If Saturday night’s race at Richmond International Raceway was any indication of the action and thrill the Chase will hold, then fans are in for a wild playoff season. The Federated Auto Parts 400 served as the final battleground before the race for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship begins. There was triumph, heartbreak, and even a few riffs. In the end, as the checkered flag flew, Joe Gibbs Racing driver and pole-sitter Denny Hamlin marched to Victory Lane with his third win of the year.
Before we focus on the final ten-race stretch of 2016, here are some key headlines coming out of Richmond.
Triumphant Gains and Narrow Losses
Heading into the race Saturday night, four Chase spots were left undecided. One of those was tentatively held by Chris Buescher, who gained a win at Pocono Raceway, but was marginally inside the top-30 in point standings. After a long, eventful race, the Texas native stayed out of trouble and managed to stay within the parameters of playoff eligibility. A late-race wreck involving point standings competitor David Ragan gave the driver of the No. 34 Ford an opportunity to stay within the top-30. In the end, the rookie earned a spot in his first-ever Chase.
While the incident, reassured Buescher’s Chase chances it ended it for another competitor. Ryan Newman, who was battling for a playoff seat, and Tony Stewart, who had already clinched a spot, were dueling with 36 laps to go. Aggression was high in the race as the laps ticked down, and both had enough. The pair of drivers made contact, causing both to spin. Newman, along with several other drivers, were collected in the incident. As a result, Newman’s Chase hopes were dashed.
Larson Rebounds From Adversity
Starting second, Kyle Larson was piloting a stout No. 42 Chevy, but the team’s race proved to be a wild ride as the event unfolded. Early on in the event, the 24-year-old driver suffered a loose wheel and had to make an unscheduled pit stop. Larson went down a lap as a result, but the No. 42 team didn’t give up. After grabbing the free pass, the driver slowly climbed back into the top 10, and during a later caution and subsequent pit stop, Larson found himself exiting pit road first and assuming the lead.
After leading a handful of laps, Larson fell back to third and hung around the top-five for the remainder of the race. During overtime, Larson found a boost of speed and challenged Hamlin for the victory, but had to settle for second instead. While it is not a win, the event showed Team 42 is riding a wave of momentum from their win two weeks ago. Larson will certainly be one to watch as the Chase progresses.
Tempers and ‘Tudes
The race was rhythmic until the final 100 laps – then chaos happened. On a restart with 68 laps to go, Brad Keselowski missed a shift and lost speed quickly. As the driver of the No. 2 car struggled to regain his momentum, he overshot turn one and side swiped the No. 20 of Matt Kenseth. Kenseth’s Toyota suffered a tire rub which split with 63 to go and ended the team’s race.
Kenseth was not pleased, telling NBCSN, “It’s all on Brad and I’m sure he’ll send a tweet out or go on a show and explain how it wasn’t his fault., but he knows better than that. He knew his angle was bad, and he just drove way off into the corner because he made a mistake and he was trying to make up for it. He had no respect for anybody in the outside lane.”
Despite the driver’s heated statements, Keselowski took full responsibility for the incident post-race.
27 laps later, tensions grew worse after the incident involving Newman and Stewart. The incident red flagged the event and took out several cars from the race. Newman blamed Stewart for the accident and had some surprising words afterward.
“(Stewart) cut across my nose going into Turn One and I got into him after that,” the driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet said to NBCSN, “but he had already chopped into me and messed up my line. I clipped him a little bit coming off of (Turn) Two… (My team) will keep fighting like we always do. It’s just unfortunate, not the end that we wanted….It’s just disappointing that you have somebody old like that and should be retired with the way he drives. It’s ridiculous.”
Tempers have been known to boil over during the high-pressure Chase, but it seems hostility is already beginning to brew. Whether these drivers will resolve their conflicts or not is something only time, and good ol’ racing will tell.
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