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Hamlin rules at Richmond, Chase field set

When the “Chase for the Sprint Cup” format was instituted in 2004, Richmond International Raceway inherited the annual Chase “cut off” race; the final event before the field is set. Drama at Richmond has been considerable on a yearly basis since then, but this year shaped up as the most dramatic yet.
Going into last Saturday night’s Chevy Rock and Roll 400, only four spots in the 12-driver field had been clinched. Those guaranteed berths in NASCAR’s “playoffs” were nailed down by Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, and Denny Hamlin. That left eight spots open and 11 drivers in the running for those eight spots.

Only 217 points separated fifth place Carl Edwards from the last driver in the Chase contention, 15th place David Reutiman. When the situation is condensed around the 12th place bubble, the outlook was even more uncertain.
Matt Kenseth came into Richmond in the precarious 12th position. Kenseth, the 2003 Cup Champion, also began last year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup as the 12th and final seed.
Brian Vickers went into Saturday night’s race just 20 points behind Kenseth, while Kyle Busch, who is tied with Mark Martin for the most wins this season, went into Richmond 37 points out of the 12th and final seed for this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup field.
It was the best of days and the worst of days for Joe Gibbs Racing as hometown hero Denny Hamlin drove the FedEx Toyota to his sixth cup series victory and his first win at his home track. Hamlin, a native of suburban Chesterfield County, Va., waged an exciting duel with Jeff Gordon for much of the first 300 laps. On about lap 320, Clint Bowyer, trying to move into the lead group and contend for the lead, got into Gordon. The impact sent Gordon sliding up the track, dropping him back to seventh place. Gordon was never able to regain the momentum that put him into the lead and eventually finished third. The win, Hamlin’s second of this year, moved him to fourth place in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Hamlin has now qualified for the Chase in each of his four years on the Cup circuit.
The night did not go so well for Joe Gibbs Racing driver Kyle Busch. Busch fought an ill-handling car all night and spent most of the evening running between sixth and eighth place. He finished in fifth place Saturday night, just eight points out of the Chase.
In the post race interview, Busch was very gracious in his comments saying: “We just need to work on the consistency. We picked up at some tracks we needed to and faltered at some tracks we thought we would do very well at. It just wasn’t our year, it just wasn’t meant to be for some reason.”
Kenseth was never a threat to the lead pack all evening and finished a disappointing 25th place. This is the first time since the Chase for the Cup format was created that Kenseth has not made the Chase field.
Brian Vickers was the big winner in the final shuffle. Vickers’ seventh place finish Saturday night moved him into the 12th and final place in the Chase. When they re-racked the points and added Vickers’ 10 bonus points for his win at Michigan Aug. 16, he moved all the way up to eighth place in the Chase standings.
This Sunday starts the 2009 Chase for the Sprint Cup with New Hampshire Motor speedway in Loudon, N.H., again serving as the launch site. History suggests a strong performance in the first chase race could be crucial. Kurt Busch started the first Chase in 2004 with a New Hampshire victory and went on to take the championship. Clint Bowyer won in 2007 and his long-shot championship hopes immediately became legitimate; he went on to finish third in the final standings.
There are also stories of disappointment, such as last year when Chase favorite Kyle Busch came in as the top seed, but finished 34th. Busch never recovered in the championship battle, ultimately finishing 10th in the points.     

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