As Expected, Earnhardt Jr., Stewart and Hamlin All Make the Chase, But Went Through Hell to Get There

The day started off well, beautiful blue sunny skies complimented an emotional tribute to the tenth anniversary of 9/11, which included a planned moment of silence from laps nine through 11 to honor the victims, survivors and those who served in response to the attacks. Danny Rodriguez, the “singing New York City policeman sang “God Bless America, the 29th Infantry Division Band played the National Anthem and R. Lee Ermey, retired US Marine, Actor and Wonderful Pistachios spokesman gave the command, “Drivers let’s get crackin! Drivers, start your engines!”

[media-credit name=”CIA Stock Photo” align=”alignright” width=”230″][/media-credit]The cars rolled off the track at 7:46 pm and Wonderful Pistachios 400 began with three warm-up laps behind the pace car before Pole Sitter, David Reutimann brought the field to green. That’s where things started to get a little weird. Jaime McMurray quickly took over the lead, followed by Jimmie Johnson who then stole Reuity’s second place position.

Then came lap two where all hell just broke loose and never stopped.


American Muscle

The first caution of the night flew on lap two after Andy Lally got into the wall. No one hit pit road except Mike Bliss because well, the race just started ¾ miles earlier. McMurray led the field to green on lap six, with Johnson, Reutimann, Mark Martin and Clint Bowyer rounding up the top-five.

And then bam, another caution just two laps later after Bowyer and Reutimann got together in turn four, spinning Bowyer’s No. 33 Chevy and collecting Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Scott Speed , Robby Gordon,  Matt Kenseth, Martin Truex Jr. Casey Mears, Marcos Ambrose, , David Gilliland and Travis Kvapil.

Seriously? Seriously! Two of the three hopefuls to make the Chase involved in a wreck! Gasps could be heard track wide as hearts immediately sank and speculation began. Could NASCAR’s most popular driver Earnhardt Jr. and his crew bandage his broken racecar enough to get him a 20th place finish? How about Richmond’s hometown boy Hamlin? Did he even stand a chance or we’re all hopes dashed at that very moment?

Both drivers took to pit road on lap 12. Hamlin for front and left sided damage, Earnhardt Jr. for serious front-end damage. Junior was back on pit road on lap 13, as were Kenseth, Truex and Mears. On lap 14 Hamlin went a lap down for an extended pit stop.

Lap 15 saw crash victims, Earnhardt Jr., Kenseth, Truex and Bowyer back on pit road for repair. Lap 16 brought Kenseth back again and Hamlin with his hood up; possibly dashing his chances of making the Chase.  Lap 17 brought back Earnhardt Jr. and Kenseth and Hamlin once more on lap 18.

The green flag flew on lap 19 with McMurray in the lead, only to be taken over by Johnson on lap 20, but Kasey Kahne shook things up after a hard hit in turn two bringing out caution number three. The green flag waved four laps later with Johnson leading the pack.

Yellow flag number four flew on lap 37 after Earnhardt Jr. got into the back of Marco Ambrose, crashing him in the backstretch. Hamlin was the “lucky dog” putting the No. 11 Toyota back on the lead lap. At lap 40 both Ambrose and Hamlin were on pit road. Johnson once again led the field to green on lap 43.

Lap 51 brought out the fifth caution of the night and ended Kahne’s night after wrecking into the outside and inside wall. Kahne was three-wide with teammate Brian Vickers and Ambrose when Kahne and Vickers got together.  Vickers expressed his displeasure with Ambrose on lap 53 by intentionally wrecking him under caution by slamming Ambrose’s No .9 Ford and blocking his entrance to pit road with his No. 83 Toyota. Vickers is told by NASCAR to park his Red Bull machine in the garage until further notice.

 

Kenseth stayed out on the track and took the lead on lap 61 before the restart. Lap 69 brought an unexpected pit stop for Kyle Busch, who thought he had a loose wheel, putting him a lap down and in the 33rd position.  Harvick took over the lead position on lap 73 and by lap 93 was closing in on a 28th place Earnhardt Jr, about to put the No. 88 Chevy a lap down. Three laps later Harvick made that happen.

On lap 103 Tony Stewart quietly clinched his place in the Chase by riding in the 13th position. Earnhardt Jr. sits in 10th place but just 12 points ahead of Keselowski. Mike Bliss brings of the yellow flag for the sixth time on lap 116, nailing the wall in turn two after a tire goes down.

Vickers returned to the track on lap 120 after sitting in the garage for 68 laps. Harvick led the green flag restart on lap 122. Earnhardt Jr. delivered some earlier payback to Travis Kvapil on lap 152 sending him into the wall in turn two and bringing out the seventh caution of the evening. NASCAR deems Earnhardt Jr. responsible for the accident and did not grant him the free pass to get back onto the lead lap.

New leader Greg Biffle led the field to green on lap 160 but of course that was short lived because in just two short laps later as Harvick was passing the Biff on the frontstretch, you guessed it another caution! Landon Cassill spun on the frontstretch and the yellow flag flew for the eighth time. Earnhardt Jr. is the “lucky dog” for the second time. Harvick led the pack out again on lap 168.

