Kyle Larson captured his fourth win of 2017 after beating Martin Truex, Jr. off pit road. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer failed to make the playoffs while Chase Elliott, Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray advanced.
For 25 races, it was win and you’re in the playoffs. 13 drivers have secured spots by doing such feat, leaving three up for grabs with the possibility an outsider eliminating one driver’s championship aspirations at the regular season finale.
After 404 grueling laps of stressful competition, a two second pit stop differential benefited Kyle Larson who captured his fourth win of the season at the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway in Virginia Saturday, leading 53 of 404 laps.
It’s Larson’s fifth career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win, his first on a short track and will start the playoffs as the No. 2 seed.
Larson thanked his pit crew for getting him out in front of Truex, Jr. on the last pit stop and felt confident it’s their season to win the championship.
“I got the greatest team out here and definitely the best pit crew and that showed tonight, so I can’t thank them guys tonight enough. They were money all night long and we gained spots. This win is a huge congrats to them,” Larson said. “The Target Chevy was pretty good all night, Martin was definitely the best but I thought I was the second best for most of the run. We fall off late in the run but it came down to the last restart there.”
“I got a good start, spun my tires pretty bad and was a little nervous but we cleared Martin into (turn) one and could judge that I was pulling away and I was pretty excited for that,” Larson said. “I can’t thank Target, Credit One Bank and all of our partners enough. (Crew chief) Chad Johnston and the whole gang over there. I’m really pumped for the playoffs. We got a great shot for the championship I feel like this year and looking forward to it.”
Joey Logano finished in second, followed by Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Erike Jones, Daniel Suarez, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott.
Elliott, Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray secured the final three playoff spots via points.
Regular season champion Martin Truex, Jr. was on his way towards a series-high fifth win of the season and have 58 playoff points, but on lap 398, Derrike Cope hit the wall entering turn four and sent the race into overtime.
Truex, Jr. was then held up by Logano on pit road and it proved costly as Larson took the lead after a 10.6 second pit stop to Truex, Jr.’s 12.7. Larson chose the bottom lane on the final restart and it paid off.
On the final lap, Truex, Jr.’s night went from bad to worse after being hit from behind by Hamlin, sending him into the turn one wall and finished 20th after leading a race-high 198 laps.
Truex, Jr. showed his displeasure towards Cope, saying he didn’t belong on the track after what might’ve been another victory to cap off his dominant regular season.
“Tonight sucked, plain and simple. It’s just the way it ended up. You go out there and dominating like that and you know your car was not very good on restarts for a couple laps,” Truex, Jr. said. “A caution for a guy that should’ve been out there is kind of ridiculous so I don’t really know what to say about all that but it’s unfortunate how the race ended.”
“When your 20 something laps down, riding around and as slow as Derrike is, he even can’t hold his damn line. It’s ridiculous,” Truex, Jr. said. “He scrapes the wall and they throw a caution. That’s not what racing should be and so I’m mad about that, but I have to go back and watch the tape to see how it exactly played out. I’m madder about all that than about losing.”
Truex, Jr. added he knew Hamlin didn’t wrecked him on purpose on the last lap but felt he was racing aggressive into the corner. However, Truex, Jr. said he isn’t concerned about the car’s performance going into the final 10 races.
“Denny jumped on the brakes and got into the splitter and I gave him room, but he was aggressive on the brakes and that stuff happens,” Truex, Jr. said. “I’m just really upset about the caution. It sucks that two weeks in a row to be leading right at the end and lose it. That’s the way it goes and that’s racing I guess. The good news we’re fast and we’re doing everything right. We have to work on pit road a little bit, the last few weeks has been a little slow but I don’t know, it’s tough to lose them like that.”
Hamlin said he and Truex, Jr. drove deep in turn one and wasn’t pleased how he drove at his home track.
“When I got on the brakes, the splitter slammed down on the ground. Shot me up the track into Martin and we weren’t racing for the win or anything. It’s unfortunate and didn’t want to get into him. He’s a great teammate of ours but a tough day for our FedEx team,” Hamlin said. “Overnight, we messed it up pretty good and we struggled all day. Got a little bit better there at the end by just going back to where we started the day and definitely not a car that could contend.”
