Keselowski dominates to top Chase seeding at Richmond
Flag to Flag: One of NASCAR's most exciting tracks, a short track no less, ended up producing one of the most uneventful races of the 2014 season. The Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway Saturday night was supposed to be a knock down, drag 'em out showdown between the drivers on the Chase bubble - and not to mention the rest of the hungry field. Brad Keselowski looked to rebound from a disappointing wreck at Atlanta last week and started right by winning the pole. That advantage seemingly proved more helpful to the No. 2 Ford than it would at a more aerodynamically-sensitive track. Just as Kyle Busch (finished 14th) did in Friday's Nationwide Series race (leading all laps from the pole), Keselowski blistered the field. He led the first 42 laps, before Kevin Harvick (5th), who Keselowski and others thought would be the car to chase all weekend (and who dominated at AMS before wrecking on the second-to-last restart), caught him and led up to the competition caution on lap 50. Weekend rains and Goodyear's new tire compound, which had been a point of contention for many, were the reason for the scheduled yellow. Keselowski regained the lead from Harvick out of the pits and led the next 67 laps, before Harvick's No. 4 Chevy came to life late in the run and led another seven laps. But a debris caution on lap 125 sent the field to the pits again and Keselowski back into the lead. Then it was curtains, as the Team Penske entry led the final 274 laps, lapped some really good cars multiple times, and allowed no chance for Jamie McMurray (4th), Clint Bowyer (3rd), Kyle Larson (11th), or another outside-looking-in Chase contender a chance to make a Hail Mary and vault into NASCAR's again-revamped playoff system. A debris caution on lap 263 did little to shake up the field, nor did the year's strangest caution. On lap 331, NASCAR threw a yellow for a fan that climbed the Turn 4 fence and sat atop it, in the arched portion that overlooks the track. That yellow again bunched up the field, but Keselowski never surrendered the lead and took his series-high 4th win of the season, making him the top seed in the Chase, which starts next week at Chicagoland Speedway. Clint Bowyer started 6th and ran in the top 5 the entire night, often having one of the fastest cars on the track, but never could get to the front on the restarts to pass Keselowski. With Greg Biffle (19th) only needing to finish 22nd or better to make the Chase, unless Bowyer won, the result was grim for the Michael Waltrip Racing organization for the second-straight Fall Richmond race. The top 10 were Keselowski, Jeff Gordon (started there, too), Bowyer, McMurray, Harvick, Joey Logano (Spring winner), Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson (collapsed with dehydration post-race), Ryan Newman (ran in top 10 entire night to solidify Chase spot), and Aric Almirola (got free pass on lap 125 yellow and made a good comeback). The Chase seedings are: 1. Keselowski - four wins; 2. (four tied, three wins each) Gordon, Johnson, Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr.; 6. (two tied, two wins each) Harvick, Carl Edwards; 8. (six tied, one win each) Ku. Busch, Ky. Busch, A.J. Allmendinger, Almirola, Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne; 14. (three tied, zero wins) Newman, Biffle, Matt Kenseth. Each win means three bonus points, but those only carry to the first round (first three races) of the Chase. For all the drama that this Richmond race could have been - it wasn't. That happens sometimes. And the main difference seemed to be the tires and the one team - Keselowski's - that really figured out their setup. Now comes the Chase.
RaceTweet: Brad Keselowski leads all but 17 laps from the pole to put on a snooze session at Richmond. Desperate Chasers couldn't get it done.
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Brad Keselowski - read the RaceTweet. That.
North Korean Missile Dud: Joe Gibbs Racing - Richmond was another disappointing race weekend for JGR's Sprint Cup operation. Kyle Busch has four-career wins at the Virginia track, but could only muster 14th. Denny Hamlin has two wins at his home track, but finished a dismal two laps down, in 21st. Matt Kenseth started 16th and had cracked the top 10, but hit the wall around lap 120, went to the garage on the ensuing debris caution, and finished 41st, 70 laps down. All three cars made the Chase, but all three are backing in.
