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Five races that shaped the Chase field

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Five races that shaped the Chase field
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Despite three rain delays that pushed the finish into the wee hours of the next morning, Saturday night's Sprint Cup regular-season finale at Richmond International Raceway was all everyone -- OK, maybe everyone except Kyle Busch -- hoped it would be. Even days later, it's still easy to smell all that sprayed champagne, see all that confetti floating through the air, and feel the buzz from a riveting event that left the final playoff spot in doubt until the last lap of the last race before the Chase.

Amazing, isn't it? Fresh off a 2011 championship race determined by a tiebreaker, NASCAR's 2012 championship field is finalized by all of three points. The deciding margin was actually one point when Jeff Gordon crossed the finish line, which is why the driver referred to that razor-thin gap in his post-race media duties. Busch slipped two more positions by the time he reached the stripe, so the official margin was three points. No matter -- it was close, exceedingly close, either way.

So now it's onto Chicagoland Speedway and the opening chapter of the 10 races that will determine this year's title. And yet, there is no effect without cause. This Chase may have at last come into its clearest focus Saturday night at Richmond, but the pieces that comprise it have been developing for months. It was shaped not just by the 12 drivers standing on a stage around a sterling silver trophy, but by accidents and miscues and victories and even weather patterns. Saturday was only the final result of all that, of a series of events that made it all possible.

In short, five races. Yes, there were 26 that produced this Chase field, and one dramatic event this past Saturday that sealed it, but it unfolded the way it did because of five key races that defined the regular season and put their stamp all over the playoff. Denny Hamlin the top seed instead of Jimmie Johnson. Gordon the final wild card instead of Busch. The fates of Kasey Kahne, Carl Edwards, and Ryan Newman. Their destinies were set in motion long before one long night in Richmond, and all because of five races that stand as the prologue to everything else.

Martinsville Speedway, April 1

Looking back, there were so many Chase ramifications that spring afternoon on the Virginia short track, which provided a boost for one Chase contender and made things considerably more difficult for another. Gordon dominated the event, leading 328 laps, and near the end banged fenders with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson as both vied for not only the race victory, but also their organization's 200th triumph in the sport's premier division.

But as was the case so often early in the season for both Gordon and Hendrick, it would not come easy. Trying to keep his Tommy Baldwin-owned car inside the top 35 in owners' points, David Reutimann nursed his car around the track with a broken suspension part, but stalled out and forced NASCAR to issue a caution. Suddenly there was a green-white-checkered finish, and suddenly Clint Bowyer was making it three-wide on the restart, and suddenly Gordon was going sideways, his chance at victory lost in a cloud of tire smoke.

The consequences were widespread. Newman came out of nowhere to win, notching a victory that stood in stark contrast to the rest of his good-but-not-great season, and allowed him to remain in the thick of the wild-card hunt until the final week. And Gordon lost a shot at a victory that would have been pivotal to his Chase chances -- coupled with the triumph he eventually managed at Pocono, it would have been enough to get him in well before his last-gasp run Saturday night. It also might have changed the course of his whole season, which despite fast race cars was riddled with shortcomings that sent the No. 24 team into a funk.

It took them almost all year to work their way out of it. That Martinsville race marked only the second time in Gordon's long and illustrious career that he had led more than 300 laps in a race and failed to win. The aftereffects, though, stretched well beyond that day, from one part of Virginia to another -- and made Gordon's 11th-hour miracle in Richmond an absolute necessity.

Richmond International Raceway, April 28

Unlike his Roush Fenway teammates Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards hasn't been around the top of the points standings all season. He also hasn't had many chances to win, which is what ultimately kept him out of the Chase -- and in retrospect, made one night in Richmond so painful.

No, not this past Saturday night. The race there in the spring, which marked the one time all season that Edwards had the best car in an event, and was the clear favorite to win. To that point, he had led one lap. Since then, he's led 47. That night at Richmond he led 207 -- but it was one he thought he led that proved the difference. With 81 laps remaining, there was a miscommunication that led Edwards to think he was in front, and he further complicated the issue by jumping the restart. NASCAR ordered him to serve a pass-through, and rather than battling Tony Stewart for the lead Edwards was relegated to 15th place.

He settled for a 10th-place finish that matched his position in the point standings, but of much greater significance was the victory that got away. Edwards argued his point after the race to NASCAR, which showed him a video of how he jumped the restart -- meaning that the No. 99 car would have penalized regardless of his position. Although there's no guarantee that Edwards would have held on for the remainder of the event, what proved his only chance to win a race this season evaporated into the night.

And along with it, his best opportunity to make the Chase. Although Edwards held onto the 12th spot in points until his blown engine at Atlanta, his lack of a victory placed him behind several other drivers in line for the wild-card berths, and left him to attempt desperate tactics like a long (and ultimately unsuccessful) fuel run at Bristol. Just as notably, Edwards' penalty plus a late restart prompted by a debris caution allowed Kyle Busch to score his only victory of the season -- which gave the Joe Gibbs Racing driver control of the final wild-card spot until it was snatched from him Saturday night.