“We were trying to make it better but it just was getting worse and worse,” Hamlin said. “It was a miserable day, actually and they tell me I’m a hero around here today. Tonight, I was a clown.”
Hamlin will begin his quest for that elusive Cup championship in seventh, 40 points behind Truex, Jr.
In stage one, pole sitter Matt Kenseth was owning the competition, leading the first 89 laps. However, Kenseth had a near scare on lap 87 after locking up his tires entering turn three as he tried to lapped Danica Patrick. Because of the lock up, smoke came out of Kenseth’s car and brought out the second caution of the race. Kenseth’s car was unharmed and pitted for four fresh tires and exited out in first with 10.9 second pit stop.
Brad Keselowski stayed out and took the lead but it was short lived as Kyle Busch, on fresher tires, nosedived from fifth to second before passing Keselowski for the lead on lap 93 and held off Larson for his 11th stage win of the season.
Busch continued his momentum in the first half of stage two until Truex, Jr. passed him for the lead on lap 155 and never looked back. Truex, Jr. was again triumphant in stage racing, beating Kenseth and teammate Erik Jones for his 18th stage win and ended the regular season with 53 playoff points.
On lap 256, Austin Dillon made contact with Patrick and spun her around in turn one to bring out a caution.
Chaos happened at the entry of pit road as the ambulance blocked the field and Kenseth ran into the back bumper of Clint Bowyer, damaging his radiator and went behind the wall, ending his night in 38th.
A frustrated Kenseth said he wished he wasn’t behind the leaders when the incident took place.
“We’re all coming to pit road and then I saw an ambulance sit there and so I looked left at the ambulance,” Kenseth said. “At the same time “Lesky” (spotter Jason Hedlesky) yelled at everybody to stop because the ambulance was sitting there. It was an accordion effect that I couldn’t get stopped. Not really sure why pit road was open with the ambulance parked there but everybody stopped and I didn’t see it in time and ran into the car in front of me.”
“We were pretty decent early on and kind of lost the handling again kind of like the last race once we got back in traffic,” Kenseth said. “I shouldn’t have been back there to start with and maybe I wouldn’t have got into the wreck.”
Bowyer pitted to repair his damaged front bumper and left rear but continued racing.
It wasn’t the only hiccup Bowyer had Saturday. After being the class of the field among the non-top 16 drivers in stage one, Bowyer exited out pit road in fourth on lap 106.
He wouldn’t enjoy the luxury of running in front much longer after his front tire carrier went over the wall too soon, penalizing Bowyer to the tail end of the lead lap in 33rd.
Bowyer worked his way to 15th at the end of stage two. Bowyer then gained five spots off pit road and restarted 10th in the final stage.
Despite surviving those disasters, Bowyer bounced back and was running inside the top 15 but it wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs in his first season at Stewart-Haas Racing.
With 63 laps to go, needing a win and interim crew chief Travis Mack making the calls, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. led the race during a cycle of green flag stops. Bowyer moved up to second before Keselowski passed him for the position. Due to Dale Jr. leading, McMurray was outside the top 16 by one point over Kenseth.
Dale Jr.’s lead evaporated as Keselowski took the lead a few laps later and McMurray was back in the playoffs. Then on lap 343, Truex, Jr. regained his lead and pulled away from Keselowski.
Dale Jr.’s strategy of getting a caution didn’t panned out and pitted on lap 357, eliminating his chances of fighting for the championship that’s eluded his 19-year Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career. Dale Jr. finished 13th.
Bowyer pitted with 36 laps to go, writing himself out of the playoffs as he also was hoping for a caution to come out for the strategy to work. A tire violation led to a black flag for Bowyer, relegating him to a 24th-place finish.
McMurray finished in 14th and will begin the playoffs as the 16th seed, trailing Truex, Jr. by 50 points.
Saturday’s race at Richmond saw 13 lead changes and was slowed down 7 times for 38 laps.
The regular season has concluded with Truex, Jr. on top. Now, he’ll look to repeat at Chicagoland Speedway Sept. 17 at Joliet, Illinois for the opening round of the playoffs and reach a step closer of capturing his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship.