Thanks to Kelly Crandall for the introduction to this piece.
Prior to 2004 and the creation of the Chase for the Championship, no one would have said the fall race at Richmond was one of the most important races on the schedule.
But here we are on a Saturday night in September and all eyes will not only be on who takes home the checkered flag in the 26th event of the season, but on 11 drivers who are fighting for the final eight spots in the 2009 Chase field.
Brian Vickers and Kyle Busch sat 13th and 14th respectively, and were the only two sitting on the outside looking in that are still eligible to bump their way in tonight with solid performances. They'd start 6th and 8th in the line-up.
In order to do so, they'd need Matt Kenseth who was sitting 12th and his teammate Greg Biffle, sitting 11th, to have trouble. Biffle will have to battle from 26th while Kenseth will be behind him in 28th at the green flag.
Hometown favorite Denny Hamlin, who locked in his Chase spot last week in Richmond, would start in the third spot. Current points leader Tony Stewart would be buried in 29th.
Mark Martin, who could possibly be the points leader if the younger Busch brother fails to make the Chase, led the field to the green flag after taking the pole position on Friday night.
After the All-American Rejects rocked out the crowd, Martin and his No. 5 Kellogg's Chevrolet got the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 started at 8:12 local time under the lights.
Martin pulled out to an early lead as the field began to line up single file. Hometown hero Hamlin took the lead easily on lap four, before the first caution of the night came out a lap later.
Scott Speed was clipped by Jeff Burton while they and Tony Stewart went three-wide in turn two. Seven cars, including the No. 17 of Matt Kenseth, made a pitstop under that caution. He restarted back in 37th.
Hamlin jumped to the restart on lap ten as Reed Sorenson got wicked loose going into turn two, but managed to save his No. 43 Dodge and fell back in line.
Teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon raced hard side-by-side for fourth with defending champion Johnson giving up the spot and falling into the clutches of Kasey Kahne.
Just behind them, Chase hopeful Kyle Busch hoped to rein them in and gain those vital points. Kahne was able to complete the pass four laps later on lap 23.
Up front, Hamlin extended his lead over Martin to over a second while last year's rookie of the year, Regan Smith, took his No. 78 behind the wall.
Carl Edwards told his crew his car was "snappy loose," causing him to drop from 10th to 30th by lap 40. He was just five cars ahead of the end of the lead lap, as Hamlin began lapping cars.
"It was my fault, guys," Tony Stewart said as the second caution of the night came out. On lap 45 he and Reed Sorenson made it three wide with David Stremme for 14th, 15th, and 16th, sending the No. 14 and No. 43 spinning. Both received minimal damage and were able to drive away, but were lapped.
Hamlin led the field down pit road and barely beat the No. 24 of Gordon off pit road. Dale Earnhardt Jr. managed to gain three spots on pit road and seventh blank on lap 51.
Hamlin once again had an impressive restart and jumped out to a dominant lead over Gordon. Just as Gordon was making an attempt to pass Hamlin, the night's third caution came out for more problems for Regan Smith. Sorenson was the lucky dog.
The leaders turned down the opportunity to pit on lap 59 while the tail end of the field, including Chase hopefuls Kenseth, Biffle and Brian Vickers, among others, made stops.
On lap 64 Hamlin, on the outside this time, took the green flag and still cleared Gordon to maintain his lead. The two ran side by side on lap 67, with Gordon prevailing.
Back in the pack, teammates Burton and Clint Bowyer split the No. 77 of Sam Hornish Jr. just in front of Kenseth while Martin Truex Jr. made a charge toward the leaders as they ran side by side.
Brian Vickers and Kyle Busch had a heated side-by-side battle not only for 13th but a Chase spot, and the two are not strangers to one another. Vickers was able to complete the pass as the younger Busch complained about his rear-end housing.
Kevin Harvick continued to creep steadily into the top five as he passed Truex Jr. for the fifth spot while Gordon continued to pull away from the field. Rebounding from his earlier accident, Sorenson ran 21st on lap 89.
Meanwhile, Kenseth continued to struggle in the back of the pack, running 29th and continuing to lose ground. He told crew chief Drew Blickensderfer he had no grip. At lap 97, Kenseth was 14 in points standings and out of the Chase.
On lap 107 debris brought out the night's fourth caution, saving Kenseth from being put a lap down. Tony Stewart was the lucky dog.
Gordon brought the field down pit road the lap following, but Waltrip was shown the leader after Kenseth drove into the No. 55 pit stall instead of his own, causing Waltrip to miss his pit as well. He would come back in and make his stop, putting Gordon back in the lead.
