RICHMOND, VA – The 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series regular season went out with a bang on Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway.
Actually, bang might be an understatement. The Federated Auto Parts 400 was quite simply, insane.
Denny Hamlin led the field to the green flag for Saturday night’s event in front of a large crowd at the Virginia-based track. The first part of the race played out with a normal tone – a couple long green flag runs with a few cautions sprinkled in here and there. Hamlin proved to have a strong car throughout the first part of the race, running solidly up inside the Top-5 and battling on/off for the lead.
But once the race reached halfway, business began to pick up. There’s an ole saying in racing – “cautions breed cautions”, and that certainly was the case Saturday night.
From Lap 200 on, there ended up being a wild rash of 14 yellow flags. Add on the 3 that happened in the first half of the race, and you end up with 17 – a new record for the most cautions in a race at Richmond International Raceway.
A majority of the incidents took place due to cut-down tires and some self-induced spins. But a couple of the wrecks happened as a result of hard racing and contact, leading to some interesting TV interviews.
On Lap 326, Matt Kenseth cut down a tire and slammed into the wall in Turns 3 and 4. It first appeared that it was just a racing-deal, but the Cambridge, WI native made it certainly clear in his post-wreck interview that he had a different viewpoint on why the tire went down.
“Looks like Brad (Keselowski) missed a shift or something, and then he just had his angle all wrong and drove into the corner 3 car lengths too far because he didn’t want to lose the spot,” Kenseth told NBCSN after the wreck. “He cleaned me out and knocked the fender down on the tire, and then we ended up blowing a tire and wrecking.”
The two drivers have feuded before in the past, including an incident in 2014 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in which Kenseth ended up fighting with Keselowski after the race between the haulers. It was obvious the driver of the No.20 was none-too pleased with Keselowski once again Saturday night.
“That’s all on Brad,” Kenseth continued on NBCSN. “I’m sure he will send out a tweet or go on a TV show and explain how it wasn’t his fault. He just, he knows better than that. He knew his angle was bad, and he just drove way up in the corner because he made a mistake. He was trying to make up for it and had no respect for anybody in the outside. Unfortunately, we have a wrecked racecar because of it.”
But the tempers didn’t stop there.
On Lap 363, Tony Stewart appeared to try and throw a block on Ryan Newman headed down the backstretch, but it didn’t work. The two made contact, sending Stewart’s No.14 spinning into the inside wall. Newman, Edwards, and multiple other drivers piled into the wreck, sending the race to a red flag due to the large amount of debris and carnage spread out at the scene of the incident.
Newman didn’t hold back his displeasure in his post-wreck interview on NBCSN.
“The No.14 cut across my nose going into Turn 1. I got into him after that, but he had already chopped into me and messed up my line,” Newman exclaimed. “I clipped him a little bit coming off, but then he just came across my nose going down the back straightaway there. I guess he thought he was in a sprint car again and couldn’t control his anger.”
Newman’s sprint car comment was referencing an incident that took place a few years ago in which Stewart hit Kevin Ward Jr. under caution during a sprint car race after Ward walked onto the track. But nonetheless, Newman’s comments weren’t done there.
“It’s just disappointing that you’ve got somebody old like that’s retiring – should be retired the way he drives. It’s just ridiculous.”
Stewart did admit that Newman was correct in his assessment that he tried to chop him off on purpose.
“He’s right. That was the 3rd time he had driven into me during the night. How many times does a guy get a free pass until you’ve had enough of it?” Stewart told NBCSN after the race. “He hits me in (turn) one, he hits me off of (turn) two. It’s the third time by that time, there was once earlier in the race that no one saw. Three times, that’s two more times than I normally let someone run into me.”
Emotions were definitely running high at the end of Saturday night’s event. But for pole-sitter Denny Hamlin, it was a whole different type of feeling.
A winning feeling.
Hamlin was able to survive the caution-filled race and crossed the finish line first as the checkered flag waved. The victory was Hamlin’s third of the 2016 season, and his third at the racetrack that lays claim to being his “home track.”
“That’s what is so special about it. You get to do it at home. I see all the extra Denny Hamlin shirts and hats and everything. It just fires me up every time I get it here,” said Hamlin in Victory Lane after the race on NBCSN. “Man, this is a great car. Hopefully we can use it in the Chase.”
And with that, the 2016 Chase season is now underway. 16 drivers are locked in for the final 10-race playoff stretch. The drivers in this year’s Chase include: Kyle Busch, Keselowski, Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Martin Truex Jr., Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano, Kyle Larson, Stewart, Kurt Busch, Chris Buescher, Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon, and Jamie McMurray.
The Chase kicks off next weekend in Chicago, and crisscrosses all across the country before winding up with the championship finale race in Miami during November. Every three races during the 10 race stretch, the bottom 4 in the standings will be eliminated. That will leave 4 drivers to compete for the championship trophy at Miami.
The regular season ended on a crazy note in Richmond, giving the sport a lot of momentum headed into the racing world’s version of the playoffs.