Nothing, except maybe early pressure from Jeff Gordon and a late Kurt Busch charge, was going to stop Denny Hamlin from breaking his Cup Series duck at Richmond.
It's “like a Daytona 500 win for anyone else,” said Hamlin summing up his emotions after winning on his home track. “Especially after all the heartbreak, it makes it more gratifying to win now. It's by far the biggest win of my career and hopefully goes a long way for this race team over [The Chase]”.
The race had got under way some three hours earlier, with Mark Martin on pole, and leading the first lap to net a potentially crucial five bonus points in his hunt for The Chase. However, on lap four Hamlin, who had started third took the lead. And then the tone was set, Hamlin upfront, while the machinations of the drivers aiming for The Chase held attention further back.
Hamlin's early lead was only challenged by Jeff Gordon, another driver already guaranteed a chase spot. Gordon, driving what Hamlin later described as “the most consistent car upfront” swapped the lead with the Joe Gibbs driver several times over a hundred lap period, with neither able to escape the other.
However, Gordon's major challenge came to an end on a lap 326 re-start, when an ambitious move for the lead by Clint Bowyer was greeted only by Hamlin closing the door into turn one, and while Bowyer avoided the undoubted ire of the home crowd by missing Hamlin Gordon was not so luck as a tap to his rear quarter-panel sent up him the race track and back into traffic in sixth.
From there is appeared to be plain sailing for the Fedex Toyota driver, neither Mark Martin or Clint Bowyer could match his pace, and his pit crew was fast enough too him first off pitlane through all the late cautions.
Only a late caution, brought out by Brad Keselowski's expiring engine, threatened to spoil the party, as Kurt Busch showed speed to keep up with Hamlin on the re-start. Luckily, however, be it for risk aversion with a Chase berth on the line, or that crucial lack of ultimate speed, Busch never so much as got level with Hamlin.
In truth, though several drivers raced with Hamlin through the night, it was a dominant performance, as Hamlin led 299 laps on his way to a perfect driver rating.
Kurt Busch finished second to clinch his own Chase spot, followed by Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers.
And it was on Vickers and the younger Busch that much of the interest was focussed on. Coming into Richmond, both sat outside the all important top twelve in points, with their eyes firmly on overhauling Matt Kenseth.
That task was never a difficult one. Kenseth, never made progress from his 28th starting spot, falling down a lap (although he regained it with a final gamble on the last caution) and struggling to his eventual 25th place finish.
That left the door open for Vickers or Busch, and the fighting was fierce. With only 17 points separating them before the race it was single places that would be the difference between 12th and 13th, and as the cameras trained in on the two of them running together in the final laps it was stuff of high drama.
Busch had a four point deficit to make and was chasing Mark Martin, and another five points for passing him. Behind him, only just, was Vickers, caught in the bind of trying to overtake to increase his margin of error and the fear that moving off line could see him lose a place, and the points swing in Busch's favour.
As it was Busch never caught Martin, and failed to make the chase. Busch, despite his hot-head persona was gracious in defeat, laying the blame squarely at his own door “that's not eight points we sacrificed tonight, it's a conglomerate of point we sacrificed all year, ” he said, calling himself out on mistakes on other weekends.
While the late drama of Busch and Vickers was exactly what NASCAR wants from The Chase system, there will, of course, be those that will complain that arguable the best driver in the field (Busch) and the winner of the sport's biggest race (Kenseth) will not be in contention for the title, and changes may well be in the air again.
But in the end the night belonged to Denny Hamlin.