When it comes to ending the regular season in most sports, such as football and baseball, the teams and players want to end in the best way possible. In NASCAR, it’s no different. Teams work extra hard knowing the season is coming to an end.
But, in the Sprint Cup Series, their regular season is NOT the end of the season. It’s just a prelude to the 10-race, Chase for the Sprint Cup. Knowing that fact, teams that are locked into the Chase could go for it all and put themselves in a spot where they know they can be a factor. Meanwhile, teams outside the Chase, or at the least on the bubble of falling out, need to be careful not to get into a tough situation to where they could fall out.
Saturday night, NASCAR’s regular season came to an end with the Air Guard 400 at the Richmond International Raceway. With clear skies overhead, the 2010 Chase for the Cup would be decided.
For me, this was an exciting opportunity because I got the chance to sit in the media center and go up to the press box for the entire weekend. But at the same time, it was a very somber time as well.
The race was held on 9/11, so everyone was in a frame of mind to remember those that lost their lives nine years ago. With heavy hearts and sorrowful souls, 43 drivers took the green flag.
The beginning of the race was rather calm as pole-sitter Carl Edwards pulled out to a strong lead. He would not yield his position until lap 54 when he was passed by Jimmie Johnson. Shortly after, the race’s first caution flag flew. Coming out of the second turn, Kurt Busch and David Reutimann caught bumpers, and Reutimann was the one going for a spin. His left-rear tire was cut down, but he safely made it to pit road for service.
The round of pit stops that ensued had many teams talking about a loose condition, most getting track bar or wedge adjustments. Because Edwards had the best pit stall, he was able to beat Johnson off pit road and would lead the field back to green on lap 62.
Edwards would lead for a majority of the first quarter of the race, all but five laps. But, shortly after that, Edwards tune would change. On lap 101, Edwards would be passed for the lead by Clint Bowyer, who was battling for one of the final two spots in the Chase. After that, Edwards began falling back, complaining that his car began getting tight.
Bowyer did not enjoy the lead much as just ten laps later, hometown driver Denny Hamlin made the pass for his first lead of the night. Hamlin was going for not only the win, but he was also looking to take the lead heading into the 2010 Chase for the Cup. His car looked strong early, but would not get the top spot until lap 111.
He would lead when the race went under caution for the second time on lap 147 after Terry Labonte lost his right-front tire and hit the turn 4 wall.
The ensuing round of stops would once again show most cars being loose, with some beginning to complain of their cars not turning in the corners. The team not complaining a lot as the pit stops concluded was Hamlin, who was able to beat everyone off pit road for the restart.
At that point, the race became a two-man competition as Hamlin and Bowyer decided to do a lot of lead-swapping. At the same time, everyone at Richmond, both in the stands and in the press box, began to look at the skies. Reports earlier in the day said that rain would be in the Richmond area, but it wouldn’t arrive until very late at night.
Apparently, Mother Nature must have not gotten the notice because on lap 227, NASCAR threw the caution for rain on the track. It also provided one of the strangest things to have ever happened at Richmond.
Fans began leaving, as if they figured the race was going to be called. I myself checked the radar, and literally nothing was behind it. Not for miles. The fans that stuck around were treated to very empty seats, a sight rarely seen at Richmond.
Rather sad if you ask me.
The race went back to green on lap 241, and Hamlin once again was the top dog in the field. Not only would Hamlin show how good his car was when the field got strung out, he also showed that in traffic he was hard to get by. But, that didn’t mean the field was going to bow down in defeat.
That said, both Bowyer and teammate Kyle Busch began turning up the heat as pit stops were on the horizon.
Pit stops began at lap 320 as some of the mid-pack cars came in early, trying to start the pit cycle early hoping for a caution. Hamlin would give up his lead at lap 325, and soon felt a challenge by Juan Pablo Montoya, who was one of the early cars to pit. Montoya would get the lead at lap 329.
But, the new tires showed their strength and Hamlin would go by just two laps later. However, his night was far from over.
Teammate Busch was charging up through the field and made his way to the second spot. He now had the No. 11 car in his sights, and looked ready to bring the challenge. As the laps began clicking away, it appeared that Hamlin would have to deal with the No. 18 Toyota in a very tough battle for the win.
Sure enough, Busch caught his teammate, and ran both high and low trying to make the pass. At the same time, Busch never tried once to make a bump-and-run, which usually is something he would do. Instead, he went full-bore trying to dive under his teammate to get around him.
Unfortunately, in doing so, he used up his tires. That practically sealed the deal in this race. He got his first win at his hometown track last season, and one year later he repeats. Denny Hamlin came out of the final corner to take the checkered flag in the Air Guard 400, his sixth win of the season.
Behind him, Bowyer would come home in sixth, locking in the final spot in the Chase. Hamlin’s win would give him the points lead heading into the final 10-race Chase for the Cup. He now has just a 10-point advantage over Johnson, and now a 30-point advantage over regular season leader Kevin Harvick.
Now, the real fun begins. The 12 drivers in the Chase now start a new season, as if they are starting with zero points. No driver is going into this championship hunt with a clear advantage. Many of the drivers feel the 2010 Chase is the most wide-open in the history of it’s existence. There is no clear-cut favorite, and that means more excitement for everyone involved.
The 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup begins next Sunday afternoon as NASCAR heads north to New Hampshire. Could someone find some magic at the “Magic Mile?”
If this season is any indication, it’s expect the unexpected. Coverage of the Sylvania 300 from New Hampshire Motor Speedway will begin at 12 Noon ET on ESPN with NASCAR Countdown. Green flag is set for shortly after 1 p.m.
RESULTS: 1-Hamlin 2-Kyle Busch 3-Johnson 4-Logano 5-Ambrose 6-Bowyer 7-Montoya 8-Allmendinger 9-Edwards 10-Harvick
NOTABLE FINISHES: 11-Newman 12-Gordon 13-Burton 14-Kenseth 16-Stewart 18-Kurt Busch 20-Martin 32-Biffle 34-Earnhardt Jr.
CAUTIONS: Lap 57-62 (No. 00, 2 accident-BS), 147-153 (No. 55 accident-T4), 227-241 (rain)
LEAD CHANGES: 14 among 6 drivers. Edwards 1-53, Johnson 54-58, Edwards 59-100, Bowyer 101-110, Hamlin 111-154, Johnson 155-156, Hamlin 157-173, Bowyer 174-178, Hamlin 179-181, Bowyer 182-199, Hamlin 200-228, Burton 229-239, Hamlin 240-328, Montoya 329-331, Hamlin 332-400
TIME OF RACE: 2 Hrs, 52 Mins, 55 Secs.
AVERAGE SPEED: 104.096 MPH
MARGIN OF VICTORY: 0.537 Seconds
2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup: 1-Hamlin, 5060 points; 2-Johnson, 5050 points; 3-Harvick, 5030 points; 4-Kyle Busch, 5030 points; 5-Kurt Busch, 5020 points; 6-Stewart, 5010 points; 7-Biffle, 5010 points; 8-Gordon, 5000 points; 9-Edwards, 5000 points; 10-Burton, 5000 points; 11-Kenseth, 5000 points; 12-Bowyer, 5000 points.