RICHMOND, Va. – It was Clint Bowyer who spun with seven laps left in Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway, but the fortunes of four other drivers turned on a dime with that turn of events.
Yes, Carl Edwards won the race, streaking away after a restart with three laps left and beating Kurt Busch to the finish line by .668 seconds. But Edwards’s second victory of the season, his first at Richmond and the 21st of his career played second fiddle to the radical change of fortune that irrevocably altered the seasons of four of his competitors.
After Bowyer caused the fifth caution with his spin--a conspiracy theorist’s delight--Joey Logano had knocked four-time champion Jeff Gordon out of the top 10 in the standings and out of a berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup by one point.
The caution also played into the hands of Martin Truex Jr., Bowyer’s teammate, who claimed the second of two wild-card positions in the Chase in a tiebreaker over Ryan Newman.
Before the caution, third-place finisher Newman had grabbed the race lead from Edwards on Lap 391 and was cruising to a win that would have kept him in the Chase and knocked Truex out. At the same time, Gordon was running seventh and Logano 25th, with Gordon provisionally in the top 10 and Logano out.
A victory for Newman, which would have been his second of the year, would have knocked one-time winner Logano out of the Chase completely, but that all changed with Bowyer’s spin. Newman stopped for four tires and came off pit road in fifth place and could only gain two positions in the final threelap dash.
Under the caution, Logano took a wave-around that left him one lap down, and the three positions he gained on the subsequent restart were enough to keep Gordon out of the Chase for only the second time since NASCAR’s 10-race playoff debuted in 2004.
After the race, Bowyer scoffed at the idea he helped propel Truex into the Chase by spinning on purpose.
"I think we had something going wrong," said Bowyer, who led 72 circuits but lost a lap when Jimmie Johnson’s blown tire caused the fourth caution on Lap 343 of 400. "The 88 (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) got up underneath me. I had so much wheel, by the time I got to the gas, he was underneath me. I spun out…
"It’s unfortunate. I know it’s a lot of fun for you guys to write a lot of wacky things. Go ahead, if you want to. Get creative. But don’t look too much into it."
Comparatively speaking, Earnhardt (13th Saturday), Busch and Greg Biffle (12th) had little trouble clinching three of the five remaining spots in the Chase. But there was other drama that didn’t involve the Chase at all.
Edwards took four new tires to Paul Menard’s two on the final pit stop on Lap 394. Menard came off pit road as the race leader with Edwards second, but Edwards clearly beat Menard to the stripe for the final decisive restart. Edwards lauded NASCAR for making what he considered the correct judgment call.
"What happened on that last restart is Paul 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 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 it up that quickly when they spin that bad--or go and hope NASCAR understands that he spun his tires. In this case, they did."
Kurt Busch fulfills unlikely dream racing into the Chase
At the start of the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, few prognosticators, if any, had Kurt Busch’s name penciled in as a possible qualifier for the Chase.
In fact, when Busch announced his move to Denver, Colo.- based Furniture Row Racing last year, many described the transition derisively as a "parallel move" from James Finch’s Phoenix Racing, a dedicated team that simply didn’t have the resources to make a run at the Chase.
In Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway, Busch proved the doubters wrong. Having qualified second to Jeff Gordon in Friday’s time trials, Busch maintained a presence in to top six for the entire race, led 73 laps and ultimately finished second to Carl Edwards.
That performance left him eighth in the Cup standings and comfortably in the Chase. For the first time, a single-car team, albeit one with a strong affiliation to Richard Childress Racing, had qualified for the Chase. For the first time, a team based outside North Carolina had made NASCAR’s 10-race playoff.
It wasn’t a first for Busch, of course. The 35-year-old driver was the winner of the inaugural Chase in 2004. All told, Busch had made the Chase six times before Saturday night, but the accomplishment at Richmond clearly was special.
Not only had Busch completed the resurrection of a career he had all but destroyed with reckless emotional outbursts off the track, but he also had helped elevate the status of Furniture Row Racing from also-ran to contender. To that point, in less than one full season with the team, Busch has accounted for 16 of the 24 top-10 finishes Furniture Row has achieved since its first foray into Cup racing.
Make no mistake. Busch alone wasn’t responsible for the transformation. Team owner Barney Visser, general manager Joe Garone and crew chief Todd Berrier all were part of the critical mass the team achieved this year, and Busch acknowledged that after the race.
"The way this team has grown, what we've been able to accomplish, it's an amazing feeling," Busch said. "We achieved something very special tonight. Barney Visser and his dream of a NASCAR Sprint Cup team, to be a competitive team, he deserves all the credit.
"Joe Garone, the general manager, all the people that he's aligned to help build this team. Then there's guys like Todd Berrier that are veterans of the garage that make big differences in small places like this. Everybody at the Furniture Row shop back in Colorado--it was a dream. Now it's a reality.
"It's an amazing feeling to sit here at Richmond after such a long journey for myself, but to be able to deliver, to do my part along with these guys. I can't thank them enough."
The quest for the Chase came from the top down. When Visser hired Busch to drive his car, he also raised his sights where performance was concerned. At the start of the season, Visser communicated his expectations to the team.
"I have to go back and say at the beginning of the year, as the team has grown, you start setting goals, again coming to Barney, after Kurt coming onboard, being able to bring Todd Berrier, some of the guys we've had come onboard at the shop, Barney making the comments, ‘I expect to make the Chase,’" Garone said.
"When you're out in Colorado, and you've gone through what we've gone through, you realize just how difficult of an accomplishment that is, to have a leader that's got that kind of vision. We all just fell in right behind him.
"I don't know that we had that vision. Maybe Kurt did with his experience, but we all filed in right behind Barney and his lead there. The dream comes true today."
After the 10 Chase races, Busch will move on. He has already signed a contract to drive a fourth car for Stewart-Haas Racing next year. But he still has work to do at Furniture Row.
"It's something special we achieved tonight, to put a single car into the Chase," he said. "We have our friends, other drivers. But yet it's every man for themselves out there. We have some muscle left in us. We have a great 10 weeks ahead of us. We have a test session we've saved.
"I think we can make a run through this Chase. We just have to do the same thing we did tonight: keep plugging away, let everybody else worry about what has to happen, and we'll keep doing what we're doing out in Colorado because nobody can look over our shoulder."
Notes: Average Speed of Race Winner: 105.028 mph.
Time of Race: 2 Hrs, 51 Mins, 23 Secs. Margin of Victory: 0.668 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 5 for 29 laps.
Lead Changes: 17 among 9 drivers.
Lap Leaders: J. Gordon 1-49; B. Keselowski 50-65; Kurt Busch 66-94; J. McMurray 95-96; B. Keselowski 97-104; M. Kenseth 105-109; Kurt Busch 110-137; J. McMurray 138- 141; B. Keselowski 142-208; Kurt Busch 209-217; B. Keselowski 218-268; Kurt Busch 269; C. Bowyer 270-341; Kurt Busch 342-347; C. Edwards 348-390; R. Newman 391-394; P. Menard 395-397; C. Edwards 398-400.
Top 12 in Points: C. Edwards - 842; J. Johnson - 841; C. Bowyer - 829; K. Harvick - 828; Kyle Busch - 811; M. Kenseth - 807; D. Earnhardt Jr. - 781; Kurt Busch - 762; G. Biffle - 759; J. Logano - 751; J. Gordon - 750; M. Truex Jr. - 741.