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When Denny Hamlin wrecked just a few laps into Saturday night's NASCAR race at Richmond, his Chase hopes suddenly seemed very much in doubt.
Hamlin was already hanging on to a wild card position as it was. Now, it seemed, he would need to rely on another driver failing to win the race in order for Hamlin to make the playoffs.
"That was not what I planned on happening," said Hamlin, who has been the best Richmond driver of the last few years, along with teammate Kyle Busch.
Hamlin was able to salvage a ninth-place finish (see the full results here) after his crew "did the best job I've ever seen them do as far as fixing the car."
Even so, Hamlin didn't control his own destiny once the wreck occurred. If David Ragan had won the race, Hamlin would have missed the Chase.
"It was nerve-wracking because every person that could win and then knock us out was running up front all day long," he said. "If it wasn't one guy, it was another."
"Very nervous moments," he added.
After finishing second in last year's Chase, though, Hamlin had higher expectations for the season. Certainly, he could have never imagined he'd start the 2011 playoff from the rear.
"There's only one place to go from where we're at right now, and that's forward," he said. "It's kind of a second lease on life for us and our season.
"We've got some momentum. Who knows what's going to happen next week?"
As he always does immediately after a NASCAR race, Dale Earnhardt Jr. climbed from his car at the end of Saturday night's Chase cutoff race and walked around to inspect his No. 88 Chevrolet.
Sometimes, the scrapes and dents he sees are what he expects to find. But this time, after an early wreck at Richmond International Raceway, it wasn't what he thought at all.
"(After the wreck) I was like, 'Man, I didn't hit that hard. I've seen cars wrecked and tore up run fine,'" he said. "I felt pretty positive. If I had seen it, I probably wouldn't have had such a great attitude about it. I didn't know it was as bad as it was."
Earnhardt Jr. and his No. 88 team were able to rally back from near-disaster and finish 16th on Saturday night, which helped him clinch a spot in the 2011 Chase – the fourth time he's made NASCAR's playoff.
And for Junior Nation, it was a roller-coaster night that went from bad to salvageable to bad again to relief.
"I grew about 10 years older that race, I think," spotter T.J. Majors said. "Just relieved, man. At the beginning of that race, I don't think it got any worse."
Just a few laps into the race, Clint Bowyer spun out ahead of Earnhardt Jr., who slowed down to avoid the wreck but got slammed from behind. That caused Earnhardt Jr. to T-bone Bowyer and damage the front of his car.
"I didn't know how bad it was," Majors said. "It didn't look like it was terrible, but it looked pretty bad. I don't know, man. I thought we were going to be three laps down and 30th."
But the crew made enough repairs to keep Earnhardt Jr. running, and suddenly things didn't seem so bad for the No. 88 team.
"I was worried, because we wrecked early," Earnhardt Jr. said. "But then everybody else started wrecking."
While the race saw caution after caution, Earnhardt Jr. was able to continually overcome an ill-handling car. He was lapped three times, but earned the free pass in each instance and returned to the lead lap.
It wasn't all smooth, though. Earnhardt Jr. intentionally wrecked Travis Kvapil while racing for the free pass and radioed to his team that "the fucker got what he deserved, and he knows it."
And at one point, it looked grim again. Earnhardt Jr. had slipped into the mid-20s, and Brad Keselowski – who was chasing Earnhardt Jr. for a top-10 points position – was running in the top five.
Keselowski was suddenly within two points of knocking Earnhardt Jr. out of a Chase spot.
"I knew it was close," Earnhardt Jr. said with a grin. "He was in second and I was in like 20th or something. I was like, 'Man, this was pretty bad.' But I just gotta keep going. Wasn't much I could do about it.
"I'm afraid if I got too worried about it, I'd freak out and screw up or something, you know?"
Earnhardt Jr. sounded as if he did freak out at one point on the team radio. But overall, Majors said, the driver kept his head in the game.
"It's one of the best races I've watched him drive," Majors said. "He fought hard, raced hard, got into some mixes with some guys we probably didn't need to. But he drove hard and kept us in the race all race."
"That's perseverance, man," crew chief Steve Letarte said. "Now, we take the gloves off."
It is pretty clear Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson do not get along on the race track. They have had multiple incidents on and off the track this year and, with nothing to lose, the two got together once again Saturday night in Richmond.
The first incident came when Busch was under Johnson and locked up the tires going into the first corner. After the two made contact, Johnson hit the outside wall and received heavy damage to the rear of the No. 48 Chevrolet.
Once Johnson returned from the garage -- 34 laps down -- he dove into the corner under Busch and returned the favor, spinning both cars on Lap 247.
Despite the two incidents, Busch was able to finish the night fifth, while Johnson ended the night in 31st.
Busch said he could see the retaliation coming and expected nothing less from the No. 48, calling him a "five-time chump."
"That's not something you see from Jimmie Johnson every day so I know we're in his head," he said. "If we're going to race this way, he's got to worry that there's 10 other guys in this Chase, not just the 22."
Johnson denied the incidents with Busch were distracting his quest for another championship run, saying it was the initial contact that led to his retaliation.
"I have no clue what it's going to play into. He has no one to be upset with but himself," Johnson said. "If he didn't run me over going into Turn 1 nothing would have happened."
Johnson said the pair were able to race one another well in Atlanta, had casual words at Wednesday's White House visit, but once his car was damaged during Saturday night's race he had to "equal the scale" and "settle the score" with Busch.
"It's simple stuff, you wreck me and I'm going to wreck you," he said.
