It should probably come as no surprise that the second playoff race of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series came down to the season’s top two drivers – Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch.
In the end, Busch held off a hard-charging Harvick on Saturday night in the Federated Auto Parts 400 to sweep both 2018 races at Richmond Raceway.
Busch matched Harvick with his seventh win of the season and locked up a berth in the second round of the playoffs. For the 2015 champion, it was his sixth career victory at the ¾-mile track and the 50th win of his Cup Series career, tying Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson for 11th on the all-time list.
“It’s really good to have the win to be able to go into next week. I think anytime you can punch your ticket into the next round just makes it even better,” said Busch, who led 92 laps after starting from the rear of the field for unapproved adjustments to his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota following qualifying. “The car wasn’t great early, but once we made some adjustments, the car really came to us and took off.”
Harvick, who started on the pole, finished less than a second behind, rebounding from a tough playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where he had finished 39th out of 40 cars.
“We were definitely gaining a little bit of ground,” said the 2014 series champion, “but we just didn’t have enough time to get all the way to him. But our guys did a great job rebounding after last weekend and doing what we had to do this week to put ourselves in a good position for next week – so solid night.”
Next weekend remains prominent on all the playoff drivers’ minds as four of the 16 drivers will be eliminated at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The third playoff race offers additional question marks since it will be contested on a completely unknown circuit – a part road course, part oval that has never been utilized in the series.
Now three playoff drivers won’t have to stress about racing on the so-called “Roval.” Along with Busch and Las Vegas winner Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr. made sure a victory at Richmond was not a prerequisite for his advancement. The reigning series champion clinched his berth in the second round after matching his third-place result from the playoff opener.
“I wish we would have been in victory lane right now, but in a few days, I guess the pain will go away a little bit and we’ll be able to go to the Roval and have some fun with no pressure,” said Truex, who has four wins this season.
Chase Elliott finished fourth, followed by Aric Almirola, Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon, Kyle Larson, seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Keselowski and Clint Bowyer.
Harvick, who sits 57 points above the cutline, can also go into Charlotte relatively stress free despite not yet locking up his spot in the next round. For the other 12 drivers, the week ahead brings uncertainty and unease, especially for those that failed to capitalize at Richmond.
Most prominent among them is Virginia native Denny Hamlin, who came to his hometown track under tremendous pressure after a 32nd-place finish in the opener at Las Vegas left him 16th in the playoff standings.
Hamlin nearly spun out on Lap 53 when Ricky Stenhouse Jr., plowing through the field on fresh tires, made contact. Hamlin went sideways on the front stretch but managed to save his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota before pitting for fresh tires four laps later, leaving him one lap down.
Hamlin, who started second, was never able to recapture his qualifying speed and then was further hampered in the third stage when a caution flag came out just a few laps after he pitted under green, trapping him a lap down again.
In the end, Hamlin left Richmond the way he started, ranked last among the 16 playoff drivers after a 16th-place finish.
Joining Hamlin in the bottom four ahead of next week’s elimination race is Bowyer (13th), Johnson (14th) and Erik Jones (15th).