There were two huge battles going on at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday night. One was the final confrontation for the remaining positions in the 2012 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship; and the other was the fight to simply get a race in, as the east coast of the US was battered by waves of extreme weather that included storms and tornadoes hitting New York City and Washington DC to the north.
Chances of getting a race in at all had looked bleak for the 36 hours leading up to the start of the Federated Auto Parts 400 night race, but as the worst of the weather broke up and skirted around Richmond it was just one last deluge that hit almost exactly an hour before the scheduled start time that was the biggest obstacle to getting racing in on Saturday night.
Finally the rain cleared, the track was dried, and despite one last gasp of drizzle the race wound its way to a start at just after 9.30pm local time, two hours late and looking set to run to at least midnight. The first seven laps were run under caution as turn 4 was wet from that latest brief shower, but finally Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon saw the green and the race was properly on. Pole man Earnhardt leapt away at the flag, while initially it seemed that Jeff Gordon didn't have the same sort of pace and instead lost places to Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson.
Despite early contact between Greg Biffle and Ryan Newman on lap 14 that saw Newman make one of the saves of the day, the race ran without problems through to lap 45 which is when the competition caution came out, a routine procedure after the track conditions have been affected by the likes of rain since the cars last got a run, in order for the teams to check set-up and tyre wear.
David Ragan spun on the frontstretch at the attempted restart on lap 51, forcing them to try again on lap 56: Earnhardt had the lead but Hamlin got past him in the next few laps, while Clint Bower held on to third place ahead of Jimmie Johnson who had just bested Martin Truex Jr. for fourth.
It still looked like being a bleak night for Jeff Gordon, however: he'd fallen back to 18th place by this point; he was reporting brake and handling issues, and to top things off his oil temperatures had shot up to 300 degrees Fahrenheit, leaving the car in danger of cooking itself to death. By contrast, Kyle Busch - Gordon's chief rival for the final Chase berth - was solidly in the top ten. So was Tony Stewart, who needed a solid finish of his own if he wasn't going to tumble out of a Chase spot at the final moment.
The roar of the crowd told everyone that Earnhardt was back in charge of the race on lap 85 after diving under Hamlin in turn 4, but ten laps later Hamlin returned the compliment and speeded past the #88 for the lead once again. But by now, the main focus of everyone's attention was skywards, with the rain radar telling everyone that the next weak weather front was right on top of them.
The yellows were out for rain on lap 138; after their pit stops, the cars were kept out circulating around the track to help the jet dryers trying to stop the track getting too wet, but as the field hit lap 152 and the clock ticked past 10:45pm the battle was lost and Mother Nature proved her superiority once again: the red flags were out, and the cars came on to pit road to be covered up.
It looked dangerously close to being the end of the day's racing action, and they hadn't made it to half the 400-lap distance meaning that the race would have to be resumed, if not tonight then on Sunday afternoon. No one wanted that: for one thing, the schedules packed with the first day of the new NFL season would demote NASCAR to a distant second billing in the sports news. No wonder NASCAR hung on grimly, determined to get this race back under way if at all possible.
Just under an hour later, the cars were re-fired and the track was deemed dry enough to bring out the green flags, with Hamlin, Earnhardt, Bowyer, Johnson and Kasey Kahne in fifth taking up where they'd left off. But the break had not been kind to Earnhardt, who lost places in quick succession and dropped to seventh, leaving Hamlin leading the race first from Johnson and then from Bowyer, as Johnson too started to look off his earlier game.
The rain break hadn't initially seemed to have done Jeff Gordon any favours, despite the team cutting the chain to the rear sway bar to disconnect it in order to try improving the #24's handling. As the race reached the halfway point - making it official even in the event of any further showers - Gordon was still a lap down and stuck down in 20th place, not showing much in the way of signs of life even though Gordon was immediately happier with how it felt.
"We just flat out missed the setup at the beginning," admitted Gordon after the race. "The biggest thing is that rear bar, we just had to get rid of it. We did that. We cut the chain. Our car really started coming to us right then. We finally got some drive off."
With no cautions since the restart, the field hit pit lane for green flag stops around lap 230, after which Hamlin was still in front now ahead of Kasey Kahne, with Truex, Earnhardt and Mark Martin making up the rest of the top five. A caution came out immediately after the cycle thanks to Clint Bowyer spinning on the front straight after sustaining a cut tyre from contact with Juan Montoya, and a few cars opted to come straight back onto pit road for another stop - including Gordon, seeking some help with his pile of problems with the #24. His main Chase threat Kyle Busch was also in, as was Ryan Newman who in any case had a penalty to serve for an uncontrolled tyre during his earlier stop.
Hamlin was once again led the field to the restart; after flirting with the idea of going three-wide with the front row as the greens came out, Truex finally pulled off a successful move for the lead on lap 242 through turns 1 and 2 only to be bested again by Hamlin six laps later in turns 3 and 4. Hamlin was then able to pull away and leave Truex scrapping with Kahne over bragging rights to second spot, while Jimmie Johnson was locked in a fight with Kevin Harvick for fourth.
Then the moment everyone feared: rain reported in turn 3. Three laps later, NASCAR had the caution out for precipitation, and everyone held their breath. Even though the weather radars suggested this was nothing serious, the top seven were loathe to surrender track position at this point just in case and stayed out while most came on pit road; when it was clear that the race was quickly going back to green, Hamlin and Earnhardt ducked in to the pits for their stops just before the restart, leaving Kahne and Truex in charge of proceedings.
