Denny Hamlin confirmed his place in the Chase with his second successive victory in Atlanta, but was fortunate not to be wrecked by Jeff Gordon. The four-time champion would have been well within his rights to dump Hamlin on the final lap, needing a win to leapfrog Kyle Busch into the second Wildcard spot with one race of the regular season remaining. Gordon was tucked up behind the leader as the as the white flag came out, and it seemed inevitable that Gordon would take the opportunity to save his season, even if it meant wrecking Hamlin. But against all the odds, the Hendrick Motorsports man attempted a clean pass and got way out of the groove, allowing Hamlin to escape and potentially costing Gordon that chance at the Chase.
“I should have just run into the back of him going into three and moved him up the race track,” Gordon said. “We would have been sitting in victory lane right now and counting another win. This Chase is too important for me to be in it not to make a move like that….I wouldn’t have wanted to wreck him, but I would have liked to have that one over again.
“I’m just mad at myself right now. I guess I’m just getting soft in my old age; 15 years ago I would have just moved him right up the racetrack. I don’t know why I didn’t do that, I thought I could get to his quarter panel and slow him down and stay there. But I got there, I just carried too much speed into 3 and it pushed up the racetrack.”
Gordon is refusing to admit defeat, but knows that he has missed out on his best opportunity, for Busch – who finished sixth in Atlanta– is something of a Richmond specialist and now the overwhelming favourite to progress. ‘Rowdy’ has 4 Cup wins to his credit at Richmond, including the Capital City 400 in the Spring of this year.
“You don’t want to have to go beat Kyle Busch at Richmond. He’s pretty strong there,” Gordon said. “I think we’re really just going to focus on our own programme like we always do. I’m not going into it thinking that we’ve got to finish, whatever, 12 positions ahead of Kyle. I’m thinking we’ve got to win. And if we don’t make it, as long as we put our best effort forward, we didn’t make it, then we go try to win races in the final 10.”
Now with four wins this season, Hamlin will go into the Chase as the #1 seed, although he was more relieved to prevent Gordon from winning to give his team-mate Busch one last chance.
“I knew first and foremost I couldn’t let [Gordon] get around me,” said the winner. “I knew that that was my number one priority. Having more cars in the Chase for Gibbs Racing helps me. As crazy as that sounds, we need another car in the Chase. It’s important for us. So I’m going to do everything I can to be the good teammate… if Jeff won that race, it was going to be all over. We had to do what we had to do.”
Hamlin could count himself very lucky indeed, for it had seemed certain that Martin Truex Jr. was destined for victory, until a tyre failure for Jamie McMurray triggered a Green-White-Chequered finish. A slow final pitstop for Truex’s Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota dropped him behind Hamlin and meant he would restart on the outside lane, where he spun his tyres and was unable to get quickly up to speed. By the time he had done so, any chance of victory was gone, and he would finish a miserable fourth, behind Brad Keselowski.
“It just sucks when you have one locked up like that and a caution comes out,” said a furious Truex, who has not been to Victory Lane since his breakout win in 2007. “It’s tough losing when you haven’t won in a long time. People keep asking, ‘When are you going to win? When are you going to win?’ We’re close. It just sucks we couldn’t get it done tonight.”
In his best showing since Dover, Kevin Harvick quelled fears that he might slip outside the top 10 guaranteed to make the Chase with a competitive fifth place finish, which channelled the aggression from the loss of a dominant win in the Nationwide series race the day before. Busch was next up in sixth, ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Paul Menard.
Matt Kenseth, whom it was confirmed on Tuesday will move to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2012 in place of the Penske-bound Joey Logano, was the top Ford driver in ninth.
“There were times when we found the right balance, but we were just slow,” said Kenseth, whose only win this season remains the season opening Daytona 500. “We weren’t really very good at all: we were just way off on speed compared to the good guys. The last four out of six weeks have been disastrous. Today, we got a good finish because we had really great pit stops. That’s the only thing that saved us.”
Kenseth’s Roush-Fenway team-mate Carl Edwards saw his hopes of making the Chase dealt another blow with an engine failure. Nothing other than a win at Richmond will suffice for Edwards, who has never before missed the Chase.
“That’s so fitting for how our year has been going,” Edwards said. “I heard the engine making a little bit of noise… and was kind of in denial. I thought, ‘no, its okay, it’s alright,’ and then finally it looks like a piston broke or something like that. I don’t know what to say. Somebody is trying to teach me something here.”
His fellow Wildcard contenders also had a rough old time of it. Although not mathematically secure after finishing 23rd in Atlanta, Kasey Kahne’s two wins make him an almost dead cert to take the 11th spot. But the fate of Ryan Newman is far less secure. The Stewart-Haas driver was involved in his second successive accident when Jimmie Johnson tangled with Sam Hornish Jr. and now must win at Richmond for the first time since 2003 to make it in. The same applies for Logano and Marcos Ambrose, but in reality, it should be a two-horse race between Gordon and Busch.
Despite starting on the pole, Tony Stewart had a woeful day and finished two laps down in a dejected 22nd place. He has limped into the Chase on the back of three awful results in a row, but before you write him off, just remember what happened last year…