"He's always going to run his mouth," Johnson said when asked about Busch's "five-time chump" statement. "Hell, he threatened to fight NASCAR.com's Joe (Menzer). Interesting stuff."
While other Chase bubble drivers struggled to overcome adversity Saturday night in Richmond, David Ragan knew what he had to do and did all he could to accomplish that goal.
A win for Ragan would have guaranteed a Chase wild card spot, and throughout the night he ran in contention for that win. Yet as the laps clicked away and Kevin Harvick drove away with the victory, a bad pit stall seemed too much to overcome as Ragan recorded his first top-5 since his win in Daytona.
A solid run for the Roush Fenway Racing team, but not good enough to qualify for the 2011 Chase.
"Ultimately, we just didn't have the best of pit stalls and there were guys cheating the system on pit road. We lost, it seems like, a spot or two on each stop," he said. "Our guys were doing great, so a combination of pit road and just the cautions at the end kind of hurt us."
Now outside the Chase field, Ragan said his goal is to win races, finish 13th in points and "kind of stink the show up" over the next 10 races.
"We had goals to win a race, sit on poles this year and, obviously, make the Chase, and we did all of them except the Chase," he said. "We can still have a good year. We can still come out and win a few races. I'd much rather win a couple of more races, finish 13th in points than be dull and finish 10th (in points)."
It started with a simple question to Kurt Busch from NASCAR.com reporter Joe Menzer following two on-camera interviews by ESPN and MRN on pit road at Richmond International Raceway.
“Kurt, can either you or Jimmie win the Chase…” Menzer began to ask.
Before Menzer could finish his thought, Busch cut him off.
“How did I see you were going to come with that? We’re good.” Busch said.
In an attempt to end the interview, Busch turned away and started walking down pit road. Menzer called after him and said the question was legitimate following the multiple incidents with Jimmie Johnson during Saturday night’s race.
At that moment, Busch turned around yelling expletives at Menzer, coming at him as if he wanted to fight. As he called Menzer names and continued to try to get at him, team members from Busch’s Penske Racing team had to physically restrain Busch.
Earlier, Busch called Johnson a “five-time chump” after finishing fifth on Saturday.
In the end, the same 12 drivers who entered Saturday night's NASCAR Chase cutoff race at Richmond International Raceway in position to make the playoff were the same 12 who made the field.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin all made the Chase, and Kevin Harvick held off Carl Edwards at the finish line to win the Wonderful Pistachios 400.
Kyle Busch and Harvick enter the Chase with 2,012 points apiece – three for each of their four victories – and they're followed in the seeding by Jeff Gordon (2,009) and Matt Kenseth (2,006).
Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman each have three bonus points, and Stewart, Earnhardt Jr. and wild cards Brad Keselowski and Hamlin don't have any.
Here are the NASCAR Richmond results:
With the relationship between Clint Bowyer and Richard Childress Racing appearing to be a thing of the past, teams are looking to Bowyer as a possible addition to their organizations.
Among those teams with possible openings for Bowyer are Joe Gibbs Racing and Roush Fenway Racing. Both team owner Jack Roush and JGR team president J.D. Gibbs expressed interest in bringing Bowyer on as a part of their team Saturday in Richmond.
Roush said he has always seen Bowyer as "very capable" and "compatible" with his organization, saying he would be interested in acquiring the free-agent driver if "the opportunity presented itself."
While Roush Fenway Racing currently has four teams, sponsor UPS has announced its departure from the No. 6 car driven by David Ragan and the organization is still working on funding for both Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth.
If Roush is unable to bring Bowyer on board at RFR, he "would be in favor" of having him at one of their "affiliate teams" of Richard Petty Motorsports or Wood Brothers Racing.
On the other side of the garage, Gibbs remained steadfast in saying their organization is always open to the addition of a fourth team, but all of the pieces - driver, sponsor and crew - have to be in place for that to happen.
While he said Bowyer could "drive a race car" he seemed to indicate finding sponsorship for the fourth team would be the biggest hurdle facing his acquisition.
What Gibbs does not believe would be an issue is the personal differences his drivers and Bowyer have had in the past. At the beginning of last year's Chase, Denny Hamlin called out Bowyer and RCR for pushing the envelop in terms of the rule book - going so far as to accuse them of cheating. Gibbs said the organization has been forced to deal with clashing personalities in the past and believed if faced with the situation, they would find middle ground and put it in the past.
When pressed when it would be too late to put a deal together, Gibbs simply said, "It's getting pretty close."
It's NASCAR race night at Richmond International Raceway, and we've got the actual race start time, the starting lineup and some other facts about tonight's Chase cutoff race for you below.
Start time: The command to start engines will be given by Lee Ermey – who famously played the sergeant in Full Metal Jacket – at 7:41 p.m. Eastern time. After a couple pace laps, honorary starter Snooki will pass the flag-waving duties over to Frank Siller, the brother of a 9/11 firefighter who died at Ground Zero. Siller will wave the green flag at 7:47 p.m. Eastern. So if you want to skip the pre-race show and just tune in for the race, flip on your TV set at 7:47.
Race name/distance: The "Wonderful Pistachios 400" is 400 laps around the 3/4-mile Richmond track, which totals 300 miles. "Wonderful Pistachios" are part of the same company that makes the POM Wonderful drink.
TV and radio: Tonight's race can be seen on ABC, not ESPN. Every Cup race will be on either ESPN or ABC for the rest of the year. If you aren't near a TV, the radio broadcast can be found on your local Motor Racing Network (MRN) affiliate. Click here to see a list of stations where you can listen.
