Kyle Larson accomplished a career first Saturday, winning his fourth race of the season, but his first on a track shorter than 2 miles. Larson took the lead for the final time on an overtime restart beating Martin Truex Jr. to win the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway.
“The No. 78 (Martin Truex Jr.) was definitely the best,” Larson said. “But I thought I was second best for most of the runs but it came down to the last restart there and I got a good start. I spun my tires pretty bad and I was a little nervous, but we cleared him (Truex Jr) into (Turn) 1 and I was pretty excited about that.”
Truex, who led a race high 198 laps, had a four second lead with four laps to go, but the races sixth and final caution came out when Derrick Cope hit the wall. It set up a final round of pit stops, and the overtime finish.
Truex saw his night end in disaster when on the final lap he made contact with Denny Hamlin and was sent up into the turn 1 wall. He finished 20th.
“The final caution I really don’t know what it was for,” an obviously dejected Truex said. “I haven’t seen it. I just know it was the 15 car, who was 20 some laps down. I don’t even think makes minimum speed, and really doesn’t even belong out there. I don’t know if he apparently scraped the wall a few times, and I don’t know, couldn’t stay in the racetrack as slow as he was going. It’s unfortunate they threw a caution for that, and I don’t know if it was ‑‑ I don’t know if it should have been thrown or not, I haven’t seen, I just think that’s ridiculous that a guy could cause a caution with one lap to go as bad as he’s running and just riding around there basically just making laps. Yeah, it’s pretty dumb.”
Hamlin took responsibility for the accident.
“We both drove in really, really deep,” Hamlin said. “When I got on the brakes, the splitter slammed down on the ground, shot me up the track into him. We weren’t racing for the win or anything. But it’s unfortunate. Didn’t want to get into him. He’s a great teammate of ours.”
The overtime finish and wild final lap was just part of the dramatics as the16 driver field for the 2017 edition of NASCAR’s playoffs was set.
Most of that field was secure but a few spots were up for grabs to a first-time winner, and one driver just above the cut line nearly saw his playoff hopes evaporate due to a misplaced ambulance.
Matt Kenseth was in to the playoffs on points, but needed a clean race, and no first-time winners. He led from pole and a total of 89 laps but during a caution on lap 257, an ambulance stopped at the entrance to pit road. Joey Logano suffered minor damage when he brushed the front, but Clint Bowyer slowed and Kenseth hit him in the rear. Bowyer was able to continue but the damage to the Toyota of Kenseth was too severe and he was forced to watch the rest of the race and hope for no first-time winner.
“I don’t think they should open pit road if there’s an ambulance parked there,” Kenseth said. “It’s a very narrow entry. Pit road speed is pretty fast – 45 miles an hour or something – and, you know, still I shouldn’t have hit the car in front of me, but I can’t say I was expecting to see an ambulance blocking me, so by the time I looked up and saw him parked there and they were stopping in front of me, I tried the best I could to stop and couldn’t.”
A few cars missed the commitment line trying to avoid the ambulance, but NASCAR ruled there would be no penalties.
Several of those needing to win to get into the playoffs made valiant efforts but came up short.
In his final Cup race at Richmond, Dale Earnhardt Jr. raced from a 21st place starting spot and stayed out late to lead during a round of green flag stops. But the gamble didn’t pay off, he finished 13th.
“That was the only way we were going to win the race,” Earnhardt said. “We weren’t going to pass the top three guys. I mean, we had speed. We could run up to fifth and sixth. We weren’t going to get around those five guys running in front of us. So, we had to pull that strategy. If the caution comes out while we’re leading, then we got that track position we need.”
Erik Jones was in contention late for the race win, and a playoff spot, running as high as fourth. He restarted fifth on the final restart but was shuffled back and finished seventh.
“I was hoping we’d try to make it three wide and make something happen, you know?”Jones said. “We were just going to have to bully our way to the front and unfortunately we just didn’t get the chance. I just missed third gear and messed up. I mean, I don’t know if I’ve ever missed a shift before. It’s just really disappointing.”
Perhaps no one was as disappointed as Joey Logano. Logano won here in the spring but saw his win encumbered for a post-race inspection failure. He did not win a race the rest of the regular season and fell outside the top 16 in points.
Logano finished second Saturday night.
“Yeah, it stings a little bit,” Logano said. “Last time we were sitting hereafter a race, it was after a win, and this time it’s after a second, which overall if you look at our Richmond overall for a season with the two races, you’d say, that’s pretty good, a first and a second. But just overall, obviously it stings to come up one spot short and not be able to get into the playoffs. It is what it is. It’s reality, and we will move on.”
Ryan Newman was third, Kurt Busch fourth, Daniel Suarez fifth.
Hamlin was sixth. Behind Jones, Jimmie Johnson was eighth, Kyle Busch ninth and Chase Elliott tenth.
The Round of 16 for Chicago: Truex, Larson, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Hamlin, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Blaney, Elliott, Newman, Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne, Austin Dillon, Kenseth, and Jamie McMurray.
The first playoff race will be next Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, at 3:00 p.m. ET