What Got Danica Patrick In Daytona 500 Questioned, But Don’t Expect Changes

Team owner Tommy Baldwin has entered into a partnership with Stewart Haas Racing that will allow Danica Patrick, who is scheduled to compete in 10 races with Tony Stewart's team, a guaranteed spot in the Daytona 500. This has raised questions about the validity of NASCAR's top-35 rule.

When I learned that Danica Patrick was guaranteed a starting spot in the Daytona 500 because Stewart Haas Racing, which plans to enter her in 10 races this year, had brokered a deal with Tommy Baldwin Racing, I knew there would be negative reaction.

In the arrangement Stewart Haas obtained TBR’s owner points. Since Baldwin’s No. 36 car finished 33rd in points last season it is guaranteed a starting spot in the first five races of this year.

The car will now carry the No. 10 for Patrick. Dave Blaney, who drove what was the No. 36 in 2011, must now qualify or race his way into the Daytona 500.

This news did not sit well with many. They claim it is a manipulation of NASCAR’s top 35 rule; one that allows a driver who has never started a Sprint Cup race entry into the year’s most prestigious, and financially rewarding, event.

Dave Moody of Sirius XM Radio is very knowledgeable about NASCAR and many times his opinions about its rules and policies hit the bulls’ eye.

Moody pointed out, and I heartily agree, that NASCAR’s top 35 rule has loopholes that teams have routinely used to their benefit.

Therefore, he maintains, Stewart Haas and TBR have done nothing wrong. They are simply taking advantage of what is open to them. And by doing that, they have effectively created a situation that will give Patrick a golden opportunity and, in turn, benefit TBR with either money, technical and pit support – or all three.

What they have done is nothing new. It’s been done routinely over the years and, while it is perfectly legal, it still creates confusion for the fans.

As Moody pointed out there are plenty of them who will ask how an untested rookie like Patrick makes the 500 while established veterans, like Blaney, have to labor to make it.

Moody expresses the opinion that it’s time for NASCAR to clean up this mess and decree that, beginning in 2013, guaranteed starting spots may only be used by the team that earned them a season earlier.

Dave, ol’ boy, you are right. I’m in agreement and I think many other fans and media members are right there in line with us.
But my guess is we are all going to be disappointed.

I certainly don’t know what goes on behind closed doors in NASCAR but, publicly, it has yet to give us any indication it’s going to alter the top 35 system.

I don’t think it really plans – or cares – to do so.

I wouldn’t be surprised if I asked someone in NASCAR management about questions surrounding the rule, I would get an answer something like this:

“As far as we’re concerned a team that has earned a position in the top 35 can do anything it wants with it. It has gained the right.”

And, if you ponder it for a moment, that’s a very logical answer.

While we might think the old way – when qualifying alone determined a field and if a driver wasn’t fast enough he went home – was infallible, think again.

Teams have been fooling around with qualifying rules for decades and it’s been especially prominent for the Daytona 500.

This scenario was played out countless times: At nearly every 500 it seemed there was always at least one top-tier, heavily-sponsored team that failed to qualify for the race.

There were times when such a team couldn’t race its way in through a 125-mile qualifier. There were still other times when the car was destroyed in practice and, without a backup, racing in the 500 was impossible.

The solution was simple. The unfortunate team went to another that had made the race – despite the fact that it had fewer resources.

An offer was made that couldn’t be refused. Would the second-tier team be willing to accept thousands of dollars to allow the big-buck organization’s driver and, most important, its sponsor to take its spot in the 500?

Many times the amount offered was more than the low-rung team could hope to make by actually racing, so it took the deal. It made sense.

NASCAR did nothing to stop the practice.

And it wasn’t limited to Daytona. Other races saw major stars – Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip come to mind – buy their way in.

Essentially, here’s why the top 35 rule came into existence. By the way, the rule states that any team among the top 35 in owner points from one season gets a free ride for the first five events of the current season.

After that, teams among the top 35 are assured a start – in other words, essentially exempt from qualifying – for the remainder of the season, provided they maintained their status.

