Carl Edwards took the lead on a final round of pit stops and thanks in part to more troubles for Jimmie Johnson, cruised to his second win of the season in Saturday night’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway.
The drama however wasn’t at the front of the field but back in the pack as the field for the 2013 NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup was set.
Jeff Gordon took an early lead from pole, jumping ahead of Kurt Busch and pulling away. Brad Keselowski, needing a win to have even a hope for making the Chase, soon passed Busch for second on lap seven and set his sights on Gordon.
By lap 28, Gordon had caught lapped traffic and Keselowski had closed the gap. It took Keselowski until lap 50 to take the lead. Gordon began to fade and a couple of laps later Busch took over second. On lap 66 Busch was able to get to Keselowski and took over the lead thanks in part again to some lapped traffic. Behind them Gordon had fallen to 7th.
Jamie McMurray, in contention for a wild card spot with a win, took second from Keselowski on lap 77. Keselowski began to fall further back.
Green flag pit stops began on lap 91 with Joey Logano leading the way to the pits. Busch hit the pit lane on lap 96 handing the lead to McMurray. After the cycle of stops, Keselowski resumed the lead. Johnson, who had started in the rear and had gone a lap down, took another hit with a pass through penalty for speeding on pit road.
Matt Kenseth took the lead from Keselowski on lap 105. Soon after, Keselowski fell back losing second to Busch. Busch moved up and took the lead from Kenseth on lap 110.
The first caution of the night came out on lap 135 for debris. The leaders dove into the pits, with McMurray taking the lead. Busch fell five spots thanks to trouble on the right rear of his Chevy that kept him in the pits a few seconds longer.
McMurray led the field to the green on lap 141, but was challenged for the lead by Keselowski. The two raced side by side for several laps before Keselowski secured the lead two laps later. By lap 153 his lead was just over one second. By lap 166 he was over two seconds ahead. By lap 176 Kurt Busch had overcome his earlier pit stop issues to take over second.
The second caution of the night came just past halfway when David Stremme, in 39th place, went for a solo spin. Kurt Busch’s pit crew redeemed themselves as they got Busch out in the lead off pit road. Busch and Keselowski battled for the lead with Busch moving to the front a lap later. Two laps later though, Keselowski was able to get by Busch and retake the lead. While the lead was being swapped on the track, Jimmie Johnson, already three laps down, was on pit road with the hood up on his Chevy and soon behind the wall with a loose alternator cable. He would fall 24 laps down and come back on the track in 40th place.
On lap 224, Gordon’s hopes to make the Chase took a huge hit as he suddenly slowed and pitted with a loose right front tire. After starting on pole and leading 49 laps, he reentered the race two laps down in 25th. With fresher tires, though Gordon was quickly able to make up one lap by passing the leaders.
Busch’s Chevy seemed better on the longer runs and by lap 248 he had caught leader Keselowski. On lap 251 he was on Keselowski’s bumper and looking for the lead. Busch and Keselowski were battling side by side for the lad by lap 265.
The third caution came out on lap 267 for debris and ended the fight for the lead. Meanwhile the timing proved great for Gordon who had just become the first driver a lap down. He got the free pass and got back on the lead lap. Clint Bowyer took the lead off pit road with Keselowski second, Busch third.
The restart came on lap 274 with Bowyer moving to the front and Keselowski falling into second with Busch in third. Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton held the fourth and fifth spots. Harvick reeled in Keselowski by lap 299 and was soon fighting for second. Keselowski knowing he needed every point to have a chance at making the Chase did all he could to hold off Harvick but on lap 307 he was moved up out of the groove and Harvick got by bringing Kurt Busch with him. Bowyer stretched his lead out to over 2.5 seconds while Harvick fell into second. Keselowski settled into fifth but was soon falling back.
“We just weren’t strong enough to really stay up there,” Keselowski said. “We needed clean air to really run well and once we lost that we just weren’t strong enough.”
By lap 330 Gordon had made his way inside the top 15. Up front Harvick had caught Bowyer and was looking for the lead with Busch close behind in third. It soon became a three way fight for the lead. With 62 laps to go, green flag pit stops began. Bowyer and Harvick dove in for their stops, but a caution came out while they were in as Johnson’s troubles continued as he lost a right front tire and hit the wall.
