NASCAR's Last Race Before The Chase: Air Guard 400 Proved Powerful & Patriotic

Kara MartinSenior Analyst ISeptember 13, 2010

RICHMOND, VA - SEPTEMBER 11:  (Back row from L-R) The 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chase contenders Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Office Toyota, Matt Kenseth, driver of the #17 Crown Royal Ford, Carl Edwards, driver of the #99 Kellogg's/Cheez-It Ford, Greg Biffle, driver of the #16 3M Ford, Kurt Busch, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Dodge, Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet,  Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M's Toyota, Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 DuPont/National Guard Chevrolet, (Front row L-R) Kevin Harvick, driver of the #29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet, Jeff Burton, driver of the #31 Caterpilliar Chevrolet,  Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet,  Clint Bowyer, driver of the #33 Cheerios/Hamburger Helper Chevrolet, pose following the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Air Guard 400 at Richmond International Raceway on September 11, 2010 in Richmond, Virginia.  (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images

"Live each day of your life knowing it is a gift. That while thousands lost theirs nine years ago; you are alive today. So live your life well. Make something beautiful and meaningful out of it. For you and for them."

-E. Baldo

That statement served as a perfect reminder of why we pause every year on that sacred day and pay our respects to the innocent lives lost and the brave souls who fought to save them. 

Life as we knew it changed on that September day in 2001.

We will never forget, but at the same token we forge ahead and live life as we were meant to, filled with beauty and meaning, however we see fit. 

Those who attended the Air Guard 400 at Richmond International Raceway or watched on television did exactly what race fans were meant to do—live the good life, one race at a time. 

Kudos to RIR and NASCAR for putting on an amazing tribute and for honoring the first responders, firefighters, police officers, and members of the military who run into the face of battle and uncertainty every day, to protect those who are in need. 

As a Paramedic and a race face, I thank you. 

I could not have been more proud as I stood on pit road during the pre-race ceremony amongst drivers and their crews who stood silent with hand over heart, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

31 simple words brought us all together that night.

For that moment, we weren't rival Stewart or Gordon or Earnhardt fans. We weren't divided into groups of Democrats or Republicans. We weren't fans or drivers or members of the media. There was no prejudice over the color of our skin.

We were one, resilient and strong.

We stood together on American soil and remembered those we have lost and reflected on the events of 9/11/01.

Close to 100,000 tiny American flags waved proudly in the stands and in the pits. The crowd erupted in cheers as four F-22 Raptors from Langley Air Force Base flew overhead in the "missing man" formation at the conclusion on the National Anthem.

When the call was made for the drivers to start their engines, we were comforted in knowing that despite adversity, it was OK to allow life to go on in the best way we knew how and on this night our troubles were temporarily suspended, thanks in part to the sport of NASCAR.

The "last race before the Chase" played out as many had predicted. Ten Chase spots had been locked in as the checkered flag flew in Atlanta last weekend, leaving the last two up for grabs. 

Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer came to Richmond in the 11th and 12th positions. Biffle was practically a shoe in, needing to finish the race 42nd or better. He finished five laps down in 32nd place. 

Bowyer needed to capture a 28th place or better finish—he charged hard from the moment the green flag dropped and crossed the line with an impressive six place finish. 

The three drivers who stood a chance at cracking the Chase; Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray and Mark Martin ended up 13th, 14th and 15th respectively. 

While a rarity in NASCAR, every so often, things go exactly as anticipated. 

Virginia native, Denny Hamlin not only lead the most laps (251 of 400), he took home the trophy for the second year in a row, by beating teammate Kyle Busch to the line by .537 seconds—making his hometown victory the feel good story of the night.

If that weren't enough, he iced his own cake by taking the No. 1 seed in the Chase point standings, by adding a sixth win to his pre-Chase victory column: a accomplishment worth 60 bonus points when the Chase for the Sprint Cup officially kicks off next weekend in Loudon. 

Jimmie Johnson is a close second with five series wins, followed by Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, who each have three wins this season.

While Hamlin is a favorite to win it all this year, the reality is that it is anyone's for the taking. 

Look for this year's Chase to be one of the most competitive since its introduction in 2004. 

Tony Stewart said it best during his post-race press conference when asked what he will have to do to win this year's NASCAR Sprint Cup championship:

"You hate to sound like an idiot by saying you've just got to be better than the other 11 guys, but that's what it's going to come down to. I think that you have to capitalize on the tracks you're good at, and you're still going to have to -- you're not going to be able to have bad races, I don't think. I don't think there's going to be -- you're not going to be able to get a mulligan. You're not going to be able to have a bad day. You're going to have to be good for ten straight weeks. You don't have that flexibility with this field to have an off-night."

In addition to the drivers already mentioned, the 2010 Chase field of 12 also includes, Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton, and Matt Kenseth.

Regardless of who will be crowned the champ in Homestead on Nov. 21, now is the time to "reach up and pull those belts tight," because the next 10 weeks will prove to be one hell of a wild ride.


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