National anthem: Gotta love the military bands. The 29th Infantry Division Band will cap off a patriotic pre-race ceremony by performing the national anthem.
Tickets: There are still some tickets remaining for Richmond, so you should be safe if you want to take the chance by walking up to the ticket window on race night.
Weather: Nice and pleasant. According to the unofficial NASCAR weatherman, fans in Richmond should expect "mostly clear" skies with a race-time temperature of 76 degrees.
Last time: Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin have combined to win the last six Richmond races. Busch won in the spring here, and Hamlin won the last race before the Chase one year ago.
Starting lineup for tonight's NASCAR race at Richmond:
Finally! A race that isn't threatened by rain.
Since Pocono on Aug. 7, every race has had a real threat of rain and two races (Watkins Glen and Atlanta) were rained out and postponed to later dates. Now, for the first time in a month, we get a race where the action on the track will not be threatened by Mother Nature.
Saturday's forecast is going to feature some possible morning fog. By the afternoon, it will be partly sunny, warm and even a little humid. High temperatures will be in the mid 80s. Enjoy the race knowing there will be no red flag due to the weather.
7:30 p.m EDT
Sprint Cup Race – Mostly clear – temp: 79
Danica Patrick still has plenty to learn about racing in NASCAR, and that's a bit disconcerting to some people. But here's the thing about her lack of experience: She knows it, her team knows it, and they're all cool with it.
So should we be cool with it, too?
Patrick said Friday's Nationwide Series race at Richmond International Raceway "was like one of those good learning days." There were both highlights and lowlights, but she finished all the laps but one and ran a mostly respectable race with the exception of a couple notable hiccups.
We'll get to those in a minute. But first, the positives.
Patrick is not shy about her lack of NASCAR experience and doesn't consider it to be a bad thing. She views her races this season as purely a learning experience for 2012, when she'll come to NASCAR on a full-time basis.
Despite the massive hype surrounding her, she is under no illusions that she is a good stock car driver just yet. But she believes seat time and laps will cure that problem.
And seat time was exactly what she got at Richmond. She finished 18th on Friday night – the first car one lap down – which is not bad for a short track newbie, in all honesty.
Among Friday's lessons? Patrick said she learned about adjusting the brake bias to help her handling and got more experience restarting in both the inside and outside lanes.
"I said (before the race) if I'd have been in the top 15, it was a really good day – and I wasn't that far off," she said. "At the end of the day, this is a learning experience – this year and last year – in preparation for next year."
On the negative side, two other lessons were not as pleasant.
While racing Brad Keselowski for the free pass just past the midway point of the 250-lap event, Patrick got into a corner too hot and locked the tires up. She slid up the track into Keselowski and sent him spinning.
It was a total "My bad" moment. She immediately said via the team radio that it was a mistake, but she also asked crew chief Tony Eury Jr. what the "etiquette" was for smoothing over any ill feelings with Keselowski.
"Call him tomorrow," Eury Jr. advised.
If the Keselowski was "the bad," one other mistake was "the ugly."
During the first caution of the night, two cars in front of Patrick bizarrely took off in apparent anticipation of the wave-around. Patrick, not knowing any better, sped up and followed the cars – right past the bright pink pace car.
Spotter T.J. Majors quickly told her to stop, but she was confused about what just happened.
"I didn't even see the pace car!" she said after the race. "The pace car must have been pretty low or going kind of slow or something. I remember accelerating down the front straight and thinking, 'Wow, we're really moving!' and I didn't even see the pace car."
Patrick called that particular learning experience "a lesson in monkey see, monkey do."
When told she would kick herself when she saw the TV replay from her roof cam, she took the news well.
"Yeah? It probably was extremely obvious," she said. "And I probably looked like...what's that animal that follows?"
"A lemming," she confirmed. "I probably looked like a lemming out there. Oh well."
Patrick's lack of experience may still be jarring to some of us, but we can at least say this: She's not afraid to make very public mistakes and turn them into learning experiences to help her future.
Richmond International Raceway has been known to bring out the short-track tempers, and Friday night's NASCAR Nationwide Series race was no different.
While a number of drivers were frustrated with one another, in a strange twist it seemed a few separate feuds became intertwined at one point in the race.
The first came on Lap 80, when Kevin Harvick got into the back of Nationwide regular Jason Leffer heading into the third corner. Leffler's car spun, backing hard into the wall.
After the team made repairs, Leffler returned to the track looking to return the favor to Harvick.
With Harvick continuing on after their initial incident, he was in the thick of racing teammate Elliott Sadler and Trevor Bayne for position when the pack came up on Leffler's damaged No. 38 Chevrolet.
As Leffler slowed and stacked up the field, Bayne ran into the back of Harvick, buckling the hood of the No. 16 Ford. Continuing to be held up by Leffler, Bayne again got into the back of Harvick as he attempted to make a move underneath, sending the No. 33 into the outside wall.
Harvick then turned into the right rear of Bayne's car which hit the outside wall hard, ending a solid run for the Daytona 500 champion.
After emerging from the infield care center, Bayne felt Harvick was blocking for Sadler in an attempt to keep him in the championship hunt.
"I don't understand what the deal is or why he would race like that," Bayne said. "Harvick is normally a way better racer than that. It is just frustrating when people do stuff like that and it is intentional. He let the (Sadler) go and intentionally blocked us to keep me from passing them both. It is frustrating when we had that good of a car and had that good of a day."
