When cars are crashing around the checkered flag, you know it’s been a wild night of racing.
For Denny Hamlin, most of the chaos in Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway happened in his mirror, as the pole-sitter drove to victory at his home track.
Leading 189 laps, Hamlin held off Kyle Larson on the final restart with two laps to go, grabbing his third win of 2016, third at Richmond and 29th of his Sprint Cup Series career.
“This is such a great win for us,” Hamlin said. “I’ve never really seen old tires with a race on [NASCAR Overtime] but it was just enough. I’m glad we didn’t let it slip away. It would’ve definitely hurt to lose this one on the final restart.”
Closing out the regular 26-race season, the 400-miler, which had a track-record 16 cautions, was quick to swallow up its first victim.
Ryan Blaney, who had a shot at a Chase spot given the race win, crashed hard in Turn 1 after cutting a left-rear tire. The Wood Brothers Racing rookie finished 39th.
Another rookie who found hardships under the lights was Chase Elliott, who hit the wall on Lap 96 after starting in the 34th spot. Climbing to 19th at the end, Elliott officially embarks on his first Chase appearance… in his first try.
“We had to fight hard tonight,” Elliott said. “If we don’t leave here tonight with the mentality of ‘We can make it to Homestead’ then we might as well let the guy behind us in the Chase.”
Through the plethora of yellow flags, Martin Truex, Jr. was among those who stood tall, leading a race-high 193 laps.
Hot off his Southern 500 win at Darlington, Truex lost the lead late and came home third. Making the Chase for the second straight year, Truex has high hopes this time around.
“I don’t think anyone’s odds are better,” Truex said of his championship odds. “I just think that nobody has better odds than we do right now.”
Another rookie who will go Chase racing next week at Chicagoland Speedway is Chris Buescher, the Pocono winner who dived past a late crash to solidify his Chase birth from the 24th finishing position.
When there’s happy stories, there are sad stories. Kasey Kahne, finishing sixth, put on one of his best drives of the 2016 campaign, yet, came up short of a Chase spot, standing a hefty 43 points behind 16th-place Jamie McMurray.
“I was just trying to get the best result I could,” Kahne said. “If we could get to first than great, but we couldn’t.”
Even lower on the happy list was a group of drivers who were collected in Richmond’s version of the Big One on Lap 364 when Tony Stewart drove across Ryan Newman into Turn 3. The contact piled up eight cars, including Dylan Lupton, who got wedged on top of Newman’s No. 31.
Hot with anger, Newman held nothing back in showing his frustration with past team owner Stewart.
“I guess he thought he was in a sprint car again and couldn’t control his anger,” Newman said. “It’s just disappointing that you’ve got somebody old like that’s retiring – should be retired the way he drives. It’s just ridiculous.”
Stewart, who burst into flames following the wreck, said Newman was in a stressful situation throughout the night.
“He’s trying to make the Chase,” Stewart said. “He ran into me three times, so you’re not going to get a free pass.”
Finishing second was Kyle Larson, who used two-tire strategy to climb into the race lead for 15 laps. In third was Truex followed by Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Kahne and McMurray.
Through the high attrition, Michael McDowell stayed clean to grab a 12th-place effort. Danica Patrick came home 15th with Jeffrey Earnhardt scoring a career-high result in 27th.