With everything on the line as far as Chase berths, here is what was surprising and not surprising from the 56th annual Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway.
Surprising: The very technology that attracts fans to the sport because of how up close and personal they can be with their drivers and teams, including in-car audio and race scanners, was surprisingly what doomed Michael Waltrip Racing at Richmond.
After the race, the in-car audio and video of Clint Bowyer, driver of the No. 15 5-Hour Energy Toyota, seemingly indicated that his late race spin, which sent his teammate Martin Truex, Jr. into the Chase, may not have been so accidental.
To complicate matters, the audio of the race scanner chatter between MWR driver Brian Vickers and his spotter Ty Norris also seemed to indicate some shenanigans about pitting to allow Truex Jr. into the Chase as well.
In a surprising Monday after the race weekend press conference, NASCAR announced significant penalties to address these issues which they deemed detrimental to the sport, including points penalties, the largest monetary fine ever imposed, and the indefinite suspension of key MWR leader Ty Norris.
Even more surprising, because of the reduction in the points, Martin Truex Jr. was moved out of the Chase and Ryan Newman was placed into the Chase.
“Based upon our review of Saturday night’s race at Richmond, it is our determination that the MWR organization attempted to manipulate the outcome of the race,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president of competition. “As the sport’s sanctioning body, it is our responsibility to ensure there is a fair and level playing field for all of our competitors and this action today reflects our commitment to that.”
Not Surprising: While the major issues with MWR may have been surprising, it was not surprising that the last race of the regular season yet again involved a restart controversy. And this time it involved the ultimate race winner Carl Edwards, driver of the No. 99 Frosted Flakes Ford.
“What happened on that last restart is Paul (Menard) had two tires,” Edwards said. “I knew he was going to be at a big disadvantage with grip.”
“He took off and I waited until he went to go,” Edwards continued. “As we were going, his car actually touched my door.”
“I heard his engine speed up and he spun the tires,” Edwards said. “At that point, I really had no choice.”
Edwards scored his 21st win in the Cup Series, his second victory of the season and his first win at Richmond. He is now seeded fifth in the Chase, just nine points behind the leader.
Surprising: Jimmie Johnson, fresh off the birth of his second daughter Lydia, continued his slump, finishing outside the top 25 for the fourth straight race. Johnson’s previous worst slump was three straight finishes of 36th or worse in August 2004.
Johnson endured mechanical problems and a late-race spin to finish 40th at Richmond in his No. 48 Lowes/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet. In spite of his struggles, he is still seeded second in the Chase, just three points behind the leader.
“Yeah, that was a tough night,” Johnson said. “Just a bummer we ended the regular season like we did.”
“We will go to Chicago and get this Chase started off on the right foot.”
Not Surprising: The current lame duck drivers had positive results when it came time to decide the Chase, with one making history, one solidly in, and the third catapulting in thanks to the MWR penalties.
Kurt Busch, current driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row/Beautyrest Chevrolet who will be moving to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, made history by finishing second at Richmond and taking his one-car team into the Chase. He is seeded 10th in the Chase standings at present, 15 points behind the leader.
“It’s an amazing feeling to go up against these big teams and to put a little lone Chevrolet from Colorado into the Chase against the big boys,” Busch said. “This feels incredible.”
Kevin Harvick, who has run consistently all season and will also move to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014 along with Kurt Busch, closed the deal on his Chase berth, finishing the race in 11th and taking the fourth seed position in the Chase, just nine out of first.
“We’re as good as we’ve ever been over the years,” the driver of the No 29 Budweiser Chevrolet said. “Hopefully we can take our team and get better over the next few weeks.”
Ryan Newman, the other lame duck driver, who just confirmed that he will be leaving Stewart-Haas Racing for Richard Childress Racing in 2014, ended up in the Chase after NASCAR levied its decision regarding Martin Truex Jr.
“I am proud that NASCAR took a stand with respect to what went on Saturday night at Richmond,” Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 39 Quicken Loans Chevrolet, said. “I know it was a tough decision to make.”
“With that being said, myself, Matt Borland (crew chief) and this entire No. 39 team are looking forward to competing for the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.”
Surprising: Roush Fenway had a surprisingly good night at and after the Richmond race, locking up two of its drivers in the Chase and having its rookie driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. score a top-10 finish.
This was the tenth time in ten seasons that Roush Fenway Racing has placed multiple teams into playoff contention. The event also marked the seventh time that RFR driver Carl Edwards made the Chase in his career.
Roush Fenway Racing has achieved another milestone, that of placing five of ten entries inside the Chase since 2005, including both Carl Edwards and teammate Greg Biffle.
“As I look at the racetracks in front of us in the Chase, I think that we’ve got more momentum than we’ve ever had as we look at it going forward,” team owner Jack Roush declared.
Not Surprising: The ever understated Matt Kenseth not only made the Chase with his ‘new’ team Joe Gibbs Racing but is seeded in the top dog position of P1, with all the other contenders literally chasing him for the championship.
Kenseth, behind the wheel of the No. 20 Home Depot Husky Toyota, finished sixth at Richmond.
“We ended up finishing the night decent,” Kenseth said. “The last couple cautions fell our way and the last restart fell our way.”
“I feel good going to Chicago – it will be alright.”
Surprising: Considered a short track, it was surprising that there was not one caution caused by anything other than debris or a single car incident at RIR under the lights.
In fact, the first one hundred laps of the race were completely caution free and there were only five yellow flags for a total of 29 laps.
Not Surprising: The disappointment, not surprisingly, of two past champions was absolutely palpable after seeing their Chase hopes disappear.
Both reigning champ Brad Keselowski and four-time champion Jeff Gordon failed to make the Chase for 2013. Keselowski finished in 17th and Gordon finished 8th in the final race before the Chase.
“I don’t really have any emotions right now,” Brad Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford. “We weren’t good enough to make it and we didn’t.”
“That is the reality.”
“It’s disappointing to miss it that close,” Jeff Gordon, driver of the No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, said after barely missing the Chase. “I love the effort this team put in.”
Surprising: Two drivers who made it into the Chase were surprisingly disappointed after their Richmond run. Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 18 American Heritage Chocolate Toyota, and Kasey Kahne, behind the wheel of the No. 5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet, were both unhappy after their 19th and 14th place finishes respectively.
“We made it I guess,” Busch said. “We’ll just have to work and lay all the pieces out and see what needs to be better.”
“So I’m not pleased with where we’re at,” Kahne said. “But I’m still very confident and feel that going into the Chase it’s a clean sheet of paper for everybody, and we’re going to be where we need to.”
“People can speculate and wonder all week long, but I really look forward to getting to Chicago and showing people what this team has in it.”
Not Surprising: Ironman Mark Martin, substitute driver for the recuperating Tony Stewart, not surprisingly brought home the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet for his first-ever top-10 performance in that race car.
“Really proud of all the guys on this Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 team,” Martin said. “They improved the car throughout the race and made some great calls.”
“We got our first top-10 together,” Martin continued. “We’ll take that and build on it.”