In the end, it did not matter so much that Clint Bowyer was able to save enough fuel to win at Richmond, as second place proved just enough for Jeff Gordon to beat Kyle Busch to the final Wildcard spot in the Chase by three points.
Bowyer’s drive was about as remarkable as Gordon’s: starting up in fourth, Bowyer was a contender early on before contact with Juan Pablo Montoya cut a tyre down and forced Michael Waltrip Racing into pursuing an alternative strategy. This paid worked a treat, as the #15 Camry only ran out of fuel as Bowyer attempted a celebratory doughnut after the race.
“Man, I tell you the last couple of times we’ve walked in [to Victory Lane]; at Sonoma I ran out of gas doing a burnout too!” said Bowyer after the conclusion of the rain-delayed race. “God bless Juan Pablo. It was stupid really. I don’t know how many laps down he was – I know he was at least one – and we were running second or third there and he just got into us and knocked my left rear down. But, luckily I got spun out down there, got the caution and didn’t go a lap down and that was the thing that won us the race. You never know. You never give up in this sport.”
Gordon also started up front, but quickly slipped back down the field with an ill-balanced car which left him bereft of confidence and unable to push. When the rain hit, Gordon was a lap down – in contrast, Busch looked comfortable and was easily in reach of the second Wildcard spot (the first was destined for Kasey Kahne, the only man outside the top-10 in points who had already scored two wins.)
“It’s been a handful. We are working on it,” Gordon said during the rain delay. “We will just keep going until the race is over and get everything we can out of it. We missed it. It’s unfortunate, but a lot of racing left to go.”
But everything changed after the rain delay, as Busch’s crew chief Dave Rogers made the risky call to stay out and gain track position. It turned out to be the wrong decision; on older tyres, Busch dropped like a stone and fell a lap behind. However it would only get worse; his green flag pitstop was delayed when the right-rear tyre was not attached correctly, leaving Busch with an insurmountable 3-lap deficit.
“We missed. That’s it. Plain and simple,” said a clearly upset Busch afterwards.
“The Chase is more than one race, but we certainly were in a position to capitalize and make it, but that call – I blew it,” said Rogers. “There’s no two ways to look at it. I evaluate myself as hard as I evaluate my guys and I gave one up today. I feel like I let them down. That hurts.”
Carl Edwards likewise came up short in his attempts to make it in. Needing a win, last year’s runner-up instead finished a lapped 17th.
“This isn’t about one race. It is 26 races and we just let too many points get away for a bunch of different reasons,” said Edwards, the only one of the Roush-Fenway trio to miss the Chase. “It makes it pretty simple for the last 10. We just go race as hard as we can. That has been kind of fun lately to do that but man, I don’t know, it is going to be wild to not be in the championship hunt. It won’t be as much fun at all.”
For a time it had looked like Ryan Newman was in the pound seat. Nothing less than a win would be enough to propel Newman into the Chase, but at ¾ distance it was the Stewart-Haas duo out in front, with the already qualified Tony Stewart bottling up the cars behind to allow his team-mate to get a gap. For 12 glorious laps, Newman held the keys to his own destiny, but that dream scenario went out of the window when Bowyer powered past into a lead which he would never loose, and Newman would eventually slip to eighth at the finish.
As this was going on, Gordon was mounting his fight-back and was in position to steal Busch’s Wildcard. Veteran Mark Martin’s second place was all that stood between Gordon and a shot at the championship, and it seemed only a matter of time. Gordon’s aggressive pass seven laps from home put him out of Busch’s reach and safely secured him that final Wildcard spot.
“I went from last week to being the most disappointed I’ve ever been to finish second to the most excited I’ve ever been to finish second,” said the four-time champion. “It was amazing. I still can’t believe we actually did it. I know how proud Rick is to have all four teams into this Chase. That was a big goal of ours. Pretty amazing to know we accomplished that.”
Part-timer Martin was still delighted with third. He believes that MWR’s two full-time cars, driven by Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. will be a threat in the Chase.
“I couldn’t be more proud to have both teammates in the Chase,” Martin said. “[Truex] is on the verge of winning every week – this race too. He had an unfortunate set of circumstances catch him out here, but he could have contended to win this race tonight as well. He is on the verge of a hot streak. Obviously, you’ve seen Clint. These guys are performing really, really well going in. Whoever gets on a hot streak can do it. Definitely we have the capability, but who knows what will happen.”
Stewart was next up in fourth, ahead his of arch nemesis from Bristol Matt Kenseth and Richard Childress Racing’s Jeff Burton. Team Penske’s hopes for the Chase lie with Brad Keselowski, who finished a solid seventh from Newman, while two more Chase qualifiers: Greg Biffle and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top-10.
Denny Hamlin will enter the Chase as the no. 1 seed despite finishing 18th, while five-time champion Jimmie Johnson earned the second seed with 13th and fan favourite Dale Earnhardt Jr. the no. 7 with 14th, having started from pole position.