Amidall the wrecks, cautions and Denny Hamlin’s victory Saturday in the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway, nothing really changed when it came to who would ultimately qualify for NASCAR’s Chase.
There was already the certainty that 12 drivers had clinched spots, including Hamlin, who won his third race of the season, and defending champ Kyle Busch, who enters the Chase as the No. 1 seed.
Four others were poised to make the Chase, which starts next Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway. But they needed Richmond, the final race of the regular season, to clinch their spots.
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And that’s exactly what rookies Chris Buescher and Chase Elliott, as well as Jamie McMurray and Austin Dillon, did.
Buescher had accomplished the first prerequisite of Chase eligibility by winning at Pocono Raceway in July. What he hadn’t nailed down by Richmond, however, was a spot in the top 30 in the points standings. A 24th-place finish Saturday got him there, however.
So, after weeks of scrapping around the edges postseason eligibility, Buescher can now concentrate on winning a championship in his first season on NASCAR’s biggest stage.
I’m not going to take stress into the Chase.
“Now we talk a different strategy,” said Buescher, who won the 2015 Xfinity Series championship. “We get a lot of things changing now. It’s just really cool to be a part of it at this point. We look at this first round, and we want to make it past that round.
“We want to move through the Chase, and then we can reevaluate from there. If we can keep going farther and improve our program each and every weekend, that’s always going to be what we’re aiming to do.”
McMurray’s night was a little more stressful. Without a victory, he led Ryan Newman by 22 points for the 16th and final spot. When Newman was wrecked by Tony Stewart on Lap 364, that might have opened things up for McMurray, who ran near the front for much of the race.
Then Kasey Kahne, an outlier who could only make the Chase if he won, began to make a late charge on new tires.
“Once (Newman) got in trouble, I was racing so different than what you normally would, not taking any risk,” said McMurray. “And then when I saw (Kahne) had tires and some of those (other) guys didn’t, and it got a little crazy.”
The Chase begins next Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway and wraps up in November at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Kahne ultimately fell back and finished sixth. McMurray’s seventh-place finish left him comfortably ahead of Newman, who ended up 28th.
Elliott’s spot in the Chase – on points – comes in his first season. It’s the first time in the Chase’s 13-year history that two rookies are in the field.
“Getting in is the first very small step of these last 10 races,” said Elliott. “Obviously, you would rather have won your way in and have a win at this point, but I would much rather win in these last 10 races if I had a choice. I think we have to leave here with the mentality that we could go to (season-finale at) Homestead and give ourselves a chance. I think if we don’t have that mentality as a team and as a group and as an organization we should have just let the guy behind us get in.”
16 Drivers in the Chase
Dillon, 26, is another young guy and is in his third full season in the Cup series. Although he hasn’t won, he’s done the next best thing now.
“We shouldn’t have been in this situation,” Dillon said. “We had good enough cars to not have to be in this situation, but, hey, we were in a tight situation down to the end. Especially, with (Kahne) up there near the end, but we were racing (McMurray) all night, we did our job, we stayed in that buffer.
“The stress level is off of me. I’m not going to take stress into the Chase. I’m going to go have fun and try to win, look at it with no pressure situation.”
1. Kyle Busch
2. Brad Keselowski
3. Denny Hamlin
4. Kevin Harvick
5. Carl Edwards
6. Martin Truex Jr.
7, Matt Kenseth
8. Jimmie Johnson
9. Joey Logano
10. Kyle Larson
11. Tony Stewart
12. Kurt Busch
13. Chris Buescher
14. Chase Elliott
15. Austin Dillon
16. Jamie McMurray