Following the race, Harvick told SceneDaily.com's Bob Pockrass he was not blocking for Sadler, but was trying to avoid Leffler's attempted payback. Once Bayne got into him off the second corner, Harvick admitted to turning the No. 16.
While Bayne was unhappy with Harvick blocking, that was not the only driver he was upset with for blocking throughout the race. Prior to the incident with Harvick, Bayne radioed his spotter warning the No. 20 car of Ryan Truex that if he continued blocking "it would not be good for anybody."
"It's frustrating because you can race Kyle Busch for the lead, and he'll let you go," Bayne said. "The 20 car, whoever, for 12th and they just decide to block all night."
Truex saw things differently, saying he needed to make the most of his opportunities and attract sponsors with a good finish – he eventually ended the day fourth.
"We were racing," he said. "I'm trying to get sponsors here and you've got to run up front to get sponsors. I didn't mean to run him hard or block him or anything. I was just trying to run my line."
For Leffler, he was able to accomplish his goal without touching Harvick's car.
"He wrecked me, you know?" Leffler said. "He ended up wrecking himself, so it worked out alright."
Leffler would not deny backing up to wait for Harvick, but said the car was "a handful" after the wreck.
"I never touched him," he said. "He ended up wrecking himself. It is frustrating. If he legitimately made a mistake, I'd understand, but I don't think he did. He was mad that we got three-wide in (Turns) 1 and 2, and just took his frustrations out on me. I'm running for a job and a living here – well I guess he is too, so I can't really say much. I don't know, I'm not real happy."
David Reutimann won't be making NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup this season, but that didn't slow him down during qualifying for the Chase cutoff race on Friday at Richmond International Raceway.
Reutimann grabbed a surprising pole position – his first since May 2009 at Dover – to lead the starting lineup for Saturday night's Wonderful Pistachios 400.
"It's been a little bit of a dry spell," Reutimann said. "I think what you're seeing here is a direct result of (the team) doing something different."
The pole was the third of Reutimann's career, and it came via his speed of 127.383 mph. Jamie McMurray (127.334) was second, followed by Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Clint Bowyer.
"I was really happy with that," McMurray said. "You run those laps sometimes, and you know when you have a good one. I felt like that was going to be close to the fastest lap."
Richard Childress Racing teammates Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick were next, and Carl Edwards, AJ Allmendinger and Juan Pablo Montoya rounded out the top 10.
"I'm a little bummed out at myself on that first lap," Johnson said. "That car was capable of sitting on the pole today and I just underdrove it a little bit. I'll get over this here in a little bit and move on."
Here's the NASCAR starting lineup for Richmond International Raceway:
Clint Bowyer has been answering questions about his possible departure from Richard Childress Racing for weeks, yet behind the scenes the No. 33 team has had to shrug off the rumors and focus on making the Chase.
That has not been the easiest thing to do for the crew guys as they speculate about Bowyer's decision and their future within the organization.
Crew chief Shane Wilson described the current situation as "a bummer" and admitted it "definitely takes its toll" on the team.
"It probably just bums everyone out more than a lack of concentration," he said. "Not knowing your future is not very good. We race and that's what we'll do and until the end of the year."
What has kept the team motivated was the fight to make the Chase. With those chances essentially gone after last weekend's wreck with Juan Pablo Montoya, Wilson admitted keeping the team focused over the course of the final 10 races "will be a little bit harder" once they are no longer racing for the championship.
If the likely scenario takes place and Bowyer moves on from RCR, Wilson simply hopes the team is able to sell sponsors and find a driver to fill the seat on the No. 33 Chevrolet.
Tony Stewart says there's pressure to make the Chase – but it's in the form of annoying questions from the media. Here's part of the transcript from his media availability today that was televised live on ESPN.
Reporter: WHAT IS THE SITUATION LIKE FOR YOU RIGHT NOW?
Stewart: "We have to finish 18th or better, same thing as you've known all week."
Reporter: DO YOU FEEL ANY PRESSURE OR DOES THIS FEEL LIKE A NORMAL WEEK?
Stewart: "The pressure is all of the media standing here. We're doing the same thing we always do every week. It's you guys asking us the same questions for eight straight weeks in a row is annoying. That's where the pressure is coming in because we're answering the same thing that we answered for the last seven straight weeks. That is where it gets annoying after awhile and gets to be very monotonous."
Reporter: WHAT SHOULD WE BE ASKING YOU?
Stewart: "I don't know. I don't do your job. Come up with something original."
Reporter: WELL, I THINK THIS PARTICULAR WEEK THAT IS UNFAIR BECAUSE THIS IS A BIG WEEK
Stewart: "All right, here's the thing. All I care about is what I am doing this week. I'm not worried about what's going to make your article this week. If it doesn't make my race car go fast, I really don't care about it right now. Got a lot of things going on."
Reporter: THAT'S FAIR, BUT YOU ARE IN A POSITION...
Stewart: "So ask me a question that's original this week."
Reporter: I THINK THE QUESTION IS THE SAME THIS WEEK BECAUSE OF WHERE YOU ARE IN THE STANDINGS.
Stewart: "Ok, then go back the last seven weeks and get the same answer I used the last seven weeks. I'm doing exactly the same thing I've been doing."
