With Richmond International Raceway playing host to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Federated Auto Parts 400, the final race of the regular season brought with it an urgency like a pressure cooker, with everything on the line to see who would make the Chase to the Sprint Cup.
Once the tensions hit boiling point, the lid blew off and the race turned out to be a no holds barred fight with tempers flaring and plenty of bent up sheet metal at the end. Virginian Denny Hamlin collected his third win of 2016 in overtime and third on the .75-mile oval and 29th overall. He led the final 86 laps and controlled most of the race, dominating for 189 circuits.
“That’s what’s so special about it,” said Hamlin, who grew up in nearby Chesterfield, “you get to do it at home. Yeah, it definitely was a great night. We ran in the top three all day. We just got our car right when it really counted – the last 200 laps or so. This is a great win for us. It just gives us three extra points. We’ll go into Chicago with a fresh slate and obviously try to ride this momentum all the way to Homestead.”
The evening was focused on the outcome of Chase benefactors No. 16, Jamie McMurray separated from Ryan Newman by 22 points before the race decided who was going to take the final slot of the Chase of 16. Newman’s bid ended on lap 363 when he tangled with Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards on the backstretch, blocking the track and causing more havoc with five additional cars caught up in the chaos. Newman was none too happy about the incident.
“The No. 14 (Stewart) cut across my nose into turn 1, and I got into him after that, but he’d already chopped into me and messed up my line and I clipped him a little bit coming off of (turn) 2,” Newman said of Stewart, who was racing at Richmond for the last time in a Sprint Cup car. “And then he just drove across my nose on the back straightaway. We’ll keep fighting like we always do. It’s just unfortunate not to end the way we wanted to. It’s just disappointing that you have somebody old like that that should be retired, the way he drives. It’s just ridiculous.”
Stewart quickly defended his actions. He’d had enough of Newman’s beating and banging on his bumper. “That was the third time he’d driven into me during the night, and how many times does a guy get a free pass until you’ve had enough of it?” said the three-time champion. “He’s got to do his part racing for a championship, too, and to race to get in there, and if you’re going to run into guys — I go into (turn) 1 and he dive bombs in there. Three times, that’s two more times than I normally let somebody run into me.”
With Newman on the sidelines in the garage for repairs, McMurray was locked into the Chase with his seventh place finish. His car owner, Chip Ganassi, said it would be the greatest ever to have both of his cars in the Chase once teammate Kyle Larson won in Michigan a couple of weeks ago.
“Well, our Chevy was really good all night long, but especially once the 31 got in trouble I was racing so differently than what you normally would, not taking any risks,” said a relieved McMurray. “Then when I saw the 5 car (Kasey Kahne) had tires and some of those guys didn’t; it got a little crazy.”
Austin Dillon and rookie Chase Elliott also got in on points with their 13th and 19th place runs, respectively. Another rookie candidate, Chris Buescher, the 2015 Xfinity champion, also secured his spot in the Chase, finishing 24th with his Pocono victory now valid, finishing 30th in the driver’s points standings after David Ragan was caught up in the Newman – Stewart fracas earlier.
The race had a record-setting 16 caution flags, lowering the average speed of the 407-lap overtime race to just 85.778 mph.
Kyle Larson finished second, mounting a strong change on new tires, followed by Martin Truex, Jr., Brad Keselowski, and Kevin Harvick in fifth.
Martin Truex, Jr.’s No. 78 Toyota finished third but failed post race inspection. His car failed the Laser Inspection Station, which could result in a P3 penalty. It won’t affect the current Chase standings since it occurred before the points were reset.
Kyle Busch will lead the Sprint Cup Chase standings going into Chicago next week along with second-seeded Brad Keselowski with 2,012 points, each with four wins. Denny Hamlin is third, having 2,009 points with three wins. Then the next five all have 2,006 points – Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Martin Truex, Jr., Matt Kenseth, and Jimmie Johnson as part of the two wins group.
Then it’s Joey Logano as the ninth-seeded driver with 2003 points, with Kyle Larson in 10th along with Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, and Chris Buescher in 13th, each with just one victory. Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon, and Jamie McMurray will start the Chase as the last drivers earning their way in on points.
The first race of the Chase to the Sprint Cup starts next weekend at Chicagoland Speedway in nearby Joliet for the running of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400 on NBCSN on Sunday, Sept. 18.