There was a time when, during a vibrant economy, many teams enjoyed significant sponsorship, perhaps more so than in any other time in NASCAR’s history.

Problem was, not all of them could qualify for every race. And when they failed to do so they knew they were in danger of sponsor dissatisfaction – and a loss of needed income.

Additionally, teams that lost drivers who departed with sponsor in tow felt they were denied earned value and wanted some protection.

NASCAR isn’t stupid. It knew full well that to help its tracks by assuring, in some way, they would have virtually all of the top drivers and teams for their races – and to guarantee major sponsors entry into every event – it came up with the top 35 policy.

Let’s say it has been NASCAR’s way of protecting its assets, both competitive and financial.

And the rule has, for the most part, done exactly that.

Yes, it has loopholes. That’s been made abundantly clear.

But, again, those taking advantage of the gaps are doing nothing wrong.

Many of us decry that it certainly appears somewhat unfair and against the grain of real competition. But it’s reality.

And, right now, I don’t think NASCAR is going to do a thing to change it.

Stewart’s Unexpected Turnaround Comes When Needed Most

Let’s have a quick review here, OK?

It was three weeks ago that Tony Stewart, winless for the season and in danger of not qualifying for the Chase, told us he believed his Stewart-Haas team wasn’t good enough to participate in NASCAR’s “playoff.”

He used words like “struggling” and “miserable” and was understandably surly when asked why he hadn’t won and what would he have to do in order to finally achieve victory.

I daresay any of us would be surly, too, if we were asked the same question week after week.

But now in the Chase, which will determine NASCAR’s Sprint Cup champion, so far we’ve seen such a dramatic change in Stewart’s performance level it’s hard to imagine he’s racing with the same team – you know, the one that was “struggling” and “miserable.”

With his victory in the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Stewart has now won the first two of the 10 races that make up the Chase.

He has risen to No. 1 in the point standings in his bid to win a third career title. When the Chase began after Richmond two weeks ago, Stewart was in ninth place, 12 points behind first-place Kyle Busch in the reconfigured standings.

I don’t think anyone thought Stewart could make such a turnaround. Fact is, he wasn’t mentioned in most championship predictions. He was a non-entity – which, incidentally, he may have also thought of himself.

He’s hardly that now.

“I’m proud of our guys,” Stewart said after his victory, achieved when Clint Bowyer ran out of gas with two laps remaining in yet another fuel-mileage race. “The last four weeks have been awesome. So this is the best scenario we can have going into Dover.

“Our guys are pumped up and I am proud of Darian (Grubb, crew chief) and these guys. They never give up. So we are going to keep digging for these next eight weeks.”

Which is exactly what Stewart and his team should do. They have a real opportunity now – just a couple of weeks after nearly everyone else thought they would not.

What has brought about Stewart’s turnaround? It’s not likely that it is any one thing other than the result of a dedicated effort to improve by whatever means possible.

It might have snuck up on a lot of us, but that improvement was obvious over the four weeks of which Stewart spoke.

He was ninth at Michigan and then 28th at Bristol during his efforts to win a race and make the Chase.

Then another ninth-place run at Richmond assured him a berth in the “playoff.” It was followed by his first victory of the season, at Chicagoland where he vaulted to second in points, just eight points behind Kevin Harvick.

Now comes the win at New Hampshire. It means that in the last five races, Stewart has four top-10 finishes, including two victories.

The driver from Columbus, Ind., has always been known to get hot competitively in the second half of a season, but seldom, if ever, has that occurred as late as it has in 2011.

And, during the first part of the year, Stewart dropped to as low as 12th in points when he had a five-race string of finishes no higher that 12th and as low as 34th.

Now, however, Stewart and his team have reached Nirvana – and, it might be added, at just the right time.

Stewart stressed that misfortunes have contributed to the negative results he and his team have experienced.

But, he added, they found a way to overcome that.

“The one thing I think our organization is really good at is taking what we’re doing day-to-day,” Stewart said. “I mean, we don’t lose sight of where we’re at today, worrying about two weeks down the road. 

