RICHMOND, Va. — On a night where the Chase contenders could have showed up, phoned in 400 laps and jetted off to prep for next week's opener at Loudon, NASCAR's leading lights did nothing of the sort. And the last man in made sure that when he got into the Chase, he did so at full speed.
Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson, the two points leaders coming into Saturday night's Air Guard 400, traded the lead back and forth, with Kyle Busch challenging as well. Meanwhile, Clint Bowyer, the man whom we were constantly reminded was "the only man with something to lose," made sure that he hammered down any doubts about his ability to close out his Chase-worthy year by hanging around the front all night long and keeping his key challengers — Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray and Mark Martin — several turns behind him.
"Being in the Chase speaks volumes about these boys [on the 33 team]," Bowyer said. "We got down early [in the season], but we dug deep and stepped up."
He noted the oddity of having his hauler parked right next to Newman's, and the way that both his team and the 39's mixed throughout the weekend. "His wife gave me a$50 dollar bill and two peanuts before the race," Bowyer said, laughing at the traditional symbols of bad luck in the pits. "But I told her I wasgoing to take her money and her Chase spot and luckily we did."
With Bowyer slicing the last bit of drama out of the night, Richmond became a statement race. Each of the conventional-wisdom prospective champions — Hamlin, Johnson, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick — spent time at or very near the front. And in the end, it was Hamlin stamping his name on the 2010 regular season, posting more wins — six — than anyone else, and brushing away the last of Harvick's regular-season lead.
At the other end of the spectrum, several drivers indicated that they're most certainly not riding a high wave of momentum going into the Chase. Leading that contingent is Jeff Gordon, who dropped from second place in the Chase to last, with the points reset, by failing to win a race all season. It was an ugly evening for Gordon, who never looked comfortable, and not the way he wanted to go into the Chase. Similarly, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Burton all limped or edged their way out of the regular season.
So now, Hamlin enters the Chase with 5,060 points, marking a 10-point lead over Johnson. Twenty points behind Johnson sit Harvick, the regular-season points leader, and Kyle Busch. Brother Kurt sits at 5,020 points; Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle have 5,010 points; Gordon, Edwards, Burton, Kenseth and Bowyer all finish the season with a zero-win 5,000 points.
"You've got five or six guys who could win a championship," Johnson said. "Outside of that, you've got guys who are finding their cars. ... You've had some streaky guys, then the 29 who's been really consistent, and the 24, who's been kind of consistent. I think everybody has it in them [to win]."
"I hope you guys are ready for a good 10 weeks," Hamlin said on the radio immediately after the win.
And he's right — this could be a hell of a Chase, with no clear favorite. Clearly, there's a divide between the can-dos and the probably-won't-dos, and at the top of the can-do list is Hamlin. He runs in streaks, and if this win marks the start of a run like the one he had starting in early March — when he rolled out five wins in 11 races — the reign of Jimmie Johnson could be coming to a close.
But if that's going to happen, Hamlin's going to have a fight on his hands. Johnson had spent most of the last couple months in an uncharacteristically uncertain mode, but two straight third-place finishes at Atlanta and Richmond indicate that he's all ready to challenge for a fifth straight title — even if his competitors aren't conceding anything to him.
"Superman still has his cape," Bowyer said, speaking of Johnson, "but it's a lot shorter this year than it's been in the past."