Tensions were high at the start of the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday evening. For many of those lining up under the floodlights this was the all important, do-or-die moment of the entire season as it came down to a matter of making the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup.
No one felt this more than the polesitter, four-time champion Jeff Gordon. He'd made the Chase last year in a last-gasp push that saw him pip Kyle Busch to a play-off spot by just three points in last year's Richmond outing, and he needed the same sort of resolve and good fortune here again this year if he was to make it through in 2013.
It started off well enough for Gordon, who led the first 49 laps of the 400 lap race before being passed by current Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski, who knew that a Chase berth was an outside bet for him but determined to do all that he could to try and secure one anyway, and that meant nothing less than a race win at Richmond. Keselowski was passed for the lead by Kurt Busch on lap 66, but the first round of pit stops saw Keselowski restored to the front on lap 97.
Matt Kenseth had a brief turn at the top before Kurt Busch was back in charge, and the #78 led to the first caution of the night which was for debris in turn 1 on lap 137 which saw all the leaders take the opportunity to come into the pits, once again to the benefit of Keselowski who picked up the race lead at the restart and this time sustained it for 67 laps until the next caution on lap 208 triggered by a spin by David Stremme.
Kurt Busch won the race off pit lane but Keselowski was still back at the front. Meanwhile, a slew of problems hit the Hendrick Motorsport contenders, with Jeff Gordon having dropped back after his opening run at the front and now reporting a loose right-front wheel at the same time as his team mate Dale Earnhardt Jr. was fretting about overheating. The most serious setback was for Jimmie Johnson, who had started from the back of the grid after missing Friday qualifying following the birth of his second daughter the previous night and who was now stuck on pit lane with battery problems.
A new debris caution on the backstretch on lap 268 provided some much-needed relief for the struggling Gordon who received the lucky dog free pass, as Clint Bowyer beat Keselowski and Busch off pit road to lead at the green flag. Bowyer might already be locked into the Chase, but with no wins so far this season the Michael Waltrip Racing #15 dearly wanted a victory tonight to ut towards his post-cut off points score going into the title fight rather than be at a disadvantage from the get-go.
Bowyer led until lap 342 when he came in as part of a scheduled green flag pit stop; but that cycle was interrupted by a caution for Jimmie Johnson blowing a tyre, ensuring the fourth consecutive poor result for the man who had once led the championship standings so imperiously it seemed that he'd be able to take a week off and still go into the Chase with the points lead. Not any more: that honour now seemed certain to fall to Bowyer.
Gordon was once again the lucky dog recipient as the race went green again, far from having given up his dream of making the Chase. After falling way down the running order earlier on, he was now back on the lead lap and rapidly advancing positions, soon moving into the top ten on lap 365 and seemingly on rails after his earlier handling issues.
But at the restart on lap 348 it was Carl Edwards who led for the first time of the night and quickly pulled a second clear of Kurt Busch with Ryan Newman up into third place as he flew the colours of Stewart-Haas Racing on behalf of the sidelines team owner and co-driver Tony Stewart, who was at Richmond watching on. There was little chance of the #39 finishing in the top ten, but thanks to his victory at the Brickyard he was still in with a chance of one of the two wild card spots. Once was guaranteed to go to Hendrick's Kasey Kahne (with two wins under his belt at Bristol and Pocono this year) leaving Newman slogging it out with MWR's Martin Truex Jr. for the other with one win apiece. All Newman had to do was finish ahead of Truex in the points; unfortunately Truex was also running in the top ten, and that was too close for Newman, who put his foot down and moved into the lead on lap 391 with just ten laps remaining to the chequered flag; if he couldn't beat Truex on points then he'd darn well try doing it by adding an extra win instead.