"My fault. I heard three (to go to stall) and I was already past it," Kenseth told his crew.
Gordon led the field to the restart on lap 114, with the top cars spreading out to run single file why 10th place and back ran consistently double file.
A good run for Casey Mears in the No. 07 Jack Daniel's Chevrolet, running 15th on lap 120 after staring 38th. Just in front of him, Vickers and the No. 9 of Kahne made contact but were able to continue without incident.
A side-by-side battle between Kurt Busch and Mark Martin helped Harvick catch the No. 2 and pass him for fifth place. While Harvick complained of a loose car to crew chief Gil Martin, Busch told his crew he was experiencing a vibration with his brakes.
A.J. Allmendinger and Sam Hornish Jr. were both having strong runs at lap 140, running 8th and 13th, respectively as leader Gordon began slapping cars. His teammates Martin and Johnson, meanwhile, swapped third and fourth place on lap 143.
Lapped traffic helped Hamlin once again pass the No. 24, riding right on the rear of the National Guard/Dupont Chevrolet as he tried to retake the lead.
Hamlin was relentless in his six-lap pursuit, and was running on the inside of Gordon on lap 151, completing the pass entering turn four.
With Kenseth struggling in 25th, Vickers and the younger Busch brother were left to swap 12th and 13th in points, with Busch taking the spot as he ran 7th on track on lap 164.
Debris once again brought out caution on lap 170, and again it saved Kenseth from going a lap down. David Gilliland, filling in for Robby Gordon in the No. 7 Jim Beam Toyota, was the lucky dog.
Hamlin brought the field down pit road and was beaten off pit road by Gordon by a nose. Brad Keselowski made his pit stop backwards after contact with the No. 6 of David Ragan. Montoya lost eight spots on pit road after an 18-second pit stop.
"Hey Bob, the motor just missed. The motor just missed one time," Chase hopeful Edwards told his crew under caution. He hoped the back up ignition box would keep his Chase hopes alive as they restarted on lap 181.
Hamlin again made a charge on leader Gordon, completing his pass on lap 184 while further in the pack a knot of cars battled for 10th and back.
Gordon never let the No. 11 out of his sight, and took the position on lap 189 before Hamlin began a charge on the outside before the door was slammed by the No. 24.
Again, Hamlin dove to the inside of Gordon, running side by side as third place Martin began to close in, along with fourth-place Johnson. Hamlin led lap 194 and began to pull, if ever so slightly, in front of the Hendrick brigade.
Halfway through the Chevy Rock n' Roll 400, it was Vickers with a one-point advantage in the Chase as he ran 11th on track. Meanwhile, the race between Hamlin and Gordon would not settle down, with Gordon taking the advantage as they passed halfway.
Caution came out on lap 205 for Regan Smith, who made heavy impact with the turn two wall after losing a tire. While David Stremme was the lucky dog, it was Kenseth who was once again the real winner, being saved from losing a lap.
Another close battle put Hamlin back in the lead, with Bowyer jumping into the top ten after gaining three spots on pit road. That put three Childress cars in the top ten, as Harvick ran seventh and Burton was ninth.
Hamlin was able to pull away on the lap 211 restart, while a gaggle of cars fought further back in the pack, including a heated side-by-side battle between Harvick and Kyle Busch and Kenseth and Earnhardt, Jr.
On lap 216, the No. 88 of Earnhardt Jr. got extremely loose on the outside of Kenseth ande began falling back, settling into 26th. Johnson and Kurt Busch battled up front for fourth place, with Busch taking the spot just as they hit the start/finish line.
By lap 241, Hamlin held a second lead over Gordon, as the battles came further in the pack. Hornish Jr. continued his strong run in seventh, up 27 spots from where he started in 33rd.
Earnhardt Jr. was put a lap down by Hamlin on lap 260 as they continued under the green flag. Vickers, Truex Jr. and Papis made it three-wide further in the pack as the No. 18 of Busch passed a falling Johnson, putting himself two points ahead of Vickers, who was in 13th place in points. Meanwhile, Kenseth was put a lap down on lap 268.
On lap 279, Truex Jr. and the No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevy brought out the night's seventh caution after losing a tire and making hard contact with the wall. Gilliland was the lucky dog.
Hamlin was unchallenged as he beat Gordon off pit road. Hornish, Jr. was the big loser, dropping three spots while Johnson gained two and Montoya moved up a spot to blank.
The green flag came out on lap 288. Vickers made a pass on Harvick for 10th on lap 290, putting him back into the Chase. Former Indy stars Montoya and Hornish, Jr. raced side by side for eighth and ninth, with Hornish, Jr. maintaining the spot.
