When the Sprint Cup schedule comes out, teams always circle the races they know will be huge on the schedule. The Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600, Darlington, and Bristol are some of those races that stand out the most.
But, since 2004, the second race at Richmond has become one of the biggest races of the year.
How can it not be? It's the finally opportunity for teams hoping to make the Chase to get in, as well as those who are on the bubble to secure their spot. Some teams that are locked in can go for it all in a quest for victory, while others decide to play it safe and protect their position.
We all know the top 12 gets reset once this race concludes, so why exactly is it a race that all teams mark as a big race on the schedule?
It's simple...it's Richmond.
The motto of this track is "Racing Perfection" and it rightfully deserves that. Look at what Richmond has to offer: Speeds are fast, as if you were racing in Atlanta or Texas; Then you have sweeping corners like Michigan; Finally, when you add in that the track is less than a mile, it brings out the attitude and aggression as if it were Bristol.
This 3/4-mile, D-shaped track has provided some of the most intense—and most heated—battles in history.
Who can forget Jeff Gordon and Rusty Wallace in 1998, or Kevin Harvick and Ricky Rudd in 2003? It's those kinds of battles that fill the stands every year at Richmond.
This year, the battle to get into the Chase is not as exciting as the gap between positions 12 and 14 is large. It would take a lot of effort to change those who are expected to be in the Chase and those on the outside looking in.
But, heading into Richmond, everyone had their eyes set on the Chase, while others focused on victory. That said, here are my race and Chase reactions from Saturday night's Air Guard 400.
Nine years ago, our outlook on the world changed drastically. All Americans remember exactly where they were on that day, when those planes struck the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and crashed in Pennsylvania.
It is a time where everything stood still, especially sports. Not one event happened over the course of the week following 9/11.
NASCAR returned to the track the following week at Dover with every car honoring the United States of America in some way. Some had flags on the hood or deck lid, others had messages such as "God Bless America" somewhere on the car. Ken Schrader's team went as far as wrapping the entire car in the American Flag, with no sponsor logos.
Nine years later, we still remember that moment. We still think about the people who lost their lives that day, and wonder what has changed in the last nine years.
As fans came into the race track, they all were given American flags. Some carried them in their hands, others put them in their hats, some even got unique and tied them to coolers.
But, when it came time to begin the pre-race ceremonies, every fan took that flag and held it high. It was a symbol of unity, appreciation, and honor.
Every fan recited the Pledge of Allegiance, and each one placed a hand on his heart during the singing of the National Anthem.
September 11, 2001, is a day to remember where we were once the terror began. Last night, every media member, driver, crewman, track worker, and fan knows where they stood to honor those who passed on that fateful day.
This year, we have seen the "Have at it, boys" mentality prove to be both good and bad for the sport. Good if you're the one giving the payback, and bad if you're the one receiving it.
That could be huge when it comes to the Chase, especially if it involves one driver in the hunt and one outside it.
Consider the fact that both Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski have experienced run-ins this season. If something like that happened during the Chase, Edwards would be at the bottom of the pile.
Plus, you have rivalries within the Chase that have been extremely tight throughout the season. Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have had more than their share of run-ins with each other. Their incident at Texas and the comments that followed at Talladega have been some of the most talked-about all year.
We know Gordon is hungry for a title, and he is determined to get there. The question is, can he get the job done?
Plus, you look at some drivers like Kyle Busch, who is always a loose cannon. He can have a rivalry develop in each corner, and then his aggressive driving style could mean trouble for the driver making him angry.
Just look at the race at Bristol when he spun Keselowski out of the corner. In that case, it was "do unto others" because Keselowski bumped him out of the way the lap prior.
It's all just speculation, even among some drivers.
"It has been so wild this year and each race is so different," said Edwards on Friday afternoon. "I think this is going to be the best Chase we have ever had."
That statement could become a reality.
I said at the beginning of the year that Mark Martin was a legitimate contender to go after the 2010 title. Now, 26 races later, I'm eating my words.
The season for Martin has been one of lackluster performances, to say the least. Heading into Richmond last year, Martin was solidly in the Chase and would start tied for first with teammate Jimmie Johnson.
One week later, he gained his fifth win of the season at New Hampshire. Although he fell short of the title as the Chase progressed, he was not complaining one bit about how his team ran.
This year: different story.
Following Richmond, Martin has no wins, only five top-five finishes, and seven top-10's. At Richmond, before the halfway point, he was mathematically eliminated from the Chase. What an unfortunate turnaround from 2009.
But, all is not lost.
He could go into New Hampshire and win the race again, just for bragging rights.
Martin has one more year on his contract with Hendrick and the No. 5 car. He could end his full-time racing career on the highest of notes by winning the championship. But, in order to do so, he can't have a season like he has had so far in 2010.
Such a heartbreak for one of the most respected drivers in the sport.
