No race in 2012 ran later in the evening than the Federated Auto Parts 400 in Richmond, and no race to date this year was more worth every minute.
The record will show that Clint Bowyer won the rain-delayed race with an impressive fuel gamble, but that was, at best, the third-most-important story of the evening. On this night -- morning, actually, since the race finished well after 1 a.m. on Sunday -- the stories at the end of the night were the ones coming in: the Chase fates of Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch.
Rain delayed the start of the race by more than two hours, and two other rain delays pushed the race into the small hours of the morning. For a time, it looked as if NASCAR's most important race of the regular season would end with a damp whimper. A long red-flag halt to the race on lap 152 capped a largely drama-free initial run.
But like the lame opening act that fails to warm up the crowd before the main attraction comes onstage, those opening laps gave no indication of how good the end of the race would become. Over the course of the remainder of the race, which ran largely caution-free:
-Kyle Busch saw his once-certain slam-dunk entry into the Chase dwindle, flicker, and finally vanish entirely in a blown pit call and lug nut mistake;
-Ryan Newman came from deep in the standings to briefly lead the race, opening up the possibility of a Hail Mary win-and-you're-in finish;
-Clint Bowyer spun on the infield grass twice, once courtesy of Juan Pablo Montoya, once in his postrace victory burnout; and
-Jeff Gordon completed one of the more remarkable season turnarounds in NASCAR history, taking a team that had stumbled badly through most of the season. Seventeen races into the season, he had only three top 10 finishes and only a single top 5. Since then, he's lit the track on fire, finishing 3-2-2 in the season's final three regular-season races.
"I felt like I won the race tonight," Gordon said. "When that was over, they told me I was in the Chase, we made it, I mean, I was ecstatic. I was going nuts ... I don't see any reason why we can't go over these next 10 races and be a real threat for the championship."
You've got to be in it to win it, and Gordon now finds himself just 12 points out of the points lead, a position he hasn't been in since the earliest laps of the Daytona 500. He's got competition, yes, but he's got new life. The Chase thus breaks down in this fashion:
1. Denny Hamlin, 2012 points
T2. Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Brad Keselowski, 2009 points
T5. Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, 2006 points
T7. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, 2003 points
T9. Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon, 2000 points
(Technically the drivers are seeded in the order listed, but the points totals are identical.)
So who's the favorite? Hamlin obviously is riding a hot streak; he had the best car in the field at Richmond, but didn't hang for the entire race, perhaps because of the relatively low stakes for him. Johnson has had a strong car all season long, Stewart and Keselowski can win at any time, and Biffle, Kenseth and Earnhardt have shown the ability to remain up front. But as Stewart showed last season, any driver can get hot at the right time and storm right to a Cup.
"Win a championship? That'd be pretty fun," Bowyer laughed after the race. "Jimmie seems to have a lot of fun. I guarantee you I could throw a better party than he does." Ten weeks from now, someone in those twelve drivers will get that chance.