To the Point: On a rock ‘n’ roll extravaganza of a night at Richmond where the Barenaked Ladies took center stage, Tony Stewart exited stage right, and Matt Kenseth staged his claim as the lead singer of the upcoming Chase for the Championship tour, it was Kevin Harvick who ended up stealing the show before the curtain closed on NASCAR’s “regular season.”
Executing a brilliant inside pass underneath Kyle Busch on lap 399, Harvick led that lap and the last one to sneak under the checkered flag and win his first career race at Richmond. Busch held on for second, with Kasey Kahne, surprising Dave Blaney, and Mark Martin rounding out the top five. As for the Chase, Kahne’s finish, combined with Stewart’s 18th-place run, moved the Dodge driver into 10th in points – and left NASCAR’s defending champ on the outside looking in.
Who Should Have Won: Busch. Although Harvick’s pass was brilliantly executed, it was Busch who had the best car for most of the night. Leading five times for 248 laps, the 21-year-old cemented his bid for the Chase and built his case as a darkhorse championship contender, all the while slicing and dicing through lapped traffic like a veteran. Over the final 50 laps, though, Busch couldn’t quite pull away from Harvick’s machine, and when the handling fell apart over the final 15 laps, the No. 29 was right behind Busch, ready to capitalize.
Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend
1) Did the right driver out of the 11 eligible miss the Chase?
Yes. Talk until you’re blue in the face about changing the points, but this system is the one in place for this year. So, like it or not, consistency is key, and Stewart simply wasn’t consistent enough in the six-week period surrounding his shoulder injury in May to earn himself a bid. With drivers such as Jeff Burton, Kahne and Martin having their troubles in August, Stewart’s earlier struggles to put him in this position were overlooked, especially since the No. 20 team was running fairly well as of late, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there, and that one bad run could make them pay the ultimate price… which is exactly what happened.
It will be strange seeing Stewart miss the Chase for the first time, but Kahne and his five wins certainly deserved to be there; while Burton and Martin haven’t won, they both could have at least twice this year if not for mistakes on pit road in the forms of poor stops or poor adjustments that cost them in the final laps of those races. That’s good enough.
2) What would have happened had team orders affected the outcome of the Chase?
It’s a good question no one has to answer this year, luckily, but it won’t be long before that becomes a problem. Back in 2004, Chip Ganassi was demanding the No. 09 driven by Mike Wallace, a car supported by him, to move aside so Jamie McMurray could make the Chase. Luckily, Wallace didn’t follow instructions, but similar ones continue to be ordered at Richmond: this year, Harvick said he would have given up his spot in the lead and let Burton pass him if it meant Burton would make the Chase, and Clint Bowyer at one point was ordered to drive behind Burton as “protection.”
Certainly, the financial windfall, as well as team and sponsor publicity from making the Chase, is huge, but do these team owners realize what team cars pulling over would do? The fan outrage would be unprecedented in the history of the sport; team orders are exactly why most Americans don’t follow Formula 1. So, take a deep breath, cross your fingers, and hope this trend stops in the future, although I doubt it will.
3) Along those lines, did Carl Edwards intentionally take out Jimmie Johnson so Kenseth could keep the points lead?
This is something that’s being spread through the grapevine, but honestly may be one of the more ridiculous things to be rumored this season. Carl Edwards got alongside Jimmie Johnson, got loose in the corner, and got up into the No. 48 car by accident; there’s nothing else to it. It’s true the spin keeps Johnson’s loss of momentum going and adds to his continued struggles since winning the race at Indy; but no Roush driver would have needed to spin Johnson out on Saturday night, anyway, as the No. 48 car was already handling bad enough.
4) Should the No. 66 of Jeff Green have been parked for being overaggressive, and what kind of message does it send to the “non-Chasers?”
Johnson’s night, already bad, was made worse when he tapped the No. 66 car of Jeff Green exiting turn 2 on lap 252; Green spun out hard into the outside wall on the backstretch, effectively ending his night. Undergoing a frustrating season and none too happy with Johnson’s maneuver, Green and his damaged No. 66 car got back on track and waited patiently for the opportunity to gain revenge, eventually choosing to slam his car into Johnson when the No. 48 car spun for a second time on lap 326.
That’s a move that in the past would, at most, have drawn a five-lap penalty from NASCAR officials, but this time, Green was immediately parked for the rest of the night. While that’s a stern message from NASCAR to play fair, you can’t help but wonder what would have happened if it were one of the Chasers that had slammed into the No. 48 car out of frustration; what kind of penalty would have they gotten then? Here’s to hoping NASCAR will stay consistent in the final 10 races, because anyone now who pulls that maneuver should be parked based on the precedent they just set.
5) What is going on with Martin’s future?
Martin has graciously deferred questions about his future until a later date, but an interesting story surfaced recently that has Martin headed to Robert Yates Racing and the No. 88 car. With David Gilliland wrecking three times in three starts, Yates is desperately looking for a veteran to mentor him, and Martin is one of the few that can do that and attract sponsorship. The bigger question will be whether Martin wants a “throwaway” season to be his last full-time bid on the NASCAR tour, as the team probably wouldn’t make the Chase in 2007 no matter how talented Martin is. It’s an interesting choice; but the ball definitely appears to be in Martin’s court.
