RICHMOND – Kyle Busch’s team rolled the dice in the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway and lost. A decision not to pit for fresh tires on a lap 276 caution, gambling that the rain that brought out the yellow flag might end the race, cost Busch a spot in the Chase.
That opened the way for Jeff Gordon, who did pit, to surge through the field on fresh tires and overtake Busch for the 12th and final spot in NASCAR’s 10-race playoff. Gordon finished second in the race to finish the 26-race regular season with 777 points, three points ahead of Busch, who finished 16th at RIR.
“I felt like I won the race tonight,” Gordon said. “When that was over (and) they told me I was in the Chase, we made it, I mean, I was ecstatic.
“I was going nuts.”
Clint Bowyer managed to conserve just enough fuel and in fact win the race, his second victory at RIR. He was followed in the top five by Gordon, Mark Martin, Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth.
“Unbelievable,” Bowyer said. “To win tonight, the way we won it. We got the left rear knocked down (via contact with Juan Pablo Montoya) and that ultimately ended up winning us the race.
“I backed up and wasn’t using much gas and any brake at all. For 30-40 laps I started to pick up and maintain.”
The Chase begins next Sunday at Chicagoland. The Chase field will include the Dodge of Brad Keselowski, the Fords of Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle, the Toyotas of Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer, and the Chevrolets of Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne.
Kahne clinched the other wild card spot at stake with a 12th-place finish, although his entry into the Chase was never in doubt throughout the 300-mile, 400-lap race on the three-quarter-mile oval at RIR.
“I’m excited to be in,” Kahne said. “I’m relieved and happy we made it.”
Conventional wisdom was that the real battle for the one Chase spot essentially available would be decided on whether Gordon could make up a 12-point deficit to Busch. Gordon did and will be the 12th seed when the Chase begins next Sunday.
“I’m so fired up to start this Chase I don’t care where we start in points,” Gordon said. “We’re in it.”
The rain that led to the fateful decision by Busch’s crew chief, Dave Rogers, to get his driver to stay out – a decision Busch reportedly opposed – plagued the event the entire night. It chased Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who served hot dogs to fans late in the afternoon, but did not hang around to give the start-engines command when precipitation backed up the race’s start almost two hours.
Rain delayed the race a second time on lap 152 for almost 52 minutes. To that point Richmond-area native Hamlin and fan favorite Earnhardt had dominated at the front.
Hamlin led when the rain struck again on lap 273, but was among those to pit for tires, as did Gordon. Gordon, off the pace most of the night with handling, oil pressure and brake problems, had nothing to lose.
Busch, in fourth place at the time, stayed out at Rogers’ behest and would’ve clinched the Chase spot had the rain halted the race at that point. But what had been hard, then patchy rain, stopped, and Busch sunk through the field like a stone upon the restart.
He stayed out so long, dropping back to 18th, that he got lapped. Then he fell three laps down during a green flag pit stop in which his tire changer missed a lug nut.
Gordon surged quickly and was in the top 10 by lap 297. By lap 319 he was fourth, then lost a few places on a lap 358 pit stop, before making his late charge to second place.
Busch recovered from his team’s disastrous decision and pit stop that dropped him out of the top 20, to make up several places late, but fell short of catching Gordon.
Three other drivers entered the race with a chance to make the Chase had they won on Saturday: Ryan Newman, Marcos Ambrose and Joey Logano. Only Ryan Newman, who led 13 laps, ever had a prayer of cashing in on the opportunity, but ultimately fell short with an eighth-place finish.
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