After 26 races, over 7,000 laps and waiting out a tropical storm; Sunday’s Chevy Rock & Roll 400 was the final chance for seven drivers to take their best shot at claiming one of the five remaining positions left in the 2008 Chase for the Championship. In the end, 12 drivers and teams can celebrate for an evening before the big test of battling for the championship starts – while two drivers and their teams are left thinking about what might have been.
In a race previously known as the Pontiac Excitement 400, the second go-around at Richmond provided just that… excitement. At the drop of the green flag, Greg Biffle and Kevin Harvick solidified their positions in the top 12, but there were still plenty of storylines that were left to be played out. Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, David Ragan and Kasey Kahne all had mathematical possibilities of getting into or falling out of the Chase.
Stewart, Kenseth, Gordon, and Hamlin were virtual locks to make the playoffs. They had to finish 36th, 26th, 24th and 21st, respectively, to make the field, regardless of what Bowyer, Kahne and Ragan did. All ended up making the Chase, with only Kenseth coming close to falling out of the top 12 after finishing 39th.
Fortunately for the No. 17 DeWalt team, the other Chase hopefuls fell short of their expectations at Richmond.
Ragan’s rise to contention has been one of the top stories of the NASCAR season. After wrecking a bunch of racecars and finishing 23rd in driver points in his rookie year, Ragan has been more consistent behind the wheel of his No. 6 Roush Fenway Ford and has been in or near the top 12 for much of the season. He came into Sunday’s Richmond race 13th in the points, just 17 behind 12th-place Bowyer. With the sophomore driver sitting so close to reaching his first Sprint Cup playoff berth, a good finish was necessary to reach his Chase goal.
Sunday was not Ragan’s day, however. Many expected him to shine at Richmond – Ragan finished third in this race a year ago and was second fastest in Friday’s Happy Hour practice – but he absolutely needed to blow the field away in order to make the Chase. After gaining positions early, Ragan lost a few on pit road after he was blocked in his pit box by fellow Georgia driver Bill Elliott. Once back in heavy traffic, the “accordion effect” during an early restart got the best of both Ragan and Kenseth, causing both cars to make contact, spin, and sustain damage.
While the DeWalt team lost a couple of laps making repairs and fighting an ill-handling car, Ragan seemed to make the best of his situation. He hung on to a spot in the top 20, used clever pit strategy to get in the top 10, and at one point had moved up to 12th in the standings. Unfortunately, contact with Regan Smith and another later spinout relegated the No. 6 Ford to a distant 32nd-place finish, far from what he needed to achieve playoff glory.
“It’s very disappointing,” Ragan said of his results on Sunday. “I felt like the first 100 or so laps we had a top-five car and the AAA Ford seemed to be pretty quick. We brought out that one caution and seemed to have poor track position and the car really fell off on the long run. We’ll have to get it back and check things over and see if anything crazy happened, but a good effort by the AAA team, and certainly this one race doesn’t dictate how our season has gone. We’ve got 10 more races to try and get a win and certainly to finish 13th in points is our goal now, but running back there 30th and 25th, you don’t deserve to make the Chase running like that.”
Bowyer, the driver holding down the last transfer spot heading into the Richmond race, fell back in the pack and nearly got lapped midway through the event, which should have been the ray of sunshine that Kahne was looking for. Bowyer’s ill-handling car and Ragan’s spin put Kahne in the perfect position to play underdog and upset the cart by making the Chase. But after running poorly in Happy Hour on Friday, the handling on the Budweiser Dodge never greatly improved. Kahne was not much of a factor in the race, and had to settle for a 19th-place finish at the track where he won his first event. Despite winning two races in 2008, as well as the All-Star Race, Kahne failed to make the cut and will have to watch as five drivers who went winless so far this season contend for the championship.
“Track position hurt us all day,” a frustrated Kahne recounted to the media after the race. “I was trapped in between a couple of Roush cars on pit road and it didn’t matter where I came in (to the pits), I was trapped. It was a long day in the pits. I came out about last every single time it seemed like. At least we came out after those cars all the time. That didn’t help, but either way, we weren’t going to beat Clint [Bowyer].”
In the end, the drivers expected to make the Chase did. The standings have been reset and the points are tight. The attention now turns to the “in crowd” – the top 12.