[media-credit name=”Ted Seminara” align=”alignright” width=”231″][/media-credit]With tributes to the troops, America and to all lost on September 11th, NASCAR’s finest took to the Richmond International Raceway to determine the twelve who will Chase for the Championship. Here is what was surprising and not surprising from the 54th annual Wonderful Pistachios 400.
Surprising: The unhappiness of this driver with his car at the beginning of the race contrasted starkly with his surprisingly overwhelming joy and happiness in Victory Lane. And yet even in victory, the winner of the race stopped to pay tribute to those who serve and to the country, as well as to his mother on her birthday.
Kevin Harvick, driver of the No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet, claimed his fourth victory of the 2011 season and his second victory in 22 races at Richmond, locking him into a tie for the top seed in the Chase.
“This is pretty awesome,” Harvick said as he climbed out of the car to cheers and spraying of the sponsor’s product. “First thing I want to do is thank all of our troops for everything they do for us. This is a special weekend.”
“And I want to say ‘happy birthday’ to my mom tomorrow,” Harvick continued. “This is just a great night and a great weekend.”
Not Surprising: Although getting in by the skin of their teeth, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Denny Hamlin overcame problems during the race to finish seventh, sixteenth, and ninth respectively, establishing their places in the Chase, ninth, tenth and twelfth respectively.
“I’m probably most proud of the fact that we’ve had six opportunities to be in the Chase and we’ve made it five out of the six,” Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, said. “We’re able to sit up here tonight and say we’ve made this thing.”
“I wouldn’t have predicted it halfway through the year with the way our season was going, but real appreciative of our guys who kept their heads up and kept working really hard.”
“Well we just kept working and trying to fix the car,” Dale Earnhardt, Jr. said of his No. 88 Amp Energy/National Guard Chevrolet. “We were tore up pretty bad in the front end and was just really loose in. We worked on it and worked on it and fought for everything we could.”
“It was an unbelievable comeback,” Hamlin, behind the wheel of the No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota. “This car really is destroyed and it’s amazing how fast we got this car considering the circumstances.”
“We were just able to motor up through there.”
Surprising: Although Richmond is a short track and tempers traditionally run hot, it was surprising the intensity of the feelings between one-time champion Kurt Busch and five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who managed to find one another yet again to bring out the eleventh caution of the race.
“We raced down into Turn One and I locked up the left front trying to avoid him,” Busch, driver of the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge, said of Johnson. “When he came back to us, you could see it coming.”
“That’s not something you see from Jimmie Johnson every day,” Busch continued. “So I know we’re in his head.”
“He’s got to learn to race,” Busch said. “He’s been able to beat guys the last five years just by out driving them just what he has for equipment.”
“I’m going to beat him fair and square with my Penske Dodge.”
“I got run over going into (Turn) One,” Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s/Power of Pride Chevrolet, said after the race. “If you’re going to spin me out, I’m going to spin you out.”
“It’s just part of it,” Johnson continued. “I’m sure I’ll go find him and talk to him and he’ll run his mouth and we’ll go from there.”
“I’ve worked very hard to not have any contact with him,” Johnson said. “I made a move to break the draft and I didn’t touch his car.”
“He instigated it and ran into the side of me,” Johnson continued. “If he can stop running into my Lowe’s Chevrolet, everything will be just fine.”
Busch finished fifth in the race and, in stark contrast, Johnson finished 31st. Johnson, however, now becomes the only driver to qualify for each of the eight Chase competitions, from 2004 to 2010.
Johnson is seeded sixth in the Chase and Busch is ironically right behind him in the seventh spot.
Not Surprising: In contrast to the hot tempers, three drivers in particular remained calm, cool and collected to not only finish the race with top ten finishes, but secure their places firmly in the Chase.
Carl Edwards, driver of the No. 99 Kellogg’s/Cheez-It Ford, almost caught winner Kevin Harvick in the final laps of the race, settling instead for a second place finish. This was Edwards’ seventh top-10 finish in 15 races at Richmond and his 17th top -10 finish this season.
“Well, once I get over the frustration of not winning this thing, I am going to be really excited about how fast our team is,” Edwards said. “We really turned things around tonight.”
“That is the best we have run on a short track in years,” Edwards continued. “That was huge. I had a good time and I am ready to go get this Chase on.”
Jeff Gordon, driver of the No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, was bitten by the final caution to score a third place finish. This was, however, Gordon’s 24th top-10 finish in 38 races at Richmond.
“That definitely did not fall our way, but that was a great battle,” Gordon said. “That was fun.”
“This team has got me excited and they’re on fire,” Gordon continued. “To be up there to take the lead and have a shot at winning that thing was awesome. We’re very excited.”
And Kyle Busch, behind the wheel of his No. 18 M&Ms Toyota, decked out in a red, white and blue 9/11 tribute paint scheme, scored a sixth place finish after recovering from losing a lap due to a loose wheel.
“It was just a hard-fought battle tonight, and certainly we had to battle through more adversity than we would have like to,” Busch said. “But that’s what’s going to make us better.”
“We fought through everything it seemed,” Busch continued. “It was fun to drive that thing.”
Surprising: Red Bull Racing had a surprisingly bad day, with Kasey Kahne, behind the wheel of the No. 4 Red Bull Toyota, wrecking twice, once with a tire going down and once into his own teammate Brian Vickers, behind the wheel of the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota, as a result of contact with Marcos Ambrose.
“I just know I started to turn when the 83 hit me hard,” Kahne said. “It was a weird deal.”
Vickers had an even stronger reaction, expressing his anger both on and off the track at Ambrose. Although speculation had it that Vickers had been parked by NASCAR, he ended up spending a great deal of time on pit road attempting to repair the car before visiting the NASCAR hauler after the race.
Not Surprising: It was not surprising that several drivers just out of the top twelve came oh, so close to making their Chase dreams a possibility.
A.J. Allmendinger, behind the wheel of the No. 43 Best Buy Ford, had a great run, finishing 11th. Yet he still came up short, remaining in the 13th position in the point standings.
Clint Bowyer, driving the No. 33 Cheerios/Hamburger Helper Chevrolet, also gave it his best college try, only to finish 22nd after a difficult run, including losing his air conditioning ten laps into the race and tangling with fellow competitor David Ragan, also trying to make the Chase in his No. 6 UPS ‘We Love Logistics’ Ford.
“I got under David and I didn’t get any room left and spun myself out,” Bowyer said. “I drove as hard as I could and gambled and did what we could to try to win the race.”
“Nothing’s gone our way since Charlotte half way through our season,” Bowyer continued. “There’s always next year.”
Surprising: Stephen Leicht, in only his second career race, had a good run for the No. 36 Golden Corral Chevrolet. Although Leicht finished 24th, he was in contention throughout, demonstrating that his time away from the sport has not hurt his abilities behind the wheel.
Not Surprising: Brad Keselowski, again showing that he is NASCAR’s hottest driver, brought the Blue Deuce to the checkered flag in the 12th position. ‘Kes’ has now cemented his place firmly in the Chase seeded 11th.
“We just didn’t give up,” Keselowski said. “We got a little momentum going.”
“When the Chase comes you’ve got to out-finish what you have for a car and we’re doing that,” Keselowski continued. “It’s Chase time and we’ve got the Blue Deuce in it.”