It was Tony Stewart who launched himself into the lead as the green flags came out on lap 283, with his newly re-signed team mate Ryan Newman slipping into second as his wingman. Newman took over the lead role as the race hit the one hundred to go mark, and the only man able to stay in touch with the Stewart/Haas drivers was Clint Bowyer who slowly clawed his way forward and finally took the lead for himself on lap 312
Also finally on song was Jeff Gordon: he'd made it back into the top ten after the restart and with 80 laps to go he was jockeying for fifth place with Mark Martin. Crucially, he was well in front of Kyle Busch, who went a lap off the lead a few minutes later to emphasise that the balance of power in the battle for the Chase spot had firmly shifted: Busch's remaining hopes were all-but extinguished when a lug nut was missed off his right rear wheel on his next pit stop, forcing him to make another visit to pit road minutes later. His fate was out of his hands, and only a disaster for Gordon could now salvage his 2012 season.
The differing approaches to the previous round of pit stops meant that everyone seemed to be on a different schedule. The Penske cars of Brad Keselowski and Sam Hornish Jr. came in on consecutive laps on 336 and 337; Mark Martin and Carl Edwards made it to lap 348 before coming in for their final stops, while Harvick pushed it all the way to lap 355. And increasingly it was looking like race leader Clint Bowyer was stopping for nothing: he would make his fuel last to the end of run dry trying. Even Hamlin was looking at making it all the way home without another stop, even though the way he was charging back up the field didn't suggest he was exactly leaning off the fuel just yet in order to do it.
With fifty to go, Bowyer led Stewart and Hamlin, with Jeff Gordon in fourth place but his late-race resurgence looking in danger of running out of steam the longer the green flag stint went on. Gordon finally came in for his final stop on lap 358, and four laps later Tony Stewart was in as well.
That left just five cars on the lead lap with 30 to go: Bowyer with a ten second lead over Hamlin at the front as they worked their way through the slower lapped traffic, followed by Earnhardt, Keselowski and Martin. Earnhardt had to give up his place in that pack on lap 382 for his own final pit stop when the lack of late-race cautions doomed his own fuel strategy approach, and even Hamlin's pace was faltering as he lost second spot to Mark Martin a dozen laps from the end.
Gordon's own recent pit stop had now succeeded in re-galvanising the #24, and he was making his way up through the positions finally passing Hamlin for third place moments later and then setting his sights on Mark Martin, whom he finally passed on lap 393 just seven laps from the end. That would clinch him the spot in the Chase given that Kyle Busch was mired down in 16th place still a lap off the lead, but Gordon still set his sights on making it sure by targeting the outright win at Richmond, as Bowyer slowed up ahead because of his fuel conservation requirements.
Gordon ran out of time, and crucially Bowyer did not run out of gas before the chequered flag came out: Bowyer had clinched his second win of the year, and Gordon had to be happy with second. Given that it came with a Chase place attached via the wins wildcard, that was more than he'd dared hope.
"I felt like I won the race tonight," said Gordon. "When that was over, they told me I was in the Chase, we made it, I mean, I was ecstatic. I was going nuts. To me, after you have that kind of effort, fall back, then come up there and finish second, almost win the race, make it in by one point!"
Qualifying on a wins wildcard puts him at a slight points disadvantage to the top ten drivers going into the Chase, but that didn't stop Tony Stewart winning the championship last year from the same position and Gordon had the same mindset looking ahead to the next two months' worth of races.
"You can look at this race: all the things that have gone for us this year, everything went right for us tonight," he said. "I don't see any reason why we can't go over these next 10 races and be a real threat for the championship."
As for Bowyer, the return to victory lane was the best way possible to set up some momentum heading into the ten-race Chase shootout as far as he was concerned.
"It's a good way to get things bounced back headed into this Chase," he agreed. "We had a bad race last weekend [at Atlanta] and had a lot of adversity we had to bounce through, were kind of bummed out as a team, as a whole, coming into this race."
Tongue in cheek, Bowyer even gave credit Juan Montoya for their mid-race contact that had sent Bowyer for a spin, forcing his hand when it came to pit stop strategies and setting up the possibility of the fuel conservation run at the end: ""Thank you, Juan Pablo, for wrecking me and then winning me the race," he said. "Thank you!"
Away form victory lane, it was a different scene in the Joe Gibbs Racing area where Kyle Busch was trying to get to grips with being three points short in the standings to make the Chase over Gordon.
"We missed ... plain and simple," he said, batting away suggestions from his team owner Joe Gibbs that he had to face the disappointment and handle it in the right way. "There's no right way to handle this situation," replied Busch.
Instead, the nine drivers previously locked in to the Chase - Bowyer, Hamlin, Johnson, Keselowski, Biffle, Earnhardt, Kenseth, Harvick and Truex - are now joined by Tony Stewart and by wildcard team mates Kahne and Gordon as the dozen drivers competing for the 2012 title. Left on the sidelines are some notable names including Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman and Marcos Ambrose, who will have to wait for another year to try and win the championship.
As for 2012: battle proper commences next weekend with the GEICO 400 on Sunday afternoon at Chicagoland Speedway.Full race results
and championship standings