“We focus one day at a time. Obviously, stuff like the chassis that we’re going to run through the end of the year, Darian has those planned out, but we really just focus on the day that we’re on, what we can do to make the most of that day.”

Stewart also said that racing, NASCAR style, changes week-to-week. He’s proof of that.

He also knows it can change for the worse – and quickly.

I wish I could say you could predict it,” Stewart said. “I wish you could see it coming in the future. The hard thing is, as much as it turned for us, you never know what’s going to happen. We hope the next eight weeks go this way.

“The reality of it is you look at guys that are in the back half of the Chase right now, they’re guys that a lot of people expected to be in the top five, top three in the points right now. It shows that one or two bad days can put you in a bad spot pretty quick.

“As much as we want to sit here and beat our chest and be proud of what we’ve done, and we are proud of what we’ve done these first two weeks, we got eight hard weeks to go.”

He’s right, of course.

And in those eight weeks, there’s plenty of opportunity for scenarios to change.

For example, five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who finished 18th after a mediocre day and bumping incidents with Kyle Busch at New Hampshire, has time to rise from 10th in points – his worst position ever in the Chase – and claim yet another title.

The road could be wider and easier for Harvick, 12th at New Hampshire, and Brad Keselowski, the runnerup, who rank second and third, respectively, in points and are within 11 of Stewart.

In fact, there is a chance any driver currently among the top 12 in points to win the title.

OK, maybe Denny Hamlin, who is 12th in points and having a dreadful season when compared to 2010, doesn’t have much of chance.

Still, any one of them can do what Stewart has done in the Chase’s first two races.

Why not?

Stewart did it when he needed it most.

It seems likely that when he talks about his team over the next eight weeks we won’t hear the words “struggling” and “miserable.”

Stewart’s Timing Perfect In First Chase Race

Making the right moves involves timing. And it appears Tony Stewart knows something about timing. At least, he showed that on Monday on the race track.

Disappointed and frustrated for most of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season in a fruitless search for victory, Stewart finally won his first race of the year in the Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.

The race was the first of 10 in the Chase and Stewart’s victory propelled him to second place in the point standings, just seven points behind new leader Kevin Harvick.

Since Stewart came into the Chicagoland race ninth in points – after sweating out several weeks of doubt that he would make it at all – finishing first was indeed a good move.

Stewart’s late-race strategy also proved to be a good move. The Geico 400 was yet another fuel mileage race. As usual, most of the competitors were doing their best to save gas, but many of them ran out anyway.

On the last lap, several of the lead-lap cars bailed, the victims of empty gas tanks. Had they been able to run the distance the final standings would have looked much different.

Stewart, however, followed his preservation strategy perfectly – another good move – and it paid off handsomely.

“You couldn’t pick a better weekend to get that first win of the year than here at Chicago, obviously,” said Stewart, who has now won at least one race in each of the last 13 seasons, his entire Cup career. “We felt like there were three or four opportunities earlier in the year that we let some get away from us.  But we have struggled.

“We’ve had a miserable year. But the last three weeks have really started coming into it. We had a really good run in Atlanta. Good solid run last week at Richmond.

“Then to come out this weekend, I don’t think Darian (Grubb, crew chief), or either one of us, thought that we had as good a car as we needed to win today. But it didn’t take long in the race to figure out that we were pretty solid.

“It was just getting the track position.”

Stewart got that position. Afterward it was a matter of saving fuel.

The final scenario was set up on lap 213, when a caution period began after debris was found on the track. The leaders pitted. Martin Truex Jr. stayed out on the track and was in first place when the race restarted.

Matt Kenseth was second and Stewart third.

Ten laps later Kenseth passed Truex Jr. to take the lead and 10 laps after that, Stewart moved into first place after dueling with Kenseth.

Truex Jr. pitted on lap 254 with just 13 laps left in the race. From that point on it was obvious none of the leaders was going to pit. The plan was to finish the distance and in some cases, it would be a huge gamble, as some crew chiefs felt their drivers would come up as much as three laps short.