Reporter: YOU DISCUSSED LAST WEEK THAT THE ONE PLACE YOU GUYS HAVE SOME DEFICIENCIES IS YOU NEED A COMPETITION DIRECTOR IN ORDER TO GET THE OVERALL SCOPE TO GROW. IS THAT SOMETHING YOU HAVE TO WAIT UNTIL THE END OF THE SEASON TO DO OR SOMETHING YOU ARE WORKING ON EVERY DAY?
Stewart: "Definitely not. You definitely don't want to wait until the end of the season. See this is original. This is somebody that is a good journalist because they actually know how to ask something original. It is a good question; it is nice to have that occasionally.
"You definitely need to have that as soon as possible. You can't grow and you can't get better until you get that spot filled. It is a position that you can't afford to wait until the end of the season. You need to have that person. If you don't have that person in place, you need to be trying to get that person hired for sure."
Tony Stewart can occasionally be unpleasant toward reporters, as he was in a televised media availability session on Friday at Richmond International Raceway.
In light of that development, humorist @nascarcasm humbly submits this color-coded "Tony Stewart Anger Advisory Alert" system:
Many of the NASCAR drivers in Saturday night's Sprint Cup Series race at Richmond International Raceway will be running a car with a 9/11 tribute paint scheme.
After all, it is the eve of the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.
But while most of those paint schemes will still feature the usual sponsors somewhere on the car, that's not the case for Kyle Busch's No. 18 car.
Busch is running an American flag paint scheme on his car, which will be free of most every sponsorship decal except the ones required by NASCAR.
The car was the idea of Busch's usual sponsor M&Ms, which did a similar paint scheme on Ken Schrader's No. 36 car in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
"It's an honor to be able to run it," Busch said. "It means a lot to all of us on the team to be able to honor our lost and fallen who were there on that day."
Busch noted "it takes a lot of people to just give up the real estate" on the car.
M&Ms not only agreed to give up its logos on the car, but so did Joe Gibbs Racing partners NOS Energy Drink and Interstate Batteries.
"That's pretty cool," Busch said. "I did my part – I took my name off it."
A special diecast will be made of Busch's Richmond ride – which he's calling his "No. 18 USA car" – and a portion of proceeds will go to the USO.
Does Busch think he'll somehow fly under the radar because of his paint scheme?
"Ohhh no," he said. "It's not that hard to ever find the 18 on the racetrack."
With the Chase looming, a great deal of emphasis is placed on momentum going into the final 10 races. Does it matter? Will it help your title chances?
Kevin Harvick said last weekend in Atlanta momentum means nothing, yet there seems to be no clear-cut consensus among drivers.
Jeff Gordon has been one the hottest drivers on the circuit as of late, scoring two wins, six top-5s and 10 top-10s in the last 13 races. With many looking at him as a favorite, Gordon said momentum is "huge" going into the final 10 races, adding, "I haven't felt like this in a long time."
"I don't feel like in the last 10 races anybody has shown more strength than we have," he said. "This team is definitely full of confidence and has momentum on its side. But we're also very real in knowing how tough things are going to be in the Chase."
Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards was quick to point out Harvick and Gordon were "on opposite ends of the pendulum" when it came to momentum, but said he does not put much stock into momentum carrying over into the Chase.
Likewise, five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson has been able to win the title both with momentum working for him and against him entering the final 10 races, but said, "Momentum doesn't hurt going into the Chase."
Tony Stewart has been fighting backward momentum over the past few weeks. Entering this weekend's race he has yet to lock up his spot in the Chase and has said if he makes it in his team did not deserve a spot among the 12-driver field. Coming off his first top-5 since Loudon (seven weeks ago), Stewart said momentum is whatever you make of it.
"You could win the race last week and be terrible this week, so that proves momentum doesn't means anything," he said. "But if it means a lot to you personally, that's when it counts. Every driver is going to be different, every organization is going to be different. Still when you win the race on the previous Sunday you start over on Friday and you start from scratch."
The one consensus seems to be once the final 10-race stretch begins, it is a clean slate, like a brand new season. With no true favorite emerging from the regular season, many feel the championship will come down to the wire at Homestead.
"Anything can happen in those 10 races," Edwards said. "You can have some sort of problem, bad fortune or good fortune at any point in those 10 races and things can change in a hurry.
"As competitive as everyone has been, I don't see a favorite," he said. "I don't see anyone on a real big run that can't be beat by one bad race."
Brad Keselowski has definitely had momentum on his side, and agreed with Edwards in saying one finish of 20th or worse can end a team's title hopes.
"I think if you have one race worse than 20th you're done," he said. "I think that's just the way the new point system is."
We all have crazy weeks every now and then, and four-time NASCAR champ Jeff Gordon is no exception.
But the last few days have been particularly nutty even by Gordon's celebrity lifestyle standards. Check out what he's done this week:
TUESDAY – Gordon wins rain-delayed Sprint Cup Series race at Atlanta, moves to third on the all-time Cup wins list with 85th career victory.
WEDNESDAY – Gordon and family visit White House to meet with President Obama, who honors last year's NASCAR Chase drivers.
THURSDAY – At the urging of wife Ingrid Vandebosch, Gordon flies to New York City to hang out at Fashion Week, where he meets up with Justin Bieber.
Did you get all that? NASCAR Victory Lane, the White House, Justin Bieber – in three consecutive days.
Just an average week, right?
"Yesterday was a crazy day for me, I must say," Gordon said. "... I didn't know I was going to meet 'The Bieb.' I don't know what it was like to be in close proximity to the Beatles back in the day, but that was the only thing I could think of.
