In a mixture of apprehension, excitement, and remembrance, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series headed into Richmond International Raceway for the final race before the Chase. Ten drivers were in but two had yet to be decided in the night race that paused to remember the lives lost on September 11th nine years ago to the day. Here is what is surprising and not surprising from this weekend’s Air Guard 400.
Surprising: The Joe Gibbs Racing team was surprisingly strong at Richmond, with all three teams in the top five. Race winner Denny Hamlin, fresh off his blown engine in last week’s race in Atlanta, spanked the rest of the field, putting many good cars a lap down. Teammate Kyle Busch, fully recovered from his stint in the pink little baby seal car for the Nationwide race, sliced through the field from his qualifying spot of 32nd to give Hamlin a run for his money, only to fall short and claim the runner up spot. The third Gibbs driver, Joey Logano, also had a strong run, bringing the orange No. 20 Home Depot car to the checkered flag in fourth.
Not Surprising: With the race win under his belt, Hamlin topped off his extraordinary pre-Chase season which included rehabbing his knee from surgery in his No. 11 FedEx Office race car, by claiming the top seed in the Chase. Although Jimmie Johnson was lurking in his rear view mirror, coming in third in the race, Hamlin’s sixth win trumped Johnson’s five and Hamlin will now have that coveted ten point advantage over the four-time champion.
Surprising: It was most surprising how poorly the rest of Jimmie Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammates fared in the Air Guard 400. All three drivers struggled throughout most of the race, even going laps down. Dale Junior qualified in the top ten but admittedly tried ‘some out of the box’ set up that put him six laps down for a miserable 34th place finish. Jeff Gordon said that his downfall was a poor qualifying spot that led to having to take the ‘lucky dog’ to get back on the lead lap, finishing the race in 12th. Mark Martin also struggled mightily, finishing in the 20th spot, disappointingly well out of Chase contention for the year.
Not Surprising: Clint Bowyer, who held the coveted twelfth and final position in the Chase standings, proved that he should be in the game by his top ten finish. Bowyer raced his guts out, mixing it up at the front of the pack until he finally brought home his No. 33 Cheerios/Hamburger Helper Chevrolet home in the sixth spot.
Surprising: Greg Biffle, who wanted to prove that he not only deserved to be in the Chase but had a chance to win the championship, had a world of trouble from the drop of the green flag. He had a helmet full of smoke from a malfunction in his air conditioning unit, a hole underneath the front of the car from debris, and a penalty for pitting after the wave around. In his words, “Other than that, it was a pretty straight up night after that.” And in spite of it all, Biffle will compete in the Chase, seeded in the seventh spot.
Not Surprising: Former point’s leader and RCR ace Kevin Harvick had a solid top ten run at Richmond, as did Roushketeer Carl Edwards. Harvick will start the Chase in third, just 30 points behind Hamlin, while Edwards will start in ninth, 60 points back from the leader.
Surprising: There were some surprising drivers leading the race or at least in the thick of the hunt, including Juan Pablo Montoya, A.J. Allmendinger, and Marcos Ambrose. JPM qualified on the outside pole, led a few laps and finished seventh. A.J. Allmendinger also qualified well, starting in the third position and finishing right behind Montoya in eighth. Ambrose, who is still hungry for an oval win, had a great run, starting in 13th and finishing in the fifth spot.
Not Surprising: Matt Kenseth, sporting his ever enthusiastic demeanor after his 14th place finish, said that it was good to be in the Chase but “Not to be a Debbie Downer, but where we are in the points isn’t that spectacular.” Kenseth will go for his second Cup championship from his starting spot as the 11th seed, just 60 points behind Hamlin.
Surprising: There were a surprisingly few number of cautions in the race, just three in fact. Of these few cautions, one was for rain just after the halfway mark, which drenched the track and the crowd as well. While many drivers were racing like there was weather in the area, the rain held off and the race went the full distance.
Not Surprising: Living up to its billing, the Richmond International Raceway paid a most respectful tribute to the victims of 9/11, filled with patriotism and pride on the ninth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in the air over Pennsylvania.
The Chase starts officially next weekend at the Magic Mile in New Hampshire on September 19th in Loudon. The Sylvania 300 begins at 1:00 PM EDT on Sunday, with live coverage on ESPN.