NASCAR’s regular season is officially over and now as we look forward to the first race of the Chase and the 12 drivers who will be giving chase to the coveted Sprint Cup, you can’t help but wonder just what the next 10 weeks will bring. A lot of drama spawned from the Wonderful Pistachios 400. Tempers flared, frustration grew, cars damaged (on accident and purposefully), egos bruised, and on track enemies made. Many of the drivers who were still mathematically eligible to make the Chase vocalized the need for a conservative approach on the track and to simply stay out of trouble, but Saturday night under the lights at Richmond International Raceway proved anything but.
[media-credit name=”CIA Stock Photo” align=”alignright” width=”251″][/media-credit]The proof is in the stats. The caution flag waved a record 15 times that night. The poor flagman barely had enough time to take back the green flag from honorary starter Frank Siller, founder of the Stephen Siller Tunnels to Tower Foundation and brother of a NYC firefighter who died on 9/11, after whom his foundation is named before having to grab for the yellow as the first caution of the night came out on lap two. Driver s barely made it a handful of laps before another incident occurred. Green flag. Yellow flag. Repeat.
On lap eight the short track version of “big one” happened after contact made between Chase hopeful, Clint Bowyer and David Reutimann collecting Chase favored Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin in the carnage. It was way too earlier in the evening to be feeling that kind of tension in the air, but it was palpable. The battle had begun and it wouldn’t be long before drivers picked their individual sparring partners.
Kasey Kahne chose wrong, he fought the wall for the first time on lap 27 and then again on lap 51 after going three –wide with Marcos Ambrose and teammate Brian Vickers. The wall remained victorious as Kahne’s No. 4 Red Bull Toyota was towed off the track and the driver taken to the infield care unit. Physically Kahne was all right, but there was that bruised ego that I spoke of earlier to contend with.
Vickers chose Ambrose to a duel, he let the driver of the No. 9 Stanley Ford know just how displeased he was by intentionally wrecking Ambrose under caution on lap 53 and purposely blocking his entrance to pit road. NASCAR won that one by effectively putting Vickers into “time out,” sending his No. 83 machine to the garage for bad behavior. He was allowed to return to the track 68 laps later after thinking long and hard about his actions.
Earnhardt Jr. brawled with Travis Kvapil on lap 152 by giving him a taste of his own medicine. Kvapil made contact with Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 Amp Chevrolet earlier in the race and it was now time for some payback by sending Kvapil’s No. 38 Ford into the turn two wall. Earnhardt Jr., who was a lap down, may have thought he’d win that battle by getting the free pass to get back on the lead lap, but NASCAR saw differently. Since Earnhardt Jr. was involved in the incident that brought out the caution he was awarded the “unlucky dog” pass and stayed a lap down.
Like Kahne before him, Paul Menard took his chance with the wall on lap 172. Once again the wall reigned victorious, sending he and his No. 27 Menards Chevrolet to the garage and ending any hopes of making the Chase.
Kurt Busch started a feud with Jimmie Johnson on lap 185 that would prove to be an all night thing. Johnson’s No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet spun in turn two after making contact with Busch. On lap 246 the pair brought out the 11th caution of the night, Johnson in what looked to be a payback attempt, bumped Busch’s No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge sending Busch into a spin on turn two. Busch avoided contact with the wall and won the war, as Johnson’s so-called revenge was not so sweet after all, as his car spun out of control and hit the wall, sending him to the garage for repair. 33 laps later Johnson returned to the track on lap 278 and to Busch’s rear bumper by lap 283. However, no further contact was made between he two.
Hamlin and Earnhardt Jr. fought the odds of making the Chase in their busted up racecars in the 392 laps that followed their crash on lap eight, but in the end proved triumphant. They earned they way into the Chase the hard way and victory never tasted sweeter as the two were all smiles in the Media Center. Hamlin maintained his streak of making it into every Chase since his full time Sprint Cup career began in 2006 and Earnhardt Jr. affirmed that he’s still got it and proved his naysayers wrong by making it back into the Chase after a two year hiatus.
Tony Stewart, the third hopeful to make the Chase, did so quietly and consistently, clinching his spot on lap 103. Surprisingly, Stewart fought with no one, on of off the track in Richmond.