Compared to last year, this season's battle just to get into the Chase was rather lackluster.
Last season, it came down Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers for the final spot, and every lap became critical to get into the championship hunt. At the end of 400 laps, there was only an eight-point gap between the two drivers, but it was enough for Vickers to make it in and Busch to be left out.
This season, the hunt for the final spot was practically locked up midway through the race. In fact, it took a car parking during the first 100 laps to assure the final transfer spot.
When Jason Leffler pulled into the garage after 30 laps, it locked Greg Biffle into the Chase. The lowest spot he could finish during the regular season points would be 12th.
With Clint Bowyer running up front for a majority of the race, everyone knew who the final driver would be in this year's title hunt.
That may have taken away part of the excitement that surrounds the Chase. In years past, it has been all about "who'll make it in, who won't make the cut" and this year we didn't have that. That's not to say it won't be an exciting 10 races, but it did take away from much of the excitement leading up to it.
Ric Flair always said, "To be the man, you have to beat the man."
Earlier in the year, the No. 48 team picked up exactly where they left off in 2009.
Through the first five races, Jimmie Johnson took home three victories and it seemed as if it would be another year of seeing the No. 48 out front. But soon it became a mystery as to why this team began falling off.
They struggled with setups, made poor judgments, and got caught up in wrecks that they did not cause. The races at Darlington and Bristol summed up their summer months and caused them to fall way back in the standings.
But heading into the Chase, Johnson and crew seemed to get their swagger back, finishing in the top-five at both Atlanta and Richmond. That proved to be huge, because now Johnson goes into the Chase right behind Hamlin. However, Johnson isn't resting on the fact he's that high in the standings.
In fact, he said that there are many drivers that could win the title this year besides him.
"Looking at the last month, the 99 [car], the 18 [car], the 11 [car], hopefully us, 29 [car]; I think you've got five or six cars that can really race for the championship," Johnson said in the media center.
"I think this year, it's really tough, because you have some sneaky guys and the 29 [car] that's been consistent and the 24 [car] that's been consistent.
"I don't know how to handicap it or who to fear the most because everyone has it in them."
There's also the idea that Johnson and his team seem a bit vulnerable this year. That could be the case if you look at the summer months. Yet, heading into the Chase it could be different. Johnson himself feels more comfortable going into this year's Chase compared to last year.
"I remember being a part of the celebration here and taking photos for the Chase and I was in a terrible mood...I just know from experience, the Chase is it's own environment," Johnson said.
"There's just a pit that develops in your stomach and doesn't go away. It's the championship pit and it's there."
If there is a pit developing in the stomachs of the Lowe's Chevrolet camp, they must enjoy that feeling. After all, they have four titles to prove it.
It was nearly a perfect night for the Joe Gibbs team. The race ended with Denny Hamlin taking his sixth victory of the season and the lead entering the 2010 Chase for the Cup.
Behind him, Kyle Busch brought his car home in the second spot and will start fourth in the Chase.
To top that off, it was Joey Logano coming home in fourth. It was the best night the entire Gibbs organization has had all year.
In the media center, both Hamlin and Busch gave a lot of praise to the Gibbs team for the cars they bring to this track.
"I think it's really, really cool the way we have been able to run well here and the way it is with Joe Gibbs Racing," Busch said. "I give a lot of credit to the team and to the guys. They build great stuff."
Hamlin echoed the team statement, but also gave credit to Busch.
"When Kyle came in in 2008, I think I was definitely the guy that was better on short tracks. He was better at the mile-and-a-halves," Hamlin said. "We have just shared so much information and learned so much off each other that it's made us better all around."
Now, heading into the Chase, Hamlin leads the points, while Busch enters in fourth.
Throughout the season, the Gibbs team has made huge strides toward a championship run. Busch made the Chase in 2008 with his eight wins, but had two DNF's to start the last 10 races and his title hopes evaporated.
Last year, Hamlin finished runner-up to Johnson and declared in victory lane at Homestead that his team would win a championship in the next few years.
Joe Gibbs Racing has not won a championship in 10 years. Maybe he can start the new decade the same way he started the millennium, hoisting a huge trophy.
In 2007, Jeff Gordon entered the Chase with all the momentum in the world. Through the first part of the Chase that year, Gordon was lighting up the track; he could seemingly do no wrong.
Unfortunately, the second half of the Chase belonged to Johnson, who won four races in a row to practically assure his second of four championships.
In 2010, Gordon showed at the beginning of the year that he and his team were capable of winning races, but as the year progressed, this team simply could not finish the job. Great runs early in races led to some problems in the later stages and even led to questions internally among the team.
Can Gordon win the title after starting the Chase with zero victories?
He certainly believes he has a chance, but also believes it's not just about being consistent on a weekly basis.
" I think that consistency is always very important. You know, because if you run consistently up towards the front, then you give yourself a better chance at winning races," Gordon said.
