By Craig Murto - firstname.lastname@example.org
NASCAR's 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup title is set following a dramatic -- and very wet -- 400-lap battle in Richmond.
Richmond International Raceway (RIR) deserves credit for getting the entire 400 laps of racing in Saturday night/Sunday morning. Once fans filed out of the speedway about 1:30 a.m., they felt like they'd watched 1,000 laps of action. Count the efforts of safety vehicles and jet dryers to keep the track dry and in race-ready condition, and they probably did see 1,000 laps.
The race started about 90 minutes late due to rain, saw a red flag about 150 laps in due to rain, and then saw another caution after 275 laps due to rain. That final yellow flag changed the course of the race, and the Chase.
It was already about 12:30 a.m., when a drizzle brought out that final caution. Denny Hamlin dominated the race to that point and was in the lead. His crew chief Darian Grubb felt he had no choice but to stay out and not pit; as late as it was, many felt the rain would finally bring the already late night to a close.
David Rogers, crew chief for Kyle Busch, also felt the drizzle would end the race. Busch was in position to grab the final wild card spot in the Chase.
Unfortunately, they were wrong. The drizzle moved on, and rain never again plagued the event, nor was there another caution.
Jeff Gordon benefited from the rain. Before the red flag, Gordon's car was a mess. He dropped in the running order as if he were dragging an anchor. When the red flag was lifted, the desperate team decided to cut the chain to the rear sway bar, essentially disconnecting it, in a gamble to improve the car's handling. Sure enough, as track conditions changed, Gordon's car came to life.
But it wasn't until the final 10 laps of the race that all the drama unfolded. Denny Hamlin -- who gambled on fuel as he had nothing to lose -- was forced to pit. Kyle Busch lost positions on the racetrack -- and Gordon charged to the front, actually grabbing second from Mark Martin. Gordon -- in perhaps the greatest comeback performance this season -- finished within sight of race winner Clint Bowyer. Bowyer also gambled on fuel, and ran out of gas attempting a winner's burn-out for the remaining crowd.
Hindsight is always 20/20. If Kyle Busch had elected to pit during the final caution, he may have had much better track position at the end and secured a Chase position; he missed it by three points, which equates to three positions on the track. If Denny Hamlin had not gambled on fuel and decided to pit with about 60 laps to go, he had a strong enough car to charge back to the front on good tires without fuel concerns and win the race. Hamlin's gamble was less of a gamble, however, as he already secured the top spot in the Chase and only sought to increase his lead once the points were reset.
Jet dryers are expensive to keep on the track. The fact that RIR kept them running during the red flag so the track would be race-ready as soon as rain stopped was the key to getting this event in the books. They should get credit for those efforts, as fans were rewarded with just the type of drama NASCAR hoped to create with the wild card Chase positions. Gordon's drive to get into the Chase was the most dramatic in years.
But NASCAR also benefited by getting the event in when it did. If the race were postponed until Sunday, it would have been completely overshadowed by the opening NFL season results.
Greg Biffle "won" the "regular season" by 12 points over Dale Earnhardt Jr., but the points are now reset for the Chase. Denny Hamlin is the top seed, three points ahead of Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski. Six points behind Hamlin are Biffle and Bowyer in fifth and sixth. Earnhardt and Matt Kenseth are seventh and eighth, nine points behind the leader. Positions nine through 12, all 12 points behind entering the Chase, are Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Kasey Kahne and Gordon.
Last year Stewart and Carl Edwards battled to the finish, tying in points. Edwards got there through consistency, Stewart through race wins, which was the tie-breaker. Who will win the 2012 Chase to the Cup? How will that team win? We've got 10 races to find out.
Saturday at Old Dominion Speedway in Manassas may be the last night of stock car racing on the oval -- ever. Go to www.olddominionspeedway.com for more information.
-- Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.