The regular season has come and gone for the Sprint Cup Series. After 26 races spanning eight months, the 12 best drivers have earned a shot at the Sprint Cup Championship.
This week's edition of "Parks Race Reactions" will look at all the Chevy Rock and Roll 400 from Richmond. Plus, we'll look ahead to both New Hampshire and the beginning of the 2009 Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Let us start with the Richmond race itself. Up front, it was a battle between the hometown boy, Denny Hamlin, and the lead driver at Hendrick, Jeff Gordon. These two battled for a strong portion of the first 200 laps, swapping the lead on seven different occasions.
Shortly after halfway, it was Gordon with the lead as the caution came out for a Regan Smith wreck. At that moment, Hamlin's pit crew stepped up and put their driver out front on lap 207.
Despite having to deal with four more cautions, and three more rounds of pit stops, Hamlin and his crew never gave up the lead. The No. 11 FedEx Toyota got the lead at lap 207, and had the top spot all the way to the checkered flag.
After missing out on a win earlier this year at his home track, it was spectacular to see him in victory lane. Everyone could tell Hamlin was excited to be in victory lane at Richmond.
"This is my house. It has been for the last two years...we just haven't got the win to show for it," said Hamlin to ESPN. "Finally, our FedEx Toyota showed that we're a championship contender."
Just as joyful was Team Red Bull driver Brian Vickers. After battling his way into the top-10 late in the race, Vickers finished a very respectable seventh. With that, he secured his first appearance in The Chase.
This has been a career year for Vickers and the No. 83 Red Bull team. He leads the series in pole positions with six, and got the team their first win with his victory at Michigan. The entire team earned this opportunity and could be a sleeper to make a run at the title.
The two drivers that did not fair so well when the checkered flag fell were Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth.
Busch was up near the front late in the race, but fell back on some occasions. The No. 18 car got close to the lead but finished in fifth, which was not enough to get Busch into The Chase. He fell eight points shy of 12th-place.
"Well, we did all we can do. We gave a valiant effort, and it was a good night for the M&M's Toyota to come in fifth place," said Busch to ESPN reporters outside his car. "That's what you look for in these deals, and unfortunately it wasn't enough for [Saturday night] to get ourselves locked in the Chase."
The guy I feel the worst for is Kenseth. Here is a guy that has made every Chase since it started in 2004. This team won the first two races of the year with a first-year crew chief on the box.
But, after they finished last at Las Vegas, it has been a downward spiral for the Dewalt team. Their 25th-place run at Richmond was the result of a night where Kenseth struggled with an ill-handling race car. The finish summed up 24 weeks of frustration, trying to stay in contention.
It was a somber moment for Jack Roush not seeing his driver make The Chase.
Next week, the quest for the title begins with the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire. After the top-12 was reseated for The Chase, we now find Mark Martin atop the standings. Sitting right behind him is the points leader for much of the season, Tony Stewart, and the defending champion, Jimmie Johnson.
Typically, this race sets the tone for The Chase. In 2004, Kurt Busch won this race and continued to build on the momentum he had after that to get his first title. Any one of the drivers behind these three could make a move.
Keep your eyes on defending race winner Greg Biffle. He is in the same position that Busch was back then, sitting last in the points. He could very well get his first win of the year at this track, and thus make a major move in the standings.
His teammate, Carl Edwards, is in a similar spot as he sits ninth. Despite not having a win this season, and a broken foot, Edwards has remained within striking distance of a win.
Not seeing Edwards in victory lane this year has been odd, but he has been running consistently and he has been in contention. Edwards could surprise a few people if he wins on Sunday.
I will be on hand to see all the action at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. It will certainly be interesting how the first race in this championship run turns out.