Never Fear, Underdog is Here: Really, no one. The B and C-level teams really got chewed up and spit out by the race's long, nearly uninterrupted pace. But let's give a nod to Georgian Reed Sorenson, who campaigned the under-funded Tommy Baldwin Racing No. 36 to 24th, four laps down. That was probably 10 spots better than he should have finished and eight spots better than he started.
Wheel of Misfortune: Ryan Truex - Truex has had a horrendous rookie season driving for the over-taxed and under-funded BK Racing operation. The No. 83 Toyota placed 42nd at Richmond, after spending a few dozen laps in the garage with a broken transmission. After a concussion in a bad crash a few weeks ago, Truex still is having a tough time of it. One has to wonder how BK Racing, which entered a fourth car at Richmond (No. 93 J.J. Yeley start-and-parked early in the race), will have much left to run at full capacity in 2015.
You Can Comeback, But You Can't Stay Here: Aric Almirola - As we said before, Almirola, like much of the field, got lapped early, but took the free pass before halfway and drove up to 10th. Greg Biffle, who barely made the Chase, told ESPN after the race that he and the rest of Roush Fenway Racing would go back and see what the No. 43 team of Almirola's ran. And if you think it was simply Almirola steering good equipment, Richard Petty Motorsports teammate Marcos Ambrose finished 27th and a miserable five laps down.
Ghost Driver: Carl Edwards - After placing in the top 5 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Edwards should have been a contender at Richmond, where he won in September 2013. Not so much. His last race at RIR for Roush Fenway Racing was a whole lotta nothin' - 22nd, four laps down. Like JGR, the RFR teams of Biffle and Edwards are going to need a lot more to make their ways deep into the Chase.
Head-Scratcher Crown of Thorns: That drunk dude on the Turn 4 fence - Seeing the pictures and hearing the story can't help but make you laugh. But if something bad had happened, NASCAR would again find itself in the national light for the wrong reasons. As Nate Ryan so eloquently wrote for USA Today, neither the track or anyone else should glorify what that inebriated, misguided person did. It was funny, yes. But the implications could have been gruesome. At the very least, if the race had been different, and, say, Bowyer had been leading, what if a yellow flag bunched up the field, cost him the win and the berth in the Chase? That would have been one of the worst ways to lose (of course, Bowyer spinning and ruining Ryan Newman's race last year was another bad way to lose it). Either way, the fan on the fence was a funny novelty then, that shouldn't be glorified now.
NNS RaceTweet: Adding insult to injury, Kyle Busch kills the field, leading every lap at Richmond from the pole. Then NASCAR confiscates his rear-end gear.
Georgia On My Mind: Reed Sorenson led the Sprint Cup Georgia gang with a 24th-place finish. David Ragan started 42nd and worked up to 33rd, six laps down at the finish. Ragan technically had a chance to make the Chase, had he miraculously won the race. 30th-place in points Michael Annett finished 37th, which would have been enough for Ragan to pass him in points, had he won - but there was less than a 10% chance of that. Chase Elliott was a bright light in Friday's Nationwide Series race at Richmond, passing teammate Kevin Harvick for 2nd on the final restart to finish there. He extended his points lead over teammate Regan Smith to 19, with eight races to go. Ryan Sieg finished three laps down in 23rd. There were five Georgia drivers in the NNS race at Atlanta Motor Speedway last week. The Camping World Truck Series was off. Winston, Georgia driver Austin Hill won the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East race at Greenville-Pickens Speedway, his first win of the year (Ben Rhodes clinched the championship with one race left). And Suwanee's Anderson Bowen won the Alabama 200 at Montgomery Speedway, making a late pass for his second Southern Super Series win of the year and the third-straight year that a Georgia driver has won that race (Mason Massey - 2012, Elliott - 2013). Good job Georgia guys on the short tracks!