“At the end you hate to have to play the fuel mileage game,” Stewart said. “But that’s just the way the caution came out. And we came in and got fuel and Darian told me we had to save a lap’s worth of fuel.

“So we had a whole run to do it. But we kept a lot of pressure on Matt and finally got by him and once we got out to a second and a half, two-second lead we could start backing off the pace and start saving fuel.

“And I felt like I’d saved enough to get us to the end. But we came off of Turn 2 after we got the checkered and the fuel pressure was down to two pounds, and it stayed there until just shortly after we picked up the checkered flag at the flag stand. We didn’t do any wild burnout or anything like that and ran out before we ever got on pit road.

“So we were closer than I wanted to be. But we didn’t have anything to lose. Where we’re at in The Chase right now, we had to press.”

Virtually everyone in the Chase still in contention for a top-10 finish pressed, too – it’s expected of them in the “playoffs.”

But it didn’t pay off all around. On the last few laps, especially the last, so many cars turned toward pit road or fell off the pace it looked like a fleet of commuters on the freeway backed up at an exit ramp.

Among those who ran out of gas were five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Mark Martin and Kenseth.

Newman finished eighth, Johnson 10th and Kenseth 21st. All are championship contenders.

Their misfortune helped other competitors gain position at race’s end. Harvick, last week’s winner at Richmond, moved into second place.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had a good run most of the day, wound up in third place. Carl Edwards moved up to fourth and Brad Keselowski was fifth.

Earnhardt Jr., another driver concerned about making the Chase, soared from 10th in points to fifth, one position behind Kurt Busch. Edwards moved from fifth to third and Keselowski took a hike from 11th place as a “wildcard” entry to sixth.

Seventh through 12th in points are, in order, Newman, Johnson, Kyle Busch, Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and .

The Geico 400 certainly made an impact on the Chase. For some drivers, it was bad and for others, very good.

For Stewart it was perfect.

But it must be noted, again, that the race was the first of 10 that will determine the champion.

There is a long way to go. And a lot can happen.

Gordon’s Hospital Provides Care For Children – And A Revelation For An Interloper

It was just another day at the hospital, or so I thought.

I had just finished one more go-around – lay down on a table, face and head covered with a contraption that made me look like the “Man In The Iron Mask” and listen to the hum of a machine shooting invisible rays into my neck.

The treatment never hurt but after a while the side effects were intense.

This time, for some reason, the procedure wasn’t as routine as it had been.

As usual my throat was sore, it hurt to swallow and my mouth was dry. But, unusually, my spirits were low. I was depressed where once I had been upbeat and confident.

I thought to myself, “How did it come to this? Why me?”

I took the elevator up to the first floor – they poisoned me in the basement – and my eyes caught the words, “Jeff Gordon Children’s Hospital.”

I had seen them before, many times in fact, but never paid them any attention. Why would I?

I paused for a moment before I felt the strange compulsion to see that place. I was lured like metal to a magnet. I really don’t know why.

I took the elevator up a flight, stepped off and found my way to the facility. It was modern and well appointed. If I hadn’t known what it was I would have never thought it was a place where sick children received treatment. It looked more like the offices of a high-priced law firm.

I looked around a bit and then something compelled me to be an interloper. I ignored any rules about visitors as I sauntered down a hall and stole quick glances into a couple of rooms.

I’m sure I was noticed. But no one seemed to mind.

It took only those few peeks to tell me why I had come. It wasn’t simple curiosity or to comfort children by any means. It was to comfort myself.

“You gutless wonder,” I said to myself. “What do you have to worry about? You think you have it bad? These kids are just getting started in life and have to overcome a hell of a lot more than you do.

“And think about what their parents must be going through.”

When I left, I resolved to do a couple of things. I would no longer feel sorry for myself – which I never did – and I would learn more about the hospital that bore the name of the four-time NASCAR champion.

I learned that the hospital was part of the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation, which was created in 1999 with the mission to support children battling cancer by funding programs that offered treatment, with the goal of improving the patient’s quality of life.