Busch, who had taken the lead when Bowyer and Harvick went in, stayed out and kept the lead. Eleven cars were on the lead lap when it was all sorted out.
Carl Edwards led for the first time after taking the lead off pit road. Most of those who had been among the leaders earlier including Bowyer, Keselowski, Harvick and Burton fell in at the back of the field on the same lap bringing the number on the lead lap to 19. The stage was set for a furious fight back in the field, while Edwards led Busch and Paul Menard at the front of the field.
“That's what ratcheted us up to the front and put us in the lead,” Edwards said. “A lot of tiny things that put us up to the front. It was a battle all night.”
With 28 to go, Newman charged past Busch for second as Edwards held a nearly 1.5 second lead. Newman however began to reel in Edwards after being told the only way he could make the Chase was to win.
With 14 to go Newman had erased most of Edwards lead in lapped traffic. With 10 to go, Newman passed Edwards on the outside to take the lead but it was all for naught as Bowyer spun bringing out the final caution with 7 laps to go. The leaders pitted and Menard, having taken only two tires, took the lead. Edwards was second, Kurt Busch was third with Mark Martin fourth and Newman in fifth.
The restart came with three to go. In a somewhat controversial move, Edwards took the lead prior to the start finish line from Menard on the outside (NASCAR would later rule that Menard had suffered issues that slowed him down), Busch fell in behind. Newman made it to third but Edwards never looked back and held on for the win.
“Paul (Menard) had two tires,” Edwards said. “I knew he was going to be at a big disadvantage with grip. He took off. I waited until he went to go. As we were going, his car actually touched my door. I think it surprised him a little bit or something. He turned a little bit. I heard his engine speed up. He spun the tires. At that point, I mean, I really have a choice to either lift off the throttle and wait for him to try to gather it up. I've never seen a guy able to gather is up too quickly when they spin that bad, or go and hope NASCAR understands that he spun his tires. In this case they did, they understand he came up and hit me and spun his tires. The guy in second place in that circumstance is in a tough position. If I had lifted and waited, I think the whole field would have run over us. You just can't. If he had four tires, it probably would have been different.”
McMurray was fourth, Menard fifth. Matt Kenseth was sixth Martin Truex Jr. seventh, Gordon eighth with Mark Martin and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. rounding out the top ten.
“That last caution definitely hurt us, but we got killed on pit road, there's no doubt about that,” Newman said. “Carl and those guys beat us on four tires. The guys that took two were just doing some strategy, but we should have been able to come off pit road first and come off pit road first if we were a championship contending team. We needed a championship contending pit crew, and we didn't have that tonight.”
Further back in the field, Logano was able to make up enough spots in the final laps to knock Gordon out of the Chase by one point.
“Well, we are in. If feels great,” Logano said. “Man, what a terrible race though. We were hanging on the whole time. I didn’t know where we were and every time I asked where we stood and they didn’t answer me. I thought that wasn’t good if they weren’t answering me.”
Unlike last season, Gordon wasn’t able to race his way into the Chase, despite overcoming a two lap deficit.
“It’s unfortunate,” Gordon said. “We haven't had the kind of year that this team is capable of, and that's where our focus is these next 10 races is just to know that we put in every bit of effort we possibly could. We fought through a lot of things. It wasn't pretty but we were getting it done until that caution came out, and you know, we still could have made it in. The restart just didn't go the way we needed it to.”
The final shuffle also put Truex Jr. in and left Newman out.
"I'm speechless -- I don't even know what to say,” Truex said. “We were terrible tonight -- just terrible, terrible on the long runs. We fought and we fought and we fought just like we did last week. I don't even know how that happened. Good Lord was on our side tonight. My guys did a good job and now we can go back and regroup and start back from zero and go get them."
The Chase field will be Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle and Joey Logano on points. Martin Truex Jr. and Kasey Kahne are the Wild Card bids.
The first race of the 10 race Chase for the championship will be Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway