After a nearly an hour-and-a-half rain delay to start the Federated Auto Parts 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway on Saturday night, a red flag that interrupted the race and then another caution later for rain, Clint Bowyer celebrated a second 2012 win in the wee hours of Sunday morning, despite a spin on lap 234 when one of his tires was cut down by the exhaust pipe of Juan Montoya.
“God bless Juan Pablo,” Bowyer joked after the race. “It was stupid, really. He was — I don’t know how many laps down he was — I know he was at least one and we were running second or third there, and he just got into us and knocked my left rear down.”
Jeff Gordon was also a winner of sorts, claiming the second and final wild card spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, set to kick off next weekend at Chicagoland Speedway. After going a lap down early, Gordon finished the race in the second spot, while his top competitor for the Chase slot, Kyle Busch, finished 16th. Gordon joined Kasey Kahne as the two wild card Chasers.
“Went from last week to being the most disappointed I’ve every been to finish second to the most excited I’ve ever been to finish second,” Gordon said.
Mark Martin finished third, and Tony Stewart finished fourth to keep himself inside the top-10 in points, enabling him to carry nine bonus points for his three previous race wins into the Chase.
“Definitely after last year, you realize next week is kind of the start of the second part of the season for us,” Stewart said. “Excited to get that going. Had a strong night tonight, just didn’t have enough to finish it off at the end.”
Matt Kenseth rounded out the top-five.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. started on the pole, with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Gordon alongside on the front row. After Gordond led a couple of laps early, Earnhardt moved back to the front and dominated the opening stages of the race. Meanwhile, Gordon dropped back and fell off the lead lap.
Hamlin moved toward the front, and he and Earnhardt swapped the lead back and forth a few times, beginning on lap 59. On lap 94, Hamlin moved back into the lead and maintained the top position most of the way until a caution for rain came out with about 123 laps to go in the 400-lap race.
Pit strategies were shaken up by the caution, as several drivers stayed out at first, waiting to see if the race would go back green, while several drivers headed down pit road at the beginning of the caution. The race did go back green a few laps later, though, and right before taking the green flag, those who stayed out headed down pit road. It was under this caution that Gordon got back on the lead lap.
Hamlin was one of those who pitted late in the caution, and as a resutl, went from first to 15th in the running order. Kasey Kahne, though, stayed out the entire yellow flag and restarted with the lead.
With Kahne on older tires, Stewart and Kenseth both moved by him on the restart to claim the top-two spots. By lap 293, Stewart’s Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Ryan Newman moved into the second position to give SHR the top-two spots in the running order.
On lap 300, Newman moved into the lead, but just 15 laps later, Bowyer assumed the top-spot.
With about 74 laps to go, drivers began heading down pit road for their final pit stops. Bowyer and Hamlin, though, opted to stay out, looking as if they were planning to stay out the remainder of the race. Both drivers slowed, going into fuel conservation mode. With 13 laps to go, Martin got by the slowed Hamlin to take the second spot. Hamlin soon lost third to Gordon.
After losing the positions, Hamlin aborted the fuel conservation strategy and headed down pit road, and as as result, wound up finishing outside the top-10.
Bowyer stayed with the strategy, though, and was able to remain under power the final laps.
“Just tried to same as much as I could,” Bowyer said. “I tell you what, there for awhile, I lifted and it was saving so much tire I wouldn’t spin the tires up off. I was lifting way early and the car was rolling. I wasn’t using any brake, so it didn’t over-temperature the front tires and the thing just kept turning and I actually picked up there for probably 30, 40 laps.”
Gordon got by Martin to move into second and claim the runner-up spot with six laps to go.
Finishing sixth through 10th were Jeff Burton, Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle and Kevin Harvick.
— Photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR
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