The hospital, located in Concord, N.C., was opened in December of 2006 to serve children in the community with a high level of primary and specialty care, regardless of their ability to pay.

I didn’t know any of that.

Beyond the hospital, the foundation has donated $10 million to the most recognized children’s health and support organizations. Among them are the Children’s Oncology Group/CureSearch, Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Make-A-Wish Foundation, Speedway Children’s Charities and the Victory Junction Camp.

Cancer is the leading disease-killer of children in the United States. Nearly 13,500 children are diagnosed with it each year.

I didn’t know that, either.

But I do know Gordon. And I thought I would talk to him about his foundation. Yes, several drivers have foundations for which, I am sure, many people – and animals – are grateful.

But why a hospital? Gordon’s foundation could have invested in just about anything it deemed worthy.

“We wanted to focus on children and pediatric research and treatment,” Gordon said. “Those are our primary goals as well as caring for children who are battling any type of injury or illness.”

Gordon said the opportunity to lend his name and the foundation’s support to a children’s hospital arose when he was approached by Carolinas Medical Center Northeast in Concord.

“It happened in a roundabout way,” he said. “Basically, Northeast came to us and said, ‘We are building a children’s hospital. We are looking for sponsorship and for people who want to be involved. We know you have a children’s foundation and would you be interested?’

“We told them we would be very interested. It all came together and allowed us to make it the Jeff Gordon Children’s Hospital, which is something we are very, very proud of.”

Gordon is involved in several charities as are many other NASCAR competitors. But the hospital bears his name, which certainly can provide it positive attention.

Suffice it to say the public, especially the racing public, is well aware of it.

“Because of its location a lot of our team members as well as members of other teams in our community who have had their children there, come back and say, ‘We had our children treated like gold and thank you so much,’ ” said Gordon, who is in contention for a fifth career title.

“I get letters all the time from people saying thank you for building this hospital. Not that I built it but it’s nice to know that I played a role in it.

“It’s the ones who work there that are doing a terrific job. That’s what it is all about.”

Gordon was not a father when he formed his foundation nor when the children’s hospital was created. But one gets the sense, through what he accomplished, that he always wanted to be.

He is now. He and wife Ingrid have two children, Ella and Leo. Like any other father, he now is more cognizant of what can happen to kids.

“I think to be that way is important,” Gordon said. “I think it is important to know how precious life is and to enjoy every moment of every day with your children.

“You also have to make sure you are doing everything you can to keep them healthy. But looking at the world today you have to know that sometimes you can’t control it. Something can happen to anyone at any time and you don’t have an explanation.”

For stricken children and their parents, no explanation is needed when it comes to treatment at the hospital that bears Gordon’s name. Everything is done for them.

Gordon lends much more than his name to the facility. As befits all celebrities who deal with foundations and charities, he is personally involved – and then some.

“One of the greatest things the hospital has provided me is that I took Ella over there last Christmas and we handed out bags of goodies, toys, books, markers and things like that to children who were there prior to Christmas,” Gordon said.

“It was an unbelievable experience. Watching her take on that responsibility and recognizing how much it meant to the children, at just three and one-half years old, brought a tear to my eye. I was so proud.

“We plan on doing it again this year.”

It is obvious that as much as sick children and their caring parents can gain, physically and emotionally, from the Jeff Gordon Children’s Hospital, others can, too – including the driver himself and his family.

And even a guy who once felt sorry for himself.

A New Champ Would Be Nice, But Numbers Favor Johnson

It’s now official. The Chase starts Sunday with the running of the Geico 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Chicagoland Speedway.

The event is the first of 10 that are part of NASCAR’s “playoff” system that will determine the 2011 season champion.

I’m sure you know this, but already the question has been asked, repeatedly, “Who will win the title?”

Attention media, bloggers, fans and all other interested parties: Let the predictions, prognostications and outright guesses begin.

And why shouldn’t they? Motorsports fans and media are just like those in other sports. At the time a championship is on the line, that’s usually when interest reaches its highest level.