"We were at the Dolce & Gabbana store, and it was like a rock concert for teenage girls. It was unbelievable – quite an experience."
Of course, Gordon couldn't hang out with Biebs forever. He had his real job to get back to at Richmond, where he'll try to win another race on Saturday night.
"My head is still spinning," he said.
Below (L-R): Usher, Ingrid Vandebosch, Justin Bieber and Jeff Gordon at Fashion Week (via @ivandebosch)
About five minutes into his media availability on Friday at Richmond International Raceway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. momentarily stopped himself to clarify how he felt about his Chase hopes.
NASCAR's most popular driver holds a 25-point lead over 11th-place Brad Keselowski – and basically needs to stay within 24 positions of Keselowski to make the Sprint Cup Series playoff (give or take a couple, depending on whether either driver leads a lap).
But as reporters peppered Earnhardt Jr. with questions about whether he'll make the Chase, he briefly stopped the proceedings.
"I mean, I'm not really that worried about it, to be honest with you all," he said. "I feel like we're a good enough team to get in it, and I've felt like that all year long. I feel like we will get the job done."
Earnhardt Jr. said it would be "disappointing" to miss the Chase, but it was obvious he hadn't given that possibility much consideration. He believes he'll get in with few problems.
"I don't want to put too much thought into the whole process," he said. "Just kind of go in there and let it flow."
Though Earnhardt Jr. has won at Richmond, it's been awhile since he's done so. Partly because of that, he won't be worried about where Keselowski is running on Saturday night, but rather focused on how his own No. 88 car is doing.
Kevin Harvick Inc. will cease to exist in its current form following this season, team co-owner Kevin Harvick said Friday at Richmond International Raceway.
KHI announced Wednesday it was moving its Nationwide Series teams to run under the Richard Childress Racing banner at the RCR shop, but Harvick revealed more about his future plans in a Friday news conference at the track.
The actual KHI organization will revert back to its original purpose – handling Harvick's personal brand and business – and the team will sell off its remaining assets and race shop.
"The only part of (the racing portion of KHI) that will still exist will operate out of RCR," Harvick said. "There won't be anything racing-wise operating out of our shop."
That means the end of KHI's championship-winning Truck Series teams. Harvick hinted he plans to sell off his current trucks to another organization, but wasn't ready to reveal their fate yet.
Harvick said there were a multitude of reasons he and wife DeLana – who owns the team with her husband – decided to move the Nationwide teams to RCR and close up shop.
Some of the primary factors:
• Nationwide cars are so much like Sprint Cup Series cars now that it didn't make sense to build them as an independent team.
"(It's) become very difficult for a standalone team to make all the things right that need to be right to keep up with the Cup(-affiliated) teams," Harvick said. "You have to be in a Cup shop. That's just the unfortunate part about where we are with the processes and things that come with the Nationwide car. From a performance standpoint, I feel like we will be better with the Cup people and technology and things in the shop."
• The Truck Series is enjoyable, but it's a "tough model business-wise."
"The Truck Series is a great series; it's a lot of fun," Harvick said. "I'd love to continue driving some races in the Truck Series as we move forward. It's just a point where we needed to make some decisions from a business standpoint.
"There was no financial issue; we were making it all work. But sometimes, you feel like you've just got to get something out of it. We were winning races and loved to be a part of that, but in the end, it's a business."
• Harvick wants to focus on winning a Cup championship, not team ownership.
"In the end, really the only thing I want to do that we haven't been able to accomplish in my career is win a Cup championship," he said. "Cup cars make it all go around. Without the Cup car being successful on Sunday, Trucks don't exist, Nationwide cars don't exist and the sponsors aren't there. ... That Cup championship is what we're after."
Because of the reasons listed above, Harvick said the decision to give up some control of his Nationwide program and jettison the Truck teams was a "relatively easy process."
"It really hasn't been as taxing or as crazy mentally of a decision as you would think it would be," he said, "just from the fact you see all these positives that have bloomed out of these conversations."
Despite the merger being a months-long process, Harvick said it was important to him that the deal was completed Wednesday. He told his 140 employees the news on Wednesday afternoon – which is why he skipped the White House visit – and worked throughout the day to wrap up the details.
While the early notice gives his employees and opportunity to start looking for other jobs – there will be positions at RCR for some of them – it also allowed Harvick to gain some peace of mind before the Chase began.
"This was as far as it could get pushed, because this is the most important part of the season coming up," he said. "I needed to sit here today and answer all these questions and set the record straight and we needed to have everything done and I needed to go into the last 10 weeks with a one-track mind, and that's to run that Cup car as fast as it'll go. Everybody from RCR was on the same page, and it feels good."
There were some difficult moments, however. He said starting the initial conversation with Childress was "awkward" and said it was hard to break the news to longtime friend and driver Ron Hornaday.
But overall, the decision was something the Harvicks needed to make in order navigate their future. While Harvick will remain busy with all that comes with being a Sprint Cup driver – he and DeLana will still have some input on the Nationwide team at RCR – he said a little more free time wouldn't be a bad thing.
"There are some normal things you can do in life, too – I hear," he said.
Brad Keselowski enters Saturday's race at Richmond International Raceway locked into the Chase and among the favorites for the 2011 championship.
Climbing from 21st to 11th in the standings in six weeks, Keselowski said the team has been able to "execute at a really high level" as of late, but still has room to grow.
"The biggest percentage of the pie in this sport is to execute," he said. "We've done that very well over the last few weeks. We have decent speed – probably not the best speed – but top-10 speed, and we're executing above top-10 level."