Blaney: Virtually ignored by most everyone due to the hoopla of the Chase, kudos need to be given to Blaney and the CAT team. Without a top-10 finish all season, Blaney ran in and around fourth through ninth virtually the entire night, at one point during the last 100 laps having the fastest car on the track and with an outside shot at pulling a major upset. Ending up fourth in the final finishing order, it appears Tommy Baldwin has certainly paid major dividends for this team in his month on the job.
Kahne: Fresh off the momentum of his California victory, Kahne and his team came down to Richmond and simply did what they had to do. The No. 9 car was never the fastest on the track, but it was decent, and Kahne drove his heart out, not even asking about the points standings until the checkered flag flew. When Kahne did, he discovered good news – third place was more than enough to secure him his first ever bid for the Chase.
Martin: The cliche pick to be the odd man out when the fireworks ended Saturday night, Martin laid it all on the line. With an ill-handling car for most of the race’s first half, the No. 6 team looked beaten, but Martin drove harder than at any time in his career to keep himself in the top 15. Finally, one small adjustment around lap 200 caused the car to take off like a rocket ship, and off to the front Martin went. Securing a fifth-place finish, the 47-year-old’s Chase bid is now officially safe.
Ken Schrader: After over half a season, it finally appears the Wood Brothers are back on track to improving the way they were under Ricky Rudd in 2005. After a handful of top 15s the last six weeks, Schrader came through with his first top 10 of the season, a seventh, and the No. 21 has now climbed to 29th in points. With one short track remaining on the schedule in Martinsville, there’s still time for a long-awaited victory for Schrader and this team to be secured.
Stewart: In a Chase race that only so many people could make, somebody had to DNQ, and that someone was the defending champ. Crashing his primary car in Friday practice, Stewart qualified 40th for Saturday night and never really seemed to get the handle on his backup Chevrolet. Falling a lap down around the 300-lap mark, Stewart seemed to improve his car after a lap 321 caution, but with the last 74 laps finishing under green, he ended up resigned to his fate, finishing 18th and missing the cut by 16 points. If there’s any consolation for Stewart fans, it’s that he’s a virtual lock for 11th in the standings, over 200 points ahead of 12th-place Greg Biffle.
Jeff Gordon: Gordon still snuck into the Chase Saturday night, but he certainly didn’t make it easy on himself. Never a factor, Gordon’s car slid around like it was on a bowling alley, and brake problems near the end of the race turned the No. 24 into a moving roadblock. Finishing 31st, two laps behind, Gordon now is without a top-30 finish in his last four Richmond starts, killing any momentum he had heading into the championship with his poor performance.
Johnson: When there are seven cautions during the race and three of them involve you, you’re certainly not having a good day. Spun for the first time while battling midpack on lap 82, the No. 48 car hovered around 20th from that point on, struggling to gain grip on Richmond’s slippery asphalt. Continuing on to spin out Green on lap 261 and cause a caution, Johnson became a marked man, and when he got spun out for a second time by Reed Sorenson on lap 321, Green came around and added to the damage on the No. 48 car by slamming into its right side. Johnson ended up 23rd, one lap behind and a distant second in points.
Martin Truex Jr.: Qualifying seventh, Truex was looking to boost a disappointing rookie season that has seen him outperformed by Denny Hamlin, Bowyer and Sorenson. Instead, he found himself turned around into the outside wall coming out of turn 2 on lap 121. Eight laps later, he finished off his damaged Chevrolet by blowing a tire and wrecking again. Not exactly the way to turn a season around, Truex finished 40th.
With 10 races to go, the Chase for the Nextel Cup championship has been finalized. Kenseth retained the points lead Saturday night and becomes the leader entering NASCAR’s version of the playoffs, with Johnson second. Under the rules, Johnson is now five points behind the leader, with everyone else in the Chase separated by five-point increments. For example, Harvick retained third in points with his Richmond win, and will be third in the playoffs, only 10 points out of the top spot.
That having been said, the rest of this year’s Chasers are, in order: Kyle Busch, Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Martin, Burton, Gordon and Kahne.
“We just never could get it to turn in the center of the corner. It’s been an up and down year and the day we needed to be on, we just couldn’t get on.” – Tony Stewart
“I didn’t ask anything tonight about the points until I crossed the start/finish line. I just hoped we were in.” – Kasey Kahne
“It feels good leading the points. It’s five points, but it’s still five points. I’m happy with what we’ve done the first 26 [races], but the ones that count are coming up now.” – Matt Kenseth
“I’m not worried about the championship. We might get lucky or something, but just to be in the Chase with all these great, young drivers is a big deal to me. I was really dreading missing the Chase because I was going to feel like I lost, and from here on out, these last 10 races I’m gonna have fun.” – Mark Martin
Next Up: The Race for the Chase begins back at New Hampshire, as the Nextel Cup tours tackles the 1-mile oval in Loudon a second time for the running of the Sylvania 300. Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on TNT.