By Brian Willwerth
RICHMOND, VA — The great people at RIR – Richmond International Raceway – dubbed this “One Last Race to Make the Chase.”
As I headed down to Virginia to watch this race in person, I knew there would be a lot of hard racing going on, given what was at stake. Little did I know it would turn into the “Richmond Wreck Fest.”
On a warm Saturday night, there were four big winners, even though only one of them took the checkered flag. Kevin Harvick won his fourth race of the year. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin secured the last three-playoff positions in the 12-driver field.
Harvick’s #29 car was one of the dominant cars of the night. He beat Jeff Gordon out of the pits after a spin by Paul Menard brought out a RIR-tying 15th caution of the night. Carl Edwards was the runner-up. Gordon finished third. Harvick and Kyle Busch will be the top seeds in the Chase.
For fans of the #88 and #11, there was plenty of anxiety right off the bat. Junior and Hamlin were involved in a big wreck in Turn 3 less than ten laps into the contest. Clint Bowyer and pole-sitter David Reutimann got into each other, causing Bowyer to spin out. But there was a lot more action right behind that incident. Junior, Hamlin and about four other cars all piled up in the corner. Amazingly, both drivers were able to recover. I had a clear view of Junior’s pit stall. The crew was working non-stop on the front-end damage. As the cautions kept coming, the crew got more time to work on the car without going multiple laps down. Earnhardt finished 16th – just good enough to make the Chase. Hamlin, a Virginia native, came in 9th.
As for Stewart: he had a ho-hum kind of night where he just stayed out of harm’s way. And on a night where the wrecks were happening fast and furious, that was no easy task, as he finished 7th.
The rivalry between Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson continues. Each driver felt like wrecking the other in Turn 2. We’ve seen this movie before. There is no love lost between these two. Both had already clinched spots in the Chase. Will there be more to come in the playoffs?
Then there was Marcos Ambrose, who wrecked Red Bull Racing teammates Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers. After the second incident, Vickers drove over to Ambrose and put a dent or two in Ambrose’s #9 car.
It was a wild night, but also a patriotic one. This race was held on the eve of the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks. All of the fans were given American flags as they entered the racetrack. There was a powerful and poignant pre-race ceremony. Then from laps 9 through 11, the drivers turned off their engines, the radio/TV announcers stopped talking, and the fans held up their flags to remember those who lost their lives ten years ago. I’m not going to lie to you: my eyes watered up a bit, and I can say that I was hardly alone in that regard.
Richmond did not disappoint. If you ever get the opportunity to see a race at RIR, I strongly encourage it.
Thank you, RIR. I’m sure we’ll meet again.