For much of the season, however, the team had not been executing at a level sufficient enough to be considered a contender. Keselowski fell as low as 28th in the standings at one point of the year and didn't have his first top-10 of the season until the 10th race (Darlington).
"Quite honestly, I haven't been good at Penske (Racing) until the last few months," he said. "I would call it growth. I don't think it's overly complicated that we must continue to grow on the path that we're on, and we have to sustain the growth that we have."
Encouraged by the growth of the team over the last few weeks, Keselowski said it is no guarantee that will continue and added he still has to "grow another step" to have a shot at the title.
Despite no previous Chase experience, Keselowski is not worried about being at a disadvantage. Looking at the competition, he said the No. 48 team of Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus are the fastest and "mentally strongest" team in the field.
"That's a lethal combination, because when you have the mental focus they have you can execute properly and when you have speed, that's two of the three parts of the pie – the other one being a little bit of luck," he said. "And they've had two over the last few years."
Keselowski is not putting his attention on beating Johnson, though, saying that is where most teams have "screwed up" in the past. Instead, he is focused on finding the speed to beat Jeff Gordon, who he said has "the fastest race cars" at this point of the season.
"I feel like we can execute at a very high level and have the focus it takes to win the championship where we're at right now," he said. "I really do."
In order to do that, Keselowski said the team will have to "continue the rate of growth" they have been experiencing as of late. Without going into specifics, he indicated the biggest leaps needed to become a serious championship contender will come from the "less pronounced areas" within the organization and not the more visible areas that have surfaced over the past few weeks.
Clint Bowyer has faced questions about his contract situation for weeks, but the picture got a bit clearer Thursday in Richmond.
After team owner Richard Childress told Sirius NASCAR Radio it was getting "tougher and tougher" to find an agreement and they could not "get everything worked out," Bowyer said it was "fair" to assume an extension was unlikely.
Although he would not say a deal was "100 percent off the table," Childress said Bowyer had "a couple of really good opportunities" outside of the team. Bowyer has been linked to Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports and Michael Waltrip Racing, among others.
"There's opportunities and stuff we're just trying to lay out," Bowyer said. "You've got to have all the stars line up, you can't just have one part of the puzzle. You're wasting your time talking to any media, because you don't have anything to deliver to them.
"I'm still waiting on my helicopter. My best friend wants a miniature pony as well, so we're still waiting on that one."
Mark Martin Responds To Regan Smith Incident
Following Tuesday's rain-delayed race in Atlanta, Regan Smith was upset with Mark Martin after he got into the back of the Smith's car, sending it hard into the inside wall.
Smith's Twitter comments can be seen below:
@Regan_Smith_: Wow I just now saw the replay, I was wondering if it was intentional at the time... Now there's no doubt in my mind
@Regan_Smith_: A driver as talented as mark doesn't just take a right turn going in a straight line
@Regan_Smith_: We had contact on a restart 10 laps prior, racing deal each continued on no harm no foul... The wreck following was no racing deal
@Regan_Smith_: He came across my nose on a restart and I was on the brakes trying to not wreck both of us, which almost happened
When asked about Smith's criticism and view of the incident, Martin offered very little and simply said, "We had an accident."
Pressed further, Martin pointed to double-file restarts and closer competition as causing drivers to push the limits even further and become more aggressive.
"Part of that requires less sportsmanship, more me," he said. "I don't run into people and people aren't going to get away with running into me."
Denny Hamlin Using White House Visit As Motivation
President Barack Obama welcomed 2010 champion Jimmie Johnson to the White House on Wednesday afternoon, speaking highly of him and his team. In the background stood Denny Hamlin, the driver that came oh-so-close to beating Johnson for the title.
Had he sealed the deal in Homestead, he would have been the driver walking out with Obama, while the rest of the competitors looked on.
Hamlin admitted seeing Johnson honored in the White House rekindled thoughts of what could have been, but said it was motivation to beat him this season.
"It bothers you at times, but you know you're going to have to relive it because you have a full year of tributes to our champion," Hamlin said. "Respectfully to Jimmie, he earned and deserves it. I'm not going to take anything away from him."
Clint Bowyer Takes Blame For Wreck With Juan Pablo Montoya
After a wreck with Juan Pablo Montoya in Atlanta ruined Clint Bowyer's realistic chances at making the 2011 Chase, Bowyer emerged frustrated and upset, calling Montoya a "jackass" and an "idiot."
Bowyer accepted blame for the incident on Thursday at Richmond and said he was simply caught up in the frustration when making the comments.
Montoya said he knew once Bowyer saw the replay he would understand what caused the incident.
"It's just one of those racing deals," he said. "You understand people's frustration. I'm good either way."
AJ Allmendinger: Greg Erwin Brings Experience To No. 43 Team
Over the last few weeks AJ Allmendinger and the No. 43 team have emerged as a possible Chase contender, sitting 13th in points and eligible for a Chase wild card spot. Part of the improvement for the Richard Petty Motorsports team has been the addition of crew chief Greg Erwin.
Erwin joined the team six races ago and since then the team has climbed from 17th in points thanks to four finishes of 12th or better.
Complimenting former crew chief Mike Shiplett on keeping the team organized and well prepared, Allmendinger said the biggest thing Erwin brings to the table is race winning experience.
Allmendinger admitted he was nervous about how the crew would react to the addition of Erwin after being so close with Shiplett, but said things have been going really well.