History repeated itself again and again. Caution came out again on lap 172 as Paul Menard made hard contact with the wall and sent to the garage, ending his hopes to make the Chase. In a separate incident on the same lap, Regan Smith spun out but was able to keep it off the wall. Lap 185 we saw yellow again for the 10th time as Johnson spun in turn two after making contact with Kurt Busch. Montoya’s No. 42 Chevy was also involved.

Harvick once again led the field to green on lap 190 with Edwards in second, looking for a dog fight and overtook the lead on lap 201. By lap 224 it was looking a little bleak for Earnhardt Jr. has he rode in the 24th position and Keselowski took over the second spot, threatening to move from his Wild Card place in the Chase to a legit top 10, which in effect would have ended Earnhardt’s chances of making the Chase.

Edwards in the meantime is pecking off drivers one by one, putting Ambrose a lap down at 237 and Earnhardt Jr. down again at 242. But hey, guess what? Another caution came out on lap 246, number 11, after Johnson and Kurt Busch got together again in turn two. Busch spun out, Johnson hit the wall and sent the No. 48 Chevy to the garage. Earnhardt Jr. got lucky for the third time and got the free pass to get back on the lead lap. Green flag flew on lap 253 with Edwards in the lead.

And then something magical happened, the race made it 30 laps without incident, but on lap 284 Jeff Burton spun in turn three, slamming into the wall. It happened again on lap 296 for the 13th time as it’s Ambrose’s turn to take a spin. On lap 297 Joey Logano’s engine blew, forcing him to the garage. Edwards lead the field again on lap 301 as the race went green.

Eight laps later, yep, another caution, we’re up to 14 folks! Reutimann sustained heavy damage after contact with Bowyer and sending him into the wall. Lap 313 Edwards led the field again. Feels a little like “Groundhog Day” doesn’t it?  Harvick stole the lead from Edwards on lap 314 and it went down hill from there for him as he started to slip back in the pack and then on lap 355 was told that he would be ten laps short on fuel.

Harvick fights to keep the lead as Jeff Gordon makes a hard charge for first place on lap 366. Gordon makes the pass on lap 378 and took over the lead. Earnhardt Jr. went a lap down at 381…again. Just when we thought we’d make it to the end without another caution…surprise! Caution 15 came out on lap 384 as Menard, who returned to the track on lap 254, 79 laps down, spun on the frontstretch and with that, Earnhardt Jr. got lucky once again with the free pass.

Harvick won the race off of pit road, with Edwards, Gordon and Kyle Busch holding up the rear. Harvick held Edwards off to the finish line and won this emotional, roller coaster of a race in what felt like a fairy tale ending, everything fell into place exactly as predicted. Despite the many hardships that each of the drivers endured during the Wonderful Pistachios 400, some more than other; Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin made the Sprint Cup Chase and we all lived happily ever after.

Earnhardt Jr. moved up to 17th position at lap 327, enough to lock him into the Chase.

Unofficial Race Results
Wonderful Pistachios 400, Richmond International Raceway
http://www.speedwaymedia.com/Cup/race.php?race=26
=========================================
Pos. St. No. Driver Make Points
=========================================
1 7 29 Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 48
2 8 99 Carl Edwards Ford 43
3 17 24 Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 42
4 20 6 David Ragan Ford 40
5 11 22 Kurt Busch Dodge 40
6 13 18 Kyle Busch Toyota 39
7 22 14 Tony Stewart Chevrolet 37
8 18 39 Ryan Newman Chevrolet 36
9 28 11 Denny Hamlin Toyota 35
10 4 5 Mark Martin Chevrolet 34
11 9 43 A.J. Allmendinger Ford 33
12 19 2 Brad Keselowski Dodge 32
13 14 16 Greg Biffle Ford 32
14 2 1 Jamie McMurray Chevrolet 31
15 10 42 Juan Montoya Chevrolet 29
16 27 88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet 28
17 30 13 Casey Mears Toyota 27
18 23 78 Regan Smith Chevrolet 26
19 34 135 Dave Blaney Chevrolet 25
20 32 47 Bobby Labonte Toyota 24
21 33 9 Marcos Ambrose Ford 23
22 5 33 Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 22
23 25 17 Matt Kenseth Ford 22
24 40 36 Stephen Leicht Chevrolet 20
25 21 51 Landon Cassill Chevrolet 0
26 1 0 David Reutimann Toyota 18
27 36 34 David Gilliland Ford 17
28 35 38 Travis Kvapil Ford 0
29 6 31 Jeff Burton Chevrolet 15
30 29 56 Martin Truex Jr. Toyota 14
31 3 48 Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 14
32 38 71 Andy Lally * Ford 12
33 24 83 Brian Vickers Toyota 11
34 15 27 Paul Menard Chevrolet 10
35 16 20 Joey Logano Toyota 9
36 42 32 Mike Bliss Ford 0
37 37 7 Robby Gordon Dodge 7
38 12 4 Kasey Kahne Toyota 6
39 31 66 Michael McDowell Toyota 5
40 26 30 David Stremme Chevrolet 4
41 39 87 Joe Nemechek Toyota 0
42 43 55 J.J. Yeley Ford 2
43 41 46 Scott Speed Ford 0

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpeedwayMedia.com.

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