As summer is reduced to a matter of a few weeks, we are confronted with the realization that, for many, pleasure goes the way of serious work. The 26th race in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 2012 season, the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway is a situation where an entire season of efforts can prove very rewarding or very costly. A 0.75-mile, so-called “drivers race track”, Richmond International Raceway’s placement is seen as perfect to align the 12 drivers who will participate in the 2012 stock car racing playoff. While many drivers in the top-10 were locked into the Chase, the presence of Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards relied on their results in the Federated Auto Parts 400.
In qualifying for the Richmond International Raceway‘s Saturday night affair, Chevrolet Impalas soared to supremacy taking four of the top five spots on the 43-car grid. The #88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet driven by Dale Earnhardt Jr earned the privilege of his first pole of the year. A race scheduled for 7:44pm, the 300-lap Federated Auto Parts 400 was delayed by rain for over an hour. When the rain stopped falling and the track dried, Earnhardt Jr led the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series field to green for the night. For the first 58 laps of the Federated Auto Parts 400, Dale Earnhardt Jr delighted his sizable fan base by leading often giving up the lead only to allow Jeff Gordon to lead two laps and later Michael McDowell led for a lap under caution when leaders pitted during the race’s competition caution on lap 48.
The first challenger to Dale Earnhardt Jr came from Denny Hamlin and the #11 Fed-Ex Toyota. A two-time race winner of the late summer Richmond International Raceway event, Hamlin was hunting for a third-straight NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory as he passed the #88 car on 59 laps. The lead changed hands between Dale Earnhardt Jr and Denny Hamlin several times over the course of the next 100 laps.
Rain once again interfered with the pivotal NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race on lap 155 forcing competitors back to pit lane and the race to be red flagged. While no work was allowed on the stock cars as they sit idle under the rain delay, it would be obvious some drivers and teams were able to plan strategy to better their performances. After over 51 minutes under the red flag, the race resumed and there would immediately be some changes on track compared to the race fans were used to seeing prior to the latest bout of rain showers.
While Dale Earnhardt Jr grabbed the lead of the Federated Auto Parts 400 on lap 156, the #88 Chevrolet piloted by NASCAR’s most popular driver would be passed once again by Denny Hamlin a few laps later. After the short-lived leading stint was over for Earnhardt Jr, he began to backslide from the top of the field at Richmond. Earnhardt Jr and the #88 Hendrick Motorsports team would be fighting to reclaim handling for the rest of Saturday night NASCAR race. Ultimately, the race’s pole-sitter would only muster a 14th place finish.
As the race crossed halfway distance, Denny Hamlin would continue to lead often at Richmond International Speedway foregoing the lead for only a handful of laps between lap 159 to lap 284. Leading a total of 202 of the race’s 400 laps, Hamlin would not be the winner of the Federated Auto Parts 400. Due to a necessary pit stop in the late laps of the event, the #11 Toyota fielded by Joe Gibbs Racing came across the line an unceremonious 18th after a night’s hard work.
Surging from 28th place on the starting grid, the #14 Chevrolet piloted by driver/owner Tony Stewart took the lead on lap 285 away from Denny Hamlin. Stewart was only to hold to the race lead for 15 laps before teammate Ryan Newman took possession of the race’s top spot at lap 300. Without a single yellow flag in after lap 282, the Federated Auto Parts 400 turned into a strategy affair with only 100 laps remaining.
On lap 313, the Michael Waltrip Racing-owned #15 Toyota of Clint Bowyer emerged to take the lead at Richmond International Raceway. With fuel economy called into question through the late stage of the event, Bowyer had just the right amount of Sunoco race fuel in his car to motor to a second NASCAR Sprint Cup win in the 2012 season. Clint Bowyer overcame a spinout earlier in the race to comfortably align himself as well with the 2012 NASCAR Chase thanks to his victory at Richmond.
With the top-10 in the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers championship locked in the 10-race Chase, the two wild card spots went to drivers who have won races and/or highest in points. Hendrick Motorsport cars of Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon secured both wild card spots. By three points, Gordon bested Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch for the final Chase spot.
After three straight weekends of night races, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts the Chase with a Sunday afternoon 400-mile event at the Chicagoland Speedway on September 16th.