NASCAR's regular season finale Saturday night was supposed to be a no-holds-barred, sparks-flying affair at Richmond that got fans all charged up for the Chase.
Too bad someone forgot to tell Denny Hamlin not to stink up the show.
In a race that tied the record for fewest cautions ever at Richmond, the postseason points leader led a parade of clean, sedate driving on the three-quarter mile oval, salvaging a summer slump during a night it seemed his 11 closest competitors left their own sense of urgency sitting at home. His rousing success in the face of the 10-race championship stretch ahead leads off Five Things to take from the 400-lapper...
1) Denny Hamlin made a statement Saturday night ...
In Hamlin's case, no one out of the 12 title contenders had more to prove at Richmond. Winless since mid-June, his surprising summer slide included two DNFs and three finishes of 34th or worse the past month, including a last-place effort at Atlanta last Sunday courtesy a faulty engine. Once the trendy pick to topple Jimmie Johnson, the same old questions of confidence and reliability hounded the No. 11 team all over again. Not now. For a week, at least, the talk should die down as Hamlin did what was needed to right the ship: dominate at a hometown track that boosts his confidence the second he walks on pit lane. Leading 251 of 400 laps, the outcome was never in doubt down the stretch as a sixth victory reminded us all of his early-season success: he'll start the Chase as the top seed with a 10-point edge over Johnson.
Will that be enough to hand him back momentum? Judging by the post-race comments, you'd certainly think so.
"It's good," he said of his worst-to-first accomplishment in six days. "I definitely feel like we spent the last two weeks trying to gauge where we are going to be. We brought what we had in the shop and said, we are going to try to start our Chase early and that way, when we got to Loudon, New Hampshire, we would be in the swing of our momentum, not trying to falsely start it, and I feel like we have done that. We could have had two wins in a row going into the Chase, but last week is in the past and right now I just feel really confident in the team."
In reality, those question marks can't be erased at an oval where equipment's not usually an issue. Only when they finish a 400-miler at an intermediate without the engine blowing can Hamlin and Company truly breathe easy; but for now, they need to ride the momentum of their driver's first week atop the standings right into a place they've also had a history of success: Loudon. A second straight victory could open up a 50-point lead or more on the field, giving some breathing room for the mechanical failure that seems inevitable for this team every playoff.
"I've been in a lot of these Chases, made a lot of mistakes through all these chases. Every year I feel like I've learned something," he said. "I feel like I'm more prepared than I've ever been. We're winning on racetrack I usually win at ... I'm tough right now."
We'll see if that engine shop was listening, too.
2) And so did Joe Gibbs Racing.
Hamlin wasn't the only one smiling out of the JGR shop. Kyle Busch was runner-up while Joey Logano ran fourth, flashing the type of promise that had him contending for a postseason berth early in the year. The No. 20 Toyota was actually the fastest car on the track as the laps wound down and would have proved a formidable challenger to his teammates if a late-race caution bunched the field.
For Busch, whose five-day "reality show" debuts on ESPN on Monday, it was a fitting rebound after a rough-and-tumble Atlanta race where he fought from nearly two laps down at one point just to finish fifth.
"Denny has really picked up the mile-and-a-half program this year, a lot better than I have," he admitted. "I've picked up the short track program. Being able to utilize our information as much as we can has really helped us as a team."
Perhaps the biggest boost goes to the man that isn't in the Chase, though. Logano's fought through a character-building sophomore season where everyone from Greg Biffle to Kevin Harvick has roughed him up. Scoring his first top-5 finish since Martinsville in March, the 20-year-old can now be a crucial ally to the duo in the Chase, testing setups and providing a little extra info to help put them both over the top.
3) Clint Bowyer deserves his spot in the Chase.
This year's "Race to the Chase" was anything but, Bowyer making it clear there would be no Miracle on 26th Street right from the drop of the green. Swapping the lead with Hamlin three times before halfway, he made clear it would take a catastrophic mechanical failure to knock him out of the 12th and final spot. Taking it easy down the stretch, he settled for sixth, more than enough to launch him into the postseason over a trio of would-be challengers: Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray and Mark Martin.
Some say McMurray, who won the sport's two crown jewels at Daytona and Indianapolis, would be a more formidable championship contender. But the No. 1 car flip-flops more than your local politician, going from first to worst about every other race in a season defined by both domination and DNFs. Bowyer, in comparison, has fit the mold of what NASCAR is looking for under this Chase system: a driver who's capable of consistency, putting forth back-to-back top-10 finishes five times in 26 races.
In fact, Bowyer would be a solid top-five points contender if not for some ugly DNF statistics of his own. A driver known for conserving equipment, he's fallen out of more races this season (two) than he has for the last three seasons combined (one). In a year where his Richard Childress Racing team has led the points and won three races with Harvick, it's fair to reward their overall improvement with all three Cup teams making the playoffs.
4) Don't forget about those 31 other drivers, too.
On a night where most of this year's Chasers twiddled their thumbs, a number of others stood out as potential spoilers. Marcos Ambrose is suddenly hitting his stride just one month after announcing a move to Richard Petty Motorsports for 2011; running fifth, he's got back-to-back top-10s for the first time all season. Future teammate A.J. Allmendinger ran eighth, while Juan Pablo Montoya slotted in one spot ahead with a car that briefly held the lead after the final round of green flag pit stops before fading.
Clearly, the season didn't go as well as expected for any of these three. But especially in Montoya's case, these aggressive drivers up front each week could prove to be some hefty obstacles for their championship peers, all of whom sit one ill-timed bump away from watching their dreams die against a SAFER barrier.
5) Dale Earnhardt's team is in complete disarray.
Just two days after I wrote about the sorry season of Dale Earnhardt, Jr., his year officially hit rock bottom at Hendrick Motorsports. Running at a track where he's won three times, the No. 88 Chevy was three laps down by halfway, failing to pass backmarkers like Dave Blaney and David Gilliland whose programs have 10 percent of the full-season funding NASCAR's Most Popular Driver has at his fingertips. At one point, the handling eroded so badly Junior claimed it "drives like we have the tires on the wrong side of the car" en route to a 34th-place finish, six laps off the pace. It's his season-worst eighth straight finish outside the top 10, a crippling crash from inside the Chase to finishing over 300 points outside it.
"Nothing's really clicking right yet. But it's not a lost cause," said Earnhardt Friday despite the same cracks in the foundation that caused a similar crumble last year. "I still feel like there's some potential in our team. We've worked hard enough to deserve it."
But after Saturday's sorry performance, you wonder if he could still say that with a straight face.
Race Grade: C. If this race were held at, say, Fontana, I might have graded on a bell curve. But Richmond's reputation comes attached to sky-high expectations, the fall event known for the type of sparkling finishes that jumble up the Chase field and leave fans on the edge of their seat for more.
With Hamlin and Busch beating the rest of the field into submission, a shockingly clean, uneventful race left too many sleeping on the couch despite the early ending. When you're saying "Wake me when it's over" at a place fans and drivers agree is the best on the circuit, that's trouble.