There was a stretch of Saturday night’s race when all four of Joe Gibbs’ cars were leading the pack around Richmond International Raceway.
The team owner could barely stand to watch.
“That is the most nervous that I get,” Gibbs said. “I saw them up there. I saw some beating and banging there. I think that’s when I’m always the most nervous, when you’ve got your cars up front and having a good night.”
He should be used to it by now.
JGR continued its dominating season with an exhibition from its roster that ended with Matt Kenseth’s fourth win of the season. The win put Kenseth in a tie with JGR teammate Kyle Busch and six-time champion Jimmie Johnson for the top seeds in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
The 10-race playoff series begins next Sunday at Chicagoland.
Kenseth has won three of the last six races, and JGR has won eight of the last 11.
“Certainly right now as a company we’re on a roll,” said Kenseth, who led 352 of the 400 laps.
The 16-driver Chase field was set in the regular-season finale, where only four spots were really up for grabs. Jamie McMurray clinched his berth as soon as he took the green flag, but Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer all had to protect their positions.
Gordon had to finish 17th or better to guarantee his slot, and he finished a solid seventh.
Bowyer was in a little bit more of a precarious position as he came to Richmond ranked 16th in the field and unable to afford any mistakes Saturday night. He never doubted he was up for the challenge at one of his favorite tracks, and he finished 10th to give Toyota five cars in the Chase field.
It wasn’t supposed to be difficult for Newman or Menard, but the Richard Childress Racing drivers struggled the entire race. They both ended three laps down from the leaders, with Newman 20th and Menard 26th.
“We don’t know whether to be happy or sad, it was such a bad race for us,” Menard said of a post-race conversation he had with his crew chief. “Obviously, very excited to be in the Chase, it was a goal that we set at the beginning of the year. We’ve had a lot of good runs this year, tonight just wasn’t one of them.”
Aric Almirola briefly tried to shake up the playoff picture by charging his way to the front to race with the leaders. He made it to fourth, but had nothing for the JGR cars. Had Almirola won, he’d have earned an automatic berth into the Chase and bumped another driver.
Instead, he’ll watch the championship race go on without him after he made it last season with a surprise victory at Daytona.
“Disappointed for sure; I drove my heart out,” said Almirola. “We were in it last year and we got a taste of what it was like to be in the Chase. This race team is a great race team and we wanted another shot at it, and we just came up short.”
It’s the first playoff berths for McMurray and Menard, and last for Gordon, who is retiring at the end of the season.
“It’s nice to be in the Chase and take that relief and take that breath and now go reset and see what we can do over the next 10,” Gordon said.
It does indeed reset now as the Chase gives the entire field an equal shot to race for the championship. Divided into three rounds before the Nov. 22 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, a win automatically advances the driver into the next round. Four drivers will be knocked out after every third race.
“It’s a whole new ballgame now,” said reigning series champion Kevin Harvick, who finished a quiet 14th at Richmond.
But it’s unclear if anyone will have enough to challenge JGR down the stretch.
Denny Hamlin tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee earlier this week, but vowed it wouldn’t affect his performance. He proved that on his home track by charging from 25th — the fourth lowest starting position at Richmond of his career — to take the lead during a segment of the race that was a JGR exhibition.
Hamlin led teammates Kyle Busch, Kenseth and Carl Edwards around and around the track as the Toyota contingent showed why they’ve been the most dominant team in NASCAR all summer.
Kenseth eventually worked his way to the front, while Busch finished second and Hamlin was fifth.
Hamlin had a pack of ice on his knee after the race, but said he’s ready to race for his first title. Hamlin was part of the four-driver finale last year.
“I’m about being good in September,” he said. “No matter what anyone thinks about our track record in the playoffs, we haven’t got a championship. We finished everywhere but (first). We can go on a run just as good as anybody. This isn’t going to stop any of that motivation.”