In the last race of the regular season and the one to set the Chase contenders here is what was surprising and not surprising from the 48th annual Federated Auto Parts 500 at Richmond International Raceway.
Surprising: One would think that a team owner standing in Victory Lane and one whose four drivers had qualified for the Chase would be a most happy camper.
Indeed, Coach Joe Gibbs was pretty happy, but he also alluded to the anxiety that he will feel in the three weeks ahead as the first elimination round plays out.
“Now the problem is, I think for the next three weeks I’ll be ready to throw up at any minute,” Gibbs said after the race. “That’s the bottom line.”
Not Surprising: While two teams, Richard Petty Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing, were shut out of NASCAR’s playoffs, the way their eliminations took place was not surprising.
Having not shown much life all season, Roush Fenway drivers Greg Biffle, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Trevor Bayne not only finished well out of Chase contention but they also completed the regular season in disappointment.
Biffle had the worst of the team’s days finishing 31st. Stenhouse and Bayne finished 16th and 23rd respectively.
This was the first time in RFR’s history that one of their drivers failed to make the Chase since its inception.
In contrast, Aric Almirola, who made the Chase last year with Richard Petty Motorsports, delivered one of the gutsiest performances, finishing fourth. And even with that, the driver of the famed No. 43 Smithfield Foods/Waffle House Ford still came up 17 points short, edged out of Chase contention by Clint Bowyer.
“Disappointed for sure,” Almirola said. “I drove my heart out tonight. All year long, really.”
“I feel like we’ve certainly overachieved this year. Our cars just haven’t had the speed, and we’ve managed a way to get good results, and really proud of this race team.”
“Everybody has done so much to support us, and to come up short, it hurts. We were in it last year and we got a taste of what it was like to be in the Chase. This race team is a great race team and we wanted another shot at it, and we just came up short. Just wasn’t meant to be.”
Surprising: Forget about making the Chase, Jeff Gordon was just excited about finally having a top-10 car. The driver of the No. 24 3M Chevrolet was also excited about being able to work with his team to finally make good enough adjustments to end up with a seventh place finish.
“Excited we finally had a solid night on pit road, on the racetrack, in the race car, communication,” Gordon said. “Everything was just really solid. That certainly gives us something to be excited about these next ten races.”
“It’s nice to be in the Chase and take that relief and take that breath and now go reset and see what we can do over the next 10.”
Not Surprising: Kasey Kahne got himself turned around and ended up the odd man out in the Hendrick Motorsports Chase contingent. His HMS teammates, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, instead are all heading on to compete for the Cup without him.
“I think the main thing for me is just figuring out how to get a car to turn again,” Kahne said. “I’ve struggled all year to have front turn, and if I don’t have that, I can’t race. That’s how I’ve been my whole life.”
“We’ll just work on trying to get the cars the way I need them to, and if we can’t, we’ll keep running about 15th.”
Surprising: While two of his drivers, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, head to Chase competition, Tony Stewart achieved a milestone that he would no doubt like to forget. The driver of the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet finished 29th, four laps down.
Stewart’s 29th place finish was only his fifth outside of the top-25 in 33 career Cup starts at Richmond International Raceway.
Not Surprising: Although one’s injuries were much fresher than the other, two drivers with physical challenges managed to not only finish the Richmond race well but also find their spots in the Chase.
Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Crispy/American Heritage Chocolate Toyota, continued his miraculous comeback with a runner-up position at Richmond. Busch is also seeded in the second place in the Chase, even after missing 11 races due to injuries sustained in the Daytona XFINITY Series race at the beginning of the season.
Just after tearing another ACL, Denny Hamlin also struggled through his injury to get into the Chase, seeded in the 11th position. The driver of the No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota finished sixth in the Richmond race.
“Well, I think it’ll be a lot better next week,” Hamlin said. “Just three days out, really, four nights out, from when it happened, and anybody that’s had it happen before knows that the first week is pretty tough.”
“I think I’ll start to rehab and everything this week and try to get it stronger and make sure we’re ready to make a Chase run.”
Surprising: Paul Menard summed up the sentiments of several of the drivers who made the Chase but had a bad race at Richmond. The driver of the No. 27 Libman/Menards Chevrolet finished 26th in the race and is seeded 15th in the Chase.
“We don’t know whether to be happy or sad, it was such a bad race for us,” Menard said. “Obviously very excited to be in the Chase. It was a goal that we set at the beginning of the year. Everybody at RCR and the 27 guys and ECR, they work hard. We’ve had a lot of good runs this year. Tonight just wasn’t one of them, but we did what we had to do.”
Kevin Harvick, another driver who made the Chase but struggled at Richmond, finished an uncharacteristic 14th. And Martin Truex Jr. finished 32nd after hitting oil from another driver’s car on Lap 39.
Harvick is seeded fifth in the Chase, with Truex Jr. following in the 10th spot.
Not Surprising: With his usual enthusiasm, Clint Bowyer bounded into this year’s Chase, saving the day at least for now, for Michael Waltrip Racing, which will fold at the end of 2015.
“Well, I mean, just to go through the year we’ve had, I mean, a lot of ups and downs here, a lot of downs,” Bowyer said. “We did this, now we’re in the Chase! Pressure is off, go cat go! Let’s go out and have some fun.”
Surprising: Michael McDowell went from sharing the invocation before the start of the race to being called to the NASCAR hauler after hitting the safety vehicle during a caution on Lap 288.
McDowell made heavy contact with the right rear of his No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Ford. McDowell was unhurt, as were the safety workers in the truck.
“I’m not really sure what happened,” McDowell said. “I’m embarrassed for my team. My mistake. Luckily no one was hurt.”
Not Surprising: Kim Lopez, the first woman and Latina to flag races at the highest level, got a tip of the cap as she threw her final checkered flag. Lopez is headed for a new role and challenge in the NASCAR R&D Center.