12:04 AM EDT, September 8, 2013
RICHMOND, Va. — NASCAR conspiracy theorists certainly will love what transpired at Richmond International Raceway Saturday night.
A caution with eight laps to go, caused by Clint Bowyer's spin, helped his Michael Waltrip Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. catch Ryan Newman in the points standings and squeeze into the Chase.
"Obviously I'm happy," Truex Jr. said. "Shocked. We had such a rough night. Honestly, we came down pit road after the race, nobody knew what was going on."
Newman, a lame-duck driver with Stewart-Haas Racing, was the odd man out on the night the 12-driver field was set for the 2013 Chase for the Championship. Truex edged Newman on a tiebreaker, based on better finishes throughout the season.
"They are teammates," Newman said. "I don't know if he looked at the scoring pylon and knew I was leading. It doesn't matter. If that was the case, I'll find out one way or the other. At the same time we still had the opportunity to make our own destiny and win it on pit road, and we didn't.
"That being said, we're out."
Newman was leading the race at the time, and a victory would have secured him a Chase spot. He ended up third in a race won by Carl Edwards.
"My car was tight as hell," Bowyer said. "The thing slid 10 feet and blew out. Something was going on. It is what it is.
"I got one friend and two that hate me, I guess."
Going into the night, Jimmie Johnson, Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Edwards, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth already had qualified and Kasey Kahne, with two victories, had clinched at least a wild-card spot.
It left 10 drivers, including Jeff Gordon, scrambling for five spots.
It was heartbreak for him, too.
Gordon was in the Top 10 in points when the caution came out but finished just one point out of 10th at the end of the race, behind Joey Logano.
Gordon began the night at the front, leading the first 49 laps in the Auto Parts 400. Midway through the race, he found frustration after a loose right front wheel seemed to crush his Chase chances.
"I have no rear grip," Gordon said right before the halfway point of the race, scheduled for 400 laps.
"Just keep fighting," said crew chief Alan Gustafson.
Gordon did, but it was not enough.
Gordon, the beneficiary of fortuitous track position that allowed him to catch up to the lead lap, moved his way up the field and had a Top 10 spot in hand until the caution came out with eight laps to go.
Brad Keselowski began the night 15th in the standings and winless, but he rumbled into the lead from the third starting spot, holding onto hope that he might sneak in as a wild-card qualifier.
That didn't happen either.
Gordon started side-by-side with Kurt Busch, two veterans making yet another run of relevance in their NASCAR careers.
Busch made it. Gordon did not.
"How about them apples?" said Busch, a one-man show for Furniture Row Racing. "It's an amazing feeling. We achieved something very special tonight."
Gordon had a shot to knock one point off the deficit from the get-go because NASCAR awards a point to any driver who leads a lap. From then on, both he and Busch expected to be engaged in the usual bump-and-grind of racing in tight quarters.
Richmond, a 3/4-mile track, is well-suited to embrace all comers who want to tangle with sheet metal.
Gordon, Busch and the rest of them were warned about over-aggressiveness during the drivers' meeting late Saturday afternoon. Robin Pemberton, vice president for competition of NASCAR, told drivers to "keep it fair and square."
The hope is that they would listen.
"I think we all know Kurt is a very aggressive guy, so I would think he is probably going to try to fight pretty hard to get himself in position," Gordon said before the race. "Not only for track position, but it is important for him to lead a lap just like it is important for me to lead a lap. I would imagine that there will be a little bit of battling there."
Fight he did. Gordon was smart, too. It just wasn't enough.
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