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.