Denny Hamlin scored a home-state win last Saturday night in the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway, and behind him, four drivers locked up the remaining berths in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, which begins this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway.
Hamlin started on the pole and was rarely far from the lead. He led seven times for 189 laps, including the final 86, to get his third win of the season and the 29th of his career. Finishing behind him were Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick.
Among those securing Chase berths at Richmond was Chris Buescher, who won at Pocono Raceway on Aug. 1 but needed to be among the top 30 in the driver standings after Richmond. He finished 24th at Richmond and ended the regular season with points to spare.
Also locking down Chase spots by way of their positions in the standings were Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon and Jamie McMurray, who were winless in the first 26 races but high enough in the driver standings to join the elite 16 as the 10-race, championship-deciding Chase gets underway.
Hamlin appeared to have the win in hand in the closing stages of the 400 until the 16th and final caution flag set up an overtime run to the checkered flag.
That late flag, and a couple just before it, gave some of Hamlin’s challengers, including Kyle Larson, a chance to put on fresh rubber and gain significant speed.
“I was literally counting the seconds down knowing I needed 20 more seconds, 15 more seconds until ... just get to the white [flag], I was going to be fine,” Hamlin said. “I saw smoke up ahead, knew there was an issue.”
He said he thought his crew chief, Mike Wheeler, would bring him to pit road, but that didn’t happen, as Wheeler correctly guessed that there would be enough drivers staying on the track behind Hamlin to create a buffer between him and the challengers on fresher tires.
“I’ve really never seen old tires win a race in a green-white-checkered,” Hamlin said. “But it was just enough, because, obviously, Larson got all the way to second. It would have definitely hurt to let it slip away on the last restart.”
Now Hamlin heads into the Chase with three extra points due to his latest win and the momentum that comes with winning the regular-season finale.
Hamlin also expects that the kind of driving that led to 16 cautions and some hot tempers at Richmond will subside, at least for a time.
“I think things get a little bit tamer in the Chase, because people are aware of the Chase cars,” he said. “Whether they say so or not, they definitely race a little bit more careful around those guys, especially when you’re not racing for a win. I think as guys get eliminated, it could definitely ramp back up again.”
One of the bigger stories at Richmond, as Hamlin mentioned, involved the drivers who came up short in their bids to make the Chase field. Rookie Ryan Blaney, who was among the top 16 in the standings for much of the season, came into Richmond needing a win to advance to the Chase. But he crashed just 12 laps into the race after contact with Trevor Bayne.
Likewise, Ryan Newman had been among the elite group until the past few weeks. His bid for the Chase ended with a crash involving his former team owner and teammate, Tony Stewart.
Newman, obviously irritated with Stewart, described him in a televised interview as unable to control his temper.
“Google Tony Stewart; you’ll see all kinds of things he’s done,” Newman said. “Look it up. YouTube and everything else. Quite the guy.”
Newman said Stewart cut across in front of him to start the accident that ended his bid for a Chase berth.
“The next thing I know, he is driving across my nose on the back straightaway, because he’s Tony Stewart and he thinks he owns everything,” he said.
Stewart blamed Newman, saying the pressure of trying to make the Chase got to him.