"...for us, we have got to go now and have ten spectacular weeks. We can't just go be consistent. That's not going to win the championship for us unless we are consistently second."
At the same time, Gordon is aware of the struggles the No. 24 team has gone through this year. But, the struggles were not the biggest disappointment in his mind.
"The only thing I'm disappointed in this year so far is just that we have had three or four opportunities to win and we didn't get it done. Had we done that, I think that we would be as much of a favorite as anybody else or I think that we would be talking a totally different tune right now," Gordon said.
When asked if there was one particular aspect the team could improve upon, Gordon noted that the communication between him and crew chief Steve Letarte has been good. He also noted that the pit crew has done an amazing job.
He did, however, mention one aspect heading into the race that needed improvement.
"I think right now, we need to qualify better. We have not qualified good since Pocono and not really sure what's going on with that, because we qualified good earlier in the season and we are known for being good qualifiers."
Gordon can win the championship, yet there is a lot of work to be done in the No. 24 camp. According to him, the team is well aware of the situation.
"Trust me, nobody knows better the things we have done good or bad than me or Steve and the rest of the guys on our team."
You want to talk about a complete team turnaround, Richard Childress Racing has done just that.
Last year, the entire RCR stable was shut out of the Chase. But during the last 10 races, they were among the most consistent cars on the track.
That consistency carried over to this year, when all three teams of Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton, and Clint Bowyer will go for a championship.
After the race, the three RCR drivers reflected on the Chase, and each other.
"It's great for the company to have all three cars in there. That says a lot about everybody who works there," Harvick said.
Burton further echoed that statement, saying, " It's one of the cool things about RCR is I think in the garage, we are the most consistent running team as far as all the teams running pretty close together."
This season marks just the third time that all three RCR teams have made the Chase, and realistically, all three have strong chances at winning the title.
Harvick has led the points for a majority of the season, while Burton enters the Chase having finished every race on the schedule. Only one other driver in the Chase—Matt Kenseth—can say he's done the same.
But putting three cars in the Chase is just the icing on a spectacular year for the Childress group. Now, with New Hampshire on the horizon, the game changes.
Bowyer has won at this track before and enters in the 12th position. But being at the bottom doesn't mean he wants to stay there, and he feels that this year it could be a bit easier to overtake Johnson for the title.
"Superman has not lost his cape, but it's shorter than it was in years past," Bowyer said while chuckling.
I would watch out for all three teams the next 10 races. Consistency matters, and no one runs more consistent than the RCR bunch.
Before the green flag ever waved, everyone thought this race would be an intense battle, like any other short track on the circuit.
What happened was totally unlike what we expected.
The race itself had a record-tying low of three cautions, one of which was for a light shower that passed over the track. In all honesty, this race was a very boring one, and you never hear that coming out of Richmond.
Even some fans leaving the track were irked at what they had seen, saying, "That's the most pathetic race I've ever seen here."
In a way, many folks would echo that statement because this race was billed as one where no one had a thing to lose. Drivers in the Chase could go all out for a win without losing their spot, while others on the outside could go for it all to just get a victory.
That didn't happen.
The guys everyone expected to be up front were there; Johnson, Bowyer, and Hamlin led for 75 percent of the race. In fact, during the short rain delay, some fans actually decided to head for the parking lot instead of just taking cover under the grandstands.
It had to be one of the oddest sights I have ever seen at a NASCAR race.
All the fans can hope for now is that the next 10 races make up for the very lackluster conclusion to the regular season. With the close competition among the drivers this year, the excitement should make the Chase worth watching each week.
The bottom line following the Air Guard 400 is that the 2010 Chase is officially set.
It breaks down with three drivers each from Childress and Roush-Fenway, two from Hendrick and Gibbs, and then one representative a piece from Penske and Stewart-Haas.
This year's Chase is so wide open that truthfully no one can predict a winner. When asked to pick a favorite, not one driver could come up with a name.
That says a lot of things about the competition this year.
For one, it means that there's no dominant team heading into the Chase. Every driver has performed exceptionally well and didn't need the biggest of margins to get into the title hunt.
It also shows the respect the 12 drivers have for each other; if one driver were the overwhelming favorite, the others would focus on beating that guy. Instead, since no consensus emerged around the one to beat, everyone needs to beat everyone.
There are no favorites in this year's Chase.
Hamlin has the most wins, but the RCR bunch has been the most consistent. The Roush teams have gotten in a groove over the summer, while Kurt Busch found his rhythm following the Charlotte sweep.
If you were to try and pick the correct order in how these 12 drivers will end the year, you'd have about as much luck as picking the right numbers in Power Ball.
I really am looking forward to the next 10 weeks, both as a fan and as a writer. This could quite possibly be the most exciting Chase since the first one in 2004.
Everyone better strap in tight. This ride is just getting started.