So folks have their opinions on which individual or team they think will win – or, let’s face it, on which individual or team they WANT to win.

I suspect there are many NASCAR fans who do not want to see Jimmie Johnson win a sixth consecutive title. They want to see something new. They want to see someone different pose with the championship trophy.

Besides, to see one guy win championship after championship is downright boring. Many fans are tired of it and have said so.

It might be boring but you really can’t blame Johnson. The goal of every driver – and they are all highly competitive – is to win races and championships. Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports have used their formidable resources and talents to do just that for five years running.

Which doesn’t mean, of course, that they intend to stop doing so. They will race hard for a sixth title and if they don’t get it this year, there’s always the next … and the next.

That said, I am one of those who also would like to see someone else win the championship. No knock against Johnson, but I think it would be good for NASCAR to have a new winner. I think it would enliven the sport and promote more interest.

But who might it be?

There’s Kyle Busch, for example. He heads into the weekend No. 1 in points with four victories for the season. He’s tied with Kevin Harvick for the highest number of wins this year.

Busch certainly has a penchant for winning races in all three of NASCAR’s national touring series. Now if he can keep that up over the next 10 races, he’s in.

The key word is “if.” Last year Busch didn’t win and finished 13th or worse in six of the 10 races. That ain’t going to cut in. He finished eighth in points in 2010.

Should he win the title, Busch would perhaps be one of the least popular champs ever. I’m thinking he doesn’t care.

A lot of people figured Carl Edwards would be the man to unseat Johnson this year and, eventually, that may well be the case.

I think many folks thought he’d run a little better this season, but the truth is he has as many wins and top-10 finishes as Johnson. He also has one more top-five.

However, Johnson is having something of an off year – for him, anyway – which, to many, means he’s vulnerable in the Chase. He is seeded sixth in the “playoffs” where Edwards is fifth.

Harvick, the lone Richard Childress Racing representative, also has four wins on the year and has earned a reputation, during this season, as a driver who pulls out wins with his proficiency in the closing laps. He’s the No. 2 seed.

Jeff Gordon, ranked third, seems to be a man on a mission. His performances over the last eight races – one win, six top-10 finishes – have put him on a roll that could lead to a fifth career title.

You know, it might be fun to see Tony Stewart or Dale Earnhardt Jr., both of whom struggled to make the Chase, win the championship.

It’s the same for Denny Hamlin, who hung on to earn a “wildcard” entry. And you have to admit it would be a real stunner if upstart Brad Keselowski became the champ.

I think I would enjoy any of those scenarios and I suspect you might, as well. But, personally, I think the best shots to upend Johnson are Gordon, Edwards, Harvick and Busch.

However, let’s be real, folks.

It might not sit well with everybody, but everybody has to admit, if grudgingly, that Johnson has the best career Chase numbers.

He’s the only driver to qualify for every Chase since the format made its debut in 2004. He’s finished worse than second only once, in 2005 when he was fifth, since the beginning of the “playoffs.”

Johnson has 21 wins in 70 Chase races. He’s had at least one win in each of seven seasons.

Johnson finished 25th last year in the Chase’s first race at Loudon. He then reeled off nine straight top-10 finishes, including a win at Dover and runnerup finishes at Kansas and Homestead.

It’s obvious no one does it better than Johnson, who, obviously, is greatly assisted by crew chief Chad Knaus and the Hendrick team.

So, again, the odds are with him. If he wins a sixth championship, it might not please everyone. But then, no one should be surprised.

And your prediction is ….?

Richmond Race Ranks As One Of The Best, For Many Reasons

RICHMOND, Va. – The Wonderful Pistachios 400 at Richmond International Raceway was the most entertaining race of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season for many reasons.

It lived up to its billing as a potentially emotion-charged event featuring some edgy drivers. It was also described as a race in which competitors with nothing to lose would entertain fans by taking chances, which they did.

It was characterized, often, as a race that would magnetize our attention because it would determine the starting field for the Chase.

