t crew chief Brian Pattie or owner Michael Waltrip, but instead opponent Juan Pablo Montoya. Contact with Montoya about halfway through the event cut Bowyer’s tire and caused him to spin across the frontstretch. Bowyer was irritated at the time, but what the incident did was take him off strategy from the leaders at the time, Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Bowyer had a top-5 car all night, and once he found the lead with Hamlin and Earnhardt Jr. just fighting to get back in the top 10, it was all but over.
Brad Keselowski didn’t have one of his better runs on Saturday night. He was still seventh. Keselowski is going to get overlooked as a championship contender, but no driver has earned more points in the last 10 races than him. During the span, Bad Brad had six top 5s and nine top 10s. If he does that in the next 10 races, he’ll most likely be holding the Sprint Cup trophy at Homestead.
Sometimes we forget how important the right people and equipment are to succeeding in NASCAR. Kurt Busch is a perfect example. The former champion had 16 top 10s last year with Penske Racing. This year, with Phoenix Racing he has two.
Even with an underfunded team, experts thought Busch would still be a factor in the outcome of a handful of races, think again. The No. 51 team is going through a particularly trying stretch right now, where six of Busch’s last seven finishes have been 28th or worse and James Finch stated that he is ready to close the team at the end of the season if a sponsor cannot be found.
Kyle Busch’s summer of self-sabotage ended in agony on Saturday night. Busch and his team didn’t do much wrong at Richmond besides get on the wrong pit strategy at the end of the race, but with all of the mistakes the No. 18 team made over the summer, there was no room for error.
Now, from the outside of the Chase, they’ll have plenty of time to think about the what ifs. What if the car didn’t suffer engine failures in three consecutive weeks at Dover, Pocono and Michigan? What if Kyle didn’t wheel hop and spin at Sonoma? What if he didn’t hit the turn 2 wall while leading at Kentucky? What if he hadn’t sped down pit road at New Hampshire? It’s one thing to fall short of The Chase because your car isn’t capable of running at the front; it’s another to fall short because, despite having one of the fastest cars each week, your team keeps shooting itself in the foot.
Carl Edwards joked during the pre-race show about wrecking Gordon and Kyle Busch before driving to victory on Saturday night. It turns out, that was his best bet. Except, he would have had to wreck at least 14 others cars, too (Edwards finished 17th).
After combining to lead 319 laps in the two Richmond races before Saturday, Edwards barely cracked the top 10 with the pressure on this time around. After the red flag, Edwards found himself in better position than Gordon, but two different outcomes happened in the second half of the event. Gordon drove to the front, while Edwards didn’t do much more than stand his ground.
In the biggest race of his career to date, Joey Logano didn’t show up at Richmond. Maybe Logano was more focused on the announcement earlier in the week that he’d be joining Penske Racing in 2013, rather than the possibility of qualifying for The Chase.
Logano had plenty of time to stare at the No. 22 on Saturday night, as it drove around him numerous times (Logano finished four laps behind Sam Hornish Jr.). Team splits at this point in the season never end well, but with a spot in the playoffs on the line at Richmond, Logano’s performance was simply embarrassing.
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