Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway, fans and drivers certainly would have loved to have a straight-up NASCAR Sprint Cup race where things started on time. But the delayed start, and the two cautions within it for the rain, really seemed to turn the race around.
You had people like Denny Hamlin that were leading the race and had been all night that, with a caution coming out for rain well past the halfway point, just couldn’t afford to pit. You just couldn’t. They did not know if that rain was going to intensify and you’re looking at the clock and it’s after midnight and they just couldn’t pit and risk giving up position.
Obviously for guys running deeper in the field, like Jeff Gordon, pitting at that point was kind of a no-brainer. If you pit and the rain doesn’t subside, what have you really given up?
I find it interesting that the top-two finishers had a very trying, very dramatic race. You look at Clint Bowyer, who won this race, on Lap 235 he was spinning around with a flat left rear tire and actually brought the caution out that maybe even helped his cause.
He had to pit before pit road opened so he had to restart at the tail end of the longest line, but he had a good enough car - and he showed that from the drop of the green flag - that he had enough time left to race up through there and get his second win of the year.
Jeff Gordon, who finished second and made the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and crew chief Alan Gustafson had an unbelievable weekend. Gordon went out and fired the first shot on this wild-card deal qualifying on the outside of the front row while his biggest wild-card spot challenger, Kyle Busch, qualified 15th.
So at the drop of the green flag, Jeff Gordon had the wild-card spot and he led a couple of laps - and then dropped like a rock. He was in trouble.
He and his Hendrick Motorsports team decided to disconnect the rear sway bar. Normally that’s a case of desperate people do desperate things and they normally never, ever work out. But this time it truly worked out, then he pitted very early on his last stop under green, hoping he didn’t get burned on a caution, and got the advantage of those fresh tires and drove through there and finished second.
Meanwhile, the night Kyle Busch had must have caught everyone, including Kyle, off guard. At Richmond he had a 4.7 average finish in 15 races, and then Saturday night he struggled. I would have never believed that Jeff Gordon would have beaten Kyle Busch by more than 12 positions to get that second wild-card spot, but he did.
You look at Kyle Busch and who would have ever believed that 26 races into this year he would have won only one race and missed the Chase?
But if you look back at his season, at the three engine-related failures in the month of June and what happened at Watkins Glen when he was leading and then lost it on the final lap, and I’m sure as Kyle flew home from Richmond he was probably realizing, "What a very fitting end to an absolutely disastrous season."
Really and truly, though, he handled all of this stuff this year a lot better than I ever thought he would and probably much better than I thought he should.
You wish guys who came as close as Kyle Busch could be in the Chase, but the box is only big enough for 12. Every driver, every team, had 26 races to get there.
I still think Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin are going to be the ones to watch, but I don’t want to shortcut anyone until we see these first couple of races and see where things start unraveling a little bit.
We can all look back at defining moments for different teams, I think if Jeff Gordon and his team go on and contend for this championship, they’re going to look back at Richmond and say, "You know what, that was a defining moment."