Sunday September 13th, 2009

Five things we learned on Saturday night at Richmond in the final race of the regular season:

1. Kyle Busch came up short. With 20 laps left in the race Busch was in seventh place while the driver he was battling for the final spot in the Chase, Brian Vickers, was in fourth. Busch's season was on the brink. He trailed Vickers by 31 points in the standings.

Then the caution flag waved, and Busch passed Vickers on pit road. He left the pits in sixth while Vickers dropped to seventh. But over the final 14 laps, Busch simply didn't have the power or the handling to catch the leaders. He finished fifth; Vickers came in seventh. After 26 races, Busch fell eight points shy of beating Vickers for 12th place in the standings, the last position that advances to NASCAR's 10-race playoff.

"It's very, very frustrating," Busch said. "I'm heartbroken... We just need to work on our consistency. We picked up at some tracks that we needed to and we faltered at some tracks that we thought we were good at. Just wasn't our year."

No, it wasn't. Even though he's won a series high four races, Busch has been wildly inconsistent. In retrospect, the reason he missed the Chase was because after winning at Richmond this spring, he swooned, failing to finish in the top 20 in four of the next 15 races. And when Busch struggles, he has a tendency to fall apart mentally, which compounds his problems. He becomes terse over the radio and doesn't give his crew chief, Steve Addington, the kind of information Addington needs to fix the car.

Busch probably will win a championship one day, but right now, he must be considered the season's biggest disappointment. Which leads us to...

2. The biggest surprise of the season is Brian Vickers. Vickers drove another impressive race. He kept his fenders clean, didn't take many chances, and held off Sam Hornish Jr. and Kevin Harvick in the end to qualify for the first Chase of his career. As has been mentioned in this space, he's driving like Jimmie Johnson right now, the way he's staying out of trouble and gracefully getting around the racetrack. "We picked the right night to figure this place out,'' said Vickers. "Now we're in the Chase."

Make no mistake: The No. 83 team is on the rise. Vickers receives little valuable information from his struggling Red Bull teammate Scott Speed, which means he's essentially by himself each weekend. But Toyota Racing Development, which has poured considerable resources into Vickers' car, has certainly helped him. This team won't seriously contend for the title -- it's still a year away from that -- but Vickers is inching closer to becoming an elite driver.

3. Matt Kenseth's struggle continued. Over the course of his Cup career, Kenseth has been known for his ruthless consistency. Not flashy, Kenseth will lull you to sleep over the first two-thirds of a race and then somehow end up with a top-five finish. Well, not this year.

Kenseth entered Richmond 12th in the standings. But his Chase chances were pretty much doomed when he missed his pit stall on lap 108 during a caution. He had to put his car in reverse -- a mistake that caused him to lose valuable track position. He eventually was lapped and finished 25th to drop to 14th in the standings.

This was the first time that Kenseth missed the Chase. (Johnson is the only driver to have clinched a spot in every playoff since the format was adopted in 2004.) But this team, like many of the Ford-backed teams, has struggled for weeks. Kenseth simply hasn't been able to get his No. 17 Ford to turn through the corners to his liking. Now he'll be able to use the final 10 races as glorified test sessions to prepare for next season. There is much work to be done.

4. Denny Hamlin finally won on his home track. Two times in his career Hamlin had a dominant car at Richmond, and two times he's gotten in late-race accidents. But not on Saturday night. Hamlin, from nearby Chesterfield, Va., led the final 100 laps to win the last race of the regular season.

Johnson took the checkered flag in this event last season, and it wound up propelling him to the championship. Can Hamlin do the same? Perhaps. After all, Hamlin has finished in the top 10 in eight of the last nine races. Clearly no driver in the sport has as much momentum heading into the Chase as Hamlin, who has two victories this season.

5. The drivers to beat for the championship are Tony Stewart and Johnson.

To find out why, check out our Chase preview in Sports Illustrated later this week.

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