There are 14 NASCAR drivers still mathematically eligible for just three Chase spots heading into the cutoff race Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway.
But how realistic are the chances for each of the wild card drivers? Below are the Chase scenarios, driver quotes and our evaluation of their realistic chances.
12. DENNY HAMLIN
Chase scenario: If Paul Menard, David Ragan or Marcos Ambrose don't win, Hamlin just has to finish seventh or better to make the Chase – or hope another wild card candidate doesn't win.
Quote: "Winning is everything and we come here with the mindset that we need to win. ... I'd like to end the regular season on a good note, not limp in on the last leg."
Realistic chances: Very likely.
13. AJ ALLMENDINGER
Chase scenario: Allmendinger must win Richmond and either gain 12 points on Hamlin or hope Keselowski makes it into the top 10 in points.
Quote: "It's pretty simple. We've got to win and have a little bit of help. You don't have to worry about where you're at points-wise unless you cross the finish line and you've won."
Realistic chances: Not impossible.
14. CLINT BOWYER
Chase scenario: Bowyer must win Richmond – where he's won before – and either gain 13 points on Hamlin or hope Keselowski makes it into the top 10 in points.
Quote: "I think the Chase is pretty much over. Even if we win, good God, it makes a mathematician to make all the stars line up. I'm not really worried about that."
Realistic chances: Best of the drivers without a win.
15. GREG BIFFLE
Chase scenario: Biffle needs to win Richmond and either gain 29 points on Hamlin or hope Keselowski makes it into the top 10 on points.
Realistic chances: Questionable.
16. MARTIN TRUEX JR.
Chase scenario: Truex must win Richmond and either gain 34 points on Hamlin or hope Keselowski makes the top 10 in points.
Quote: "To be able to come here and have a shot at getting in the Chase is fantastic. I feel like we have a really good shot at it. ... It's a longshot. There's no two ways about it. ... We definitely have a shot."
Realistic chances: Truex can't decide, but we'll call it "Extremely unlikely."
17. KASEY KAHNE
Chase scenario: Kahne must win Richmond – he's done it before – and then hope Keselowski makes it into the top 10.
Quote: "I didn't know we had a shot."
Realistic chances: Not very good.
18. JOEY LOGANO
Chase scenario: Logano must win Richmond and hope Brad Keselowski makes it into the top 10 in points.
Quote: "We need to win at this point. We're going to do everything we can. All that's still possible, it still can happen. You've got to go into this race with the right attitude and thinking you can be confident you can do it."
Realistic chances: Highly doubtful.
19. MARK MARTIN
Chase scenario: Martin must win Richmond and hope Brad Keselowski makes the top 10 in points.
Quote: "Not really thinking about the Chase. We're just thinking about trying to steal a win."
Realistic chances: Not gonna happen.
20. PAUL MENARD
Chase scenario: Menard needs to win the race or stay in the top 20 while Keselowski makes the top 10.
Quote: "We know who we have to beat. We know we have to stay ahead of David (Ragan) and Marcos (Ambrose) – the guys with the wins. We know Brad can get into the top 10 – we're cheering hard for him to do that."
Realistic chances: Unlikely, but not impossible.
21. MARCOS AMBROSE
Chase scenario: Ambrose must win and get into the top 20 in points.
Quote: "All we can do is win the race, and if we do that, we'll be inside the top 20. We're an outside shot, but you never know. Crazy things have happened."
Realistic chances: None.
22. JUAN PABLO MONTOYA
Chase scenario: Montoya must not only win and get into the top 20 in points, but also hope Keselowski makes the top 10 in points.
Quote: "(The second half of the season) has been pretty rough. I'll tell you the truth, it's been pretty rough."
Realistic chances: A snowball's chance in Miami.
23. DAVID RAGAN
Chase scenario: Ragan must make the top 20 in points and either win the race or hope Keselowski makes the top 10 in points.
Quote: "All we can do is just go out and try as hard as we can to win the race. I feel like we've got a great shot."
Realistic chances: Do you believe in miracles?
The rain that has been plaguing the Southeast, Mid-Atlantic and Northeast will finally be moving out. Katia has made a turn to the north-northeast and will continue to move back out over the Atlantic which will allow the stalled front and system that use to be Lee to move east and clear out the rain just in time for the Richmond NASCAR weekend.
There is just a small threat of a few lingering isolated showers on Friday morning the rest of the forecast looks dry. One could say we finally got the rain out of the way early so we can have a dry race weekend. By the afternoon Friday we should see some clearing and be dry for qualifying and the Nationwide race Friday Night. Saturday looks even better with no threat of rain and highs in the upper 80s. Detailed race forecast below.
9 a.m EDT
Nationwide Practice – Mostly Cloudy, isolated shower – temp: 71
10:30 a.m EDT
Nationwide Final Practice – Mostly Cloudy, isolated shower – temp: 78
12 p.m EDT
Sprint Cup Practice – Becoming partly sunny – temp: 83
2:45 p.m EDT
Sprint Cup Final Practice – Sun & clouds – temp: 85
4 p.m EDT
Nationwide Qualifying – Partly Sunny – temp: 85
5:30 p.m EDT
Sprint Cup Qualifying – Partly Sunny – temp: 84
8 p.m EDT
Nationwide Race – Partly Cloudy – temp: 75
7:30 p.m EDT
Sprint Cup Race – Mostly clear – temp: 76
NASCAR returns to Richmond International Raceway this weekend for the final race before the Chase. Here is a look at the weekend's schedule.
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