And it was what it has always been: A race conducted on a tough short track that provides singular challenges to competitors. As they attempt to meet those challenges, anything can happen.

Saturday night at Richmond, it did.

Before it was half complete, the race looked like a demolition derby. It was supposed to be conducted by 43 of the best drivers in the world but to many it looked like they failed to show up and were replaced by amateurs.

Perhaps the numerous wrecks, and resulting caution periods, were simply coincidental. But it’s more likely hard racing fueled by daring and even desperation caused them.

It’s a given that for cars to get three abreast at Richmond is to invite disaster. It happened regularly.

Chase scenarios changed with almost every passing lap.

Early in the race it appeared the “playoff” hopes of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin – and even Clint Bowyer’s slim chances – were dashed. All three were involved in accidents.

The cars of Earnhardt Jr. and Hamlin were thoroughly beaten up. In fact, over the radio a disgusted and frustrated Earnhardt expressed his anger over his battered car’s performance.

While he was doing that, durned if he wasn’t involved in two more accidents. They were with Travis Kvapil. Kvapil whacked Earnhardt Jr. to create the first and the second? Well, suffice it to say it was payback from the Hendrick Motorsports driver.

Earnhardt Jr. might have been frustrated for another reason. As he toiled just to hold his position in the back of the pack, Brad Keselowski, the man who could oust him from the top 10 in points, raced his way into the top 10 – and then into the top five.

For a long time Earnhardt Jr.’s hold on a Chase starting spot was tenuous. The last thing his anxious fans wanted to see was their favorite driver fail in the last race before the “playoffs” begin.

But as the race progressed, Keselowski faded and Earnhardt Jr. – who benefited from three “lucky dog” scenarios that allowed him to regain three lost laps – moved up a handful of positions.

When the race was over, Keselowski was in 12th place, Earnhardt Jr. 16th. Earnhardt Jr. held on to his top-10 position and eked into the Chase.

Keselowski is in as a “wildcard” entry by virtue of his three victories on the season.

Meanwhile, Hamlin, normally a force at Richmond, which is his hometown track, was not a factor, at least as far as victory was concerned.

He persevered to finish ninth and he also made the Chase – as the second and final “wildcard” selection.

For a time, it seemed Bowyer would buck the odds. He was 14th in points going into the race and had virtually no chance to make the Chase.

To do so, first, he had to win. He tried hard as he moved into the top five. But he, too, came up short as he finished 22nd.

As did David Ragan, who also had to win to move into the top 20 in points and made the Chase field with two victories on the season. Ragan also raced into the top five.

But at the finish he was in fourth place and out of the Chase – barely. It was a solid effort.

As if the ever-changing Chase scenarios didn’t make Richmond galvanizing enough, five-time champion Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch got into it again – not once, but twice.

After their run-in, confrontation and name-calling in Pocono, while virtually everyone figured Johnson and Busch wouldn’t have dinner together, they thought the case was closed.

Not so. At Richmond, Busch locked up his tires and slid into Johnson, who hit the wall. Johnson later deliberately clipped Busch’s rear end to cause both of them to spin.

Johnson completed 362 of 400 laps and finished 31st. Busch came home in fifth place. The name-calling continues and folks are eager to see what the two might do over the final 10 races of the season.

Kevin Harvick won the race to earn the second seed in the Chase. The top position went to Kyle Busch, sixth place at Richmond.

The three drivers in the most danger of not making the Chase prior to Richmond did indeed make the “playoffs” – but not, as said, before some very anxious moments.

Tony Stewart, who finished a comfortable seventh at Richmond, Earnhardt Jr., and Hamlin are all in. Stewart is the ninth seed, Earnhardt Jr. 10th and Hamlin 12th, behind Keselowski.

There were times during the Richmond race when it appeared not all of them would advance and would be overtaken by the prodigious efforts of others.

That’s one reason the Wonderful Pistachios 400, nearly always an exciting event on the challenging short track that is Richmond, was more riveting than ever – and one of the best races of the year.

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