New Hampshire Motor Speedway, July 15

The first bit of clarity came to the Chase wild-card picture through confusion. Denny Hamlin dominated the July race in the Granite State, leading 150 laps until a miscommunication with crew chief Darian Grubb. The crew chief wanted to take two tires in the event's final pit stop, which would have kept Hamlin on pace with most of the other contenders in the field. But he mistakenly thought his driver wanted four, and went with the latter call -- which left the No. 11 car buried in traffic as what proved the final restart began.

Hamlin made a huge charge over the event's final 66 laps, gradually picking off one car after another and working his way back to the front. But he ran out of laps -- and finished second to Kasey Kahne, who led the entire final run to score his second victory of the season and put a virtual hammerlock on a wild-card bid into the Chase.

Kahne, who rallied from a miserable early season to secure his spot in the playoff, was far from the only driver affected that day. Given how dominant his car was early and how much ground he was able to make up late, it seems almost certain that the tire mix-up cost Hamlin another victory that would have given him three more points over the field this week at Chicagoland. That miscommunication also had a huge impact on the wild-card race, given that it allowed Kahne to essentially claim one spot, and left every other playoff hopeful scrapping for a single berth rather than two.

Given how strong he was at the end of the Sprint Cup regular season, even pushing 10th-place Stewart for the final position determined by points, Kahne probably wouldn't have needed the second victory to get in. But his second triumph changed the complexion of the wild-card race, essentially removing points from the equation. Suddenly, wins were absolutely crucial. Kahne made sure there was only one viable route to the final wild-card berth, and it ran through Victory Lane.

Pocono Raceway, Aug. 5

He had just won at Indianapolis. He had everyone in the garage area talking about the yaw in the rear end of his race car. He had dominated the race to that point, leading more laps than all the other drivers in the event combined. He was out front on a restart with weather about to roll in. Everything was lined up for Johnson to put his boot heel on the rest of the Sprint Cup circuit and assert himself as the man to beat for the championship.

And then he went sideways.

Johnson claimed he had a tire go down. Kenseth, dueling alongside the five-time champion on the front row and taken out in what became a five-car accident, had his doubts. Either way, the result was the same -- Johnson was knocked out just before the skies opened up and ended the event at Pocono 62 laps short of its scheduled completion. And in the process, he was denied an opportunity to separate himself from the logjam of drivers at the top of the standings, all of them vying to become the top seed in the Chase.

Yes, Johnson still made the playoff comfortably, and that squandered chance at Pocono doesn't change the fact that his team remains one of the strongest in the garage area entering the Chase. Even so, it was another one of those days with trickle-down ramifications that impacted both ends of the potential playoff field -- the race for the top spot, and the battle just to get in. The crash, combined with Johnson's engine failure in the waning laps two weekends later at Michigan, allowed the other title contenders to maintain pace with a driver who could have very well won three times in four weeks, and five times overall, and run away with the top seed before this past Saturday night.

As it turned out, Johnson hasn't won since his victory at the Brickyard in July, and those failures opened the door for Hamlin to seize the series lead in victories and take a three-point lead into the Chase opener. Even greater, it allowed Gordon -- yes, beleaguered, snake-bitten Gordon -- to make a nifty move that got him to the bottom of the race track and past the wreckage before the yellow flag came out. He had to celebrate in a makeshift Victory Lane under a garage awning, but didn't mind a bit. That unlikely win was Gordon's life raft, at the time thrusting him into the lead for that second wild-card position. Without it, Saturday night's heroics wouldn't have mattered.

Watkins Glen International, Aug. 12

It will be remembered, and rightly so, for the slam-bang finish between Marcos Ambrose and Brad Keselowski, the two of them trading shots on a serpentine road course made slick by oil dropped from another car. But in the aftermath of this past Saturday night, that afternoon on the New York road course looms even larger -- not because of who won, but because of who didn't.

Busch was the class of the race that day in the Finger Lakes region, leading 43 laps, more than other driver. He lad led 15 consecutive circuits around the road course coming to the white flag. But the track was still damp in spots because of rain earlier in the day. It was made even slicker after Bobby Labonte's car began smoking, the result of an expiring engine that ostensibly dropped oil on the racing surface. So the situation was ripe for calamity when the cars took the white flag and came barreling around for the final time. It wouldn't take much to send anyone spinning.

For Busch, it took contact from Keselowski during close racing in the esses. Suddenly Busch was around, and Keselowski and Ambrose were speeding past, on their way to decide the memorable finish between them. Busch was left to straighten out his No. 18 car and roll home seventh, good enough to keep him in contention for a wild-card spot, but without the victory that would have completely altered the equation. If Busch finishes the job that day in Watkins Glen and records his second victory of the season, and Gordon's second-place run Saturday at Richmond isn't enough to keep the Joe Gibbs Racing driver from seizing the final berth in the Chase.

But he didn't. It's interesting to think of how the Chase field might be look today had those five events all turned out differently. There's no late caution at Martinsville, and Gordon goes on to win. There's no penalty at Richmond, and Edwards finds Victory Lane. There's no miscommunication at New Hampshire, and Hamlin closes the deal. There's no spin at Pocono, and Johnson runs away. There's no oil at Watkins Glen, and Busch prevails. Overly simplified? Sure. Possible? Absolutely. Those events break another way, and we perhaps see a very different story this past Saturday night -- and a different lineup in the Chase opener this coming Sunday.

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