The quiet, single-file top ten was disrupted by a Kyle Busch pass on Johnson for blank as Montoya dropped a spot to Vickers.
Three wide as Stewart tries to pass Logano and Burton. He lost eight positions on the previous pit stop, leaving him battling just inside the top 20 since the restart. Meanwhile, Bowyer continued his consistent Richmond run, as he ran fifth with just 84 laps to go.
From 18th to 21st was a gaggle of cars, as Sorenson and Earnhardt Jr. drove by the No. 31 of Burton, who lost a tire after contact with Stremme on lap 319. Because the caution was for called for the debris, Burton received the lucky dog.
Hamlin, who got no changes on his No. 11 FedEx Toyota was again unchallenged off of pit road, but it was Vickers who was the real winner, gaining three spots and coming out of the pits in front of Kyle Busch.
With 75 laps to go Bowyer and Gordon both challenged Hamlin, but contact between the No. 33 and No. 24 sent Gordon falling back in the pack to sixth.
Just a lap after the restart, a spin in the front stretch grass by Michael Waltrip brought out the ninth caution of the night. He was able to continue, and Earnhardt Jr. was the lucky dog.
Also on the restart, Vickers fell back to seventh, but maintained an eight-point lead over Kyle Busch for the final Chase spot with less than 70 laps to go.
Hamlin pulled away as they restarted on lap 333, and Bowyer lost a spot to Martin as the younger Busch challenged him for third.
Bowyer though, prevailed, and Kurt Busch also passed his younger brother. That put Rowdy and Vickers nose to bumper with 63 to go.
Busch continued to slip back, losing positions to Gordon and Johnson as the laps dwindled down and Vickers continued to run in fifth.
With 50 laps to go, pole sitter Martin began eating away at the No. 11's lead as the leaders ran single file.
Trying to make up spots, Kyle Busch raced Johnson for seventh, and despite gaining the position on a loose No. 48, Busch was still unhappy with his No. 18 Toyota as they neared 40 laps remaining.
Hamlin entered heavy lap traffic with 26 laps remaining, but his dominant car and daring moves around them kept second-place Martin at bay as he continued to lead.
Lap 380 saw the No. 09 of Keselowski lose an engine, thus bringing out the 10th caution and the leaders down pit road.
It was Busch who came out just ahead of Vickers as they came off pit road, as Hamlin again won the race out. Marcos Ambrose was the lucky dog.
Lap 386 saw Hamlin jump pull away from Martin as the No. 5 spun his tires, allowing Kurt Busch to run nose to tail with the leader.
Racing side by side just behind Martin was the younger Busch and former teammate Gordon. Beating the No. 24 to the line, he took back the 12th spot in the Chase ahead of Vickers, who was battling Hornish Jr. for seventh.
Vickers and Hornish Jr. continued to race hard as Harvick looked to pass the No. 83.
With three laps to go Vickers finally made his way around the No. 77, taking the final Chase spot from the No. 18. Meanwhile, Hamlin began putting a gap between he and Kurt Busch with a lap remaining.
Finishing fifth, Kyle Busch missed the Chase by just eight points.
"We didn't have the best of years to be consistent, but we can still look to go the rest of year to win some races and go on to next year. Let's talk about the top five finish! It was fun to race all these guys and Vickers put up a whale of a fight," Busch said.
"It was team determination. This is one race, one race of many. We picked a good night to figure this place out," an elated Vickers told ESPN. "We never would've imagined being this far along (two and a half years in)."
"I can't say enough. First of all, I'd like to thank the fans. These are the times that I get so excited! I made sure I did everything I did at Pocono. I've only worn this hat two time, I made sure I had my gold heat shields on, I had my Grandma's St. Jude key chain in there," a superstitious Hamlin said. "Just making sure I covered all bases before we raced here."
"It's gonna be a big boost for us," Hamlin said of the win going into the Chase. "They better watch us. I'm telling you, this team is dangerous."
Strong finishes for Bowyer and Hornish, Jr. who finished sixth and eighth respectively. Pole sitter Martin finished fourth, and goes into the Chase with the points lead. After their early race spin, Sorenson and Stewart finished 16th and 17th.
Your points standings going into New Hampshire next weekend:
1. Mark Martin 5040
2. Tony Stewart 5030
3. Jimmie Johnson 5030
4. Denny Hamlin 5020
5. Kasey Kahne 5020
6. Jeff Gordon 5010
7. Kurt Busch 5010
8. Brian Vickers 5010
9. Carl Edwards 5000
10. Ryan Newman 5000
11. Juan Pablo Montoya 5000
12. Greg Biffle 5000
This article also appears on SoCalSportsHub.com.