It was a dark and stormy night......
By Mike Mulhern
It was a long, long night, and very, very wet, with storms rolling over Richmond International Raceway throughout the evening...and Clint Bowyer outlasted Jeff Gordon to win the surprisingly dramatic Richmond 400, the final event of the 26-race regular season.
Now the NASCAR championship playoffs begin, next weekend at Chicagoland Speedway. And Kasey Kahne and teammate Gordon wound up getting the two wild card spots in the 12-man chase. Kyle Busch finished 16th and will miss the playoffs.
Denny Hamlin had the dominant car but needed to pit for fuel with seven laps to go. Bowyer barely had enough to finish, but not enough to celebrate with a burnout, and he had to walk to victory lane.
The most tense drama was the battle among Gordon, Busch and Ryan Newman for a wild card spot in the chase. Gordon got that spot, by a scant three points -- essentially a difference of only three finishing positions over the season so far.
"This is the most excited I've ever been to finish second," Gordon said. His crew early on had to make an unusual chassis adjustment, cutting off the rear sway bar, to try to improve handling. "I can't believe we did that."
Gordon didn't know just what the wild card situation was until crew chief Alan Gustafson radioed him with 10 laps to go "You have to get the 55 (Mark Martin)!" That pass was the one that got Gordon in the chase, that plus Carl Edwards nipped Busch at the finish line, and leading a lap early.
That means all four of Rick Hendrick's drivers -- Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne and Gordon -- made the 12-team playoffs.
Busch appeared to have that wild card spot well in hand until a pit stop mix-up late.
The race, which started 90 minutes late because of rain, was dogged by rain all night, and it didn't end until 1:23 a.m. Sunday morning.
That rain and the threat of more rain had crew chiefs on edge the entire second half of the 400-lap race.
One particular round of yellow flag pit stops, after the yellow on lap 276 for rain, was particularly critical for Gordon and Busch.
Busch was 8th at that point, and Gordon was mired deep in the field, even a lap down at one point.
It wasn't clear at that moment if the race would be restarted, given the constant threat of rain. Still many drivers pitted for fuel and fresh tires, including Gordon.
Denny Hamlin was leader at that point, and he didn't pit at first. Then, with just one lap to go, Hamlin did pit. But teammate Busch didn't, and the lack of fresh tires bogged Busch down.
Busch never did get back into contention, and his conversations with crew chief Dave Rogers were quite testy.
After the race Busch was curt: "We missed it."
Team owner Joe Gibbs leaned in the window of Busch's car to tell him "Handle this right."
But Busch was not happy: "There's no right way to handle this situation."
That quick gamble to pit -- by Gordon, Mark Martin, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, Bowyer and a few others -- changed the dynamics of the night. It wound up giving those men a big edge, and it put Hamlin and the others who weren't so quick on the defensive.
Rogers apologized to Busch: "Sorry, we missed it. 100 percent my fault."