The Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway marked the final race before the playoffs. While 13 drivers had already punched their tickets into the playoffs, every other eligible driver was keen on taking one of the final three spots for themselves. In the end, Kyle Larson held off Martin Truex Jr. in overtime to take the win.
Entering the race, 13 drivers had won races during the regular season and were already locked into the playoffs: Truex, Larson, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Blaney, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, and Austin Dillon.
This left three remaining spots, with all drivers within the top 30 eligible provided they either make their way in on points or with a win. Chase Elliott, Matt Kenseth, and Jamie McMurray were also in points range and would have made it in on that if there was a repeat winner. Every other driver from Clint Bowyer (11th in regular season points but 17th in the playoff standings) to David Ragan (29th) required a win to be guaranteed a spot in the playoffs, while Aric Almirola, Matt DiBenedetto, Landon Cassill, and Cole Whitt also needed help to enter the top 30.
Kenseth won the pole for the race and started on the front row alongside Hamlin. During pace laps, the field performed a four-wide salute to the fans before reordering into double file for the start.
The Wisconsinite led the early laps before the #34 of Landon Cassill hit the wall on lap 34 to bring out the first caution of the night. Kenseth and Kurt Busch led the field to the restart on lap 41. Truex and Kyle Busch committed to the inside line and caught up to Kenseth, who began pulling away; by lap 64, Kenseth had a lead of more than a second on Truex.
On lap 86, smoke appeared to come out of Kenseth’s rear tires, which prompted NASCAR to throw the caution. Keselowski, Stenhouse, and Paul Menard stayed out, making them the top three for the restart on lap 93, though the Kyles of Busch and Larson quickly jumped to the lead. The two battled for 1st, but the 2015 champion was triumphant as he took the stage win. Behind them were Bowyer, Truex, Kenseth, Logano, Erik Jones, Harvick, Elliott, and Kurt Busch.
Newman did not pit between stages and was the leader for the start of Stage #2 on lap 110, though Kyle Busch and Larson moved to the top in little time. Larson passed Busch for the lead two laps later, though Busch retook it on lap 130. Kenseth and Truex passed Larson for 2nd over the next five laps.
Truex took the lead on lap 155, with Kenseth taking 2nd from Busch seven laps later. The regular season champion would go on to win the stage, with Kenseth, Jones, Logano, Keselowski, Larson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch, Newman, and Kyle Busch in tow.
The final stage of the regular season began on lap 209 with Truex and Kenseth as the front row. Larson quickly jumped to 2nd as Kenseth began to fall due to steering problems. On lap 255, Danica Patrick spun to force a caution. As the cars came to pit road, Bowyer and Kenseth attempted to avoid an ambulance, but Kenseth instead slammed into Bowyer’s rear. After stops were completed, Bowyer pitted again for further repairs, while Kenseth remained on pit road and was forced to retire from the race.
Larson and Keselowski, who won the race off pit road, led the field to the lap 262 restart. Truex caught up to Larson on lap 286, making the pass for the lead on the inside.
Harvick pitted on lap 213, with green flag stops beginning seven laps later. Truex continued to lead until he pitted on lap 334, giving Earnhardt Jr. the lead. As the laps ticked down, Earnhardt stayed on the track, with Keselowski – on fresher tires – passing him on lap 348; he would finally pit on lap 356.
On lap 354, Truex once again became the leader. When Bowyer pitted ten laps later, he saw his playoff hopes evaporate when he was penalized for an uncontrolled tire.
While Truex held a safe lead over Larson with ten laps to go, the margin between the two dissipated on lap 396 when Derrike Cope brought out the yellow flag, producing an overtime situation. The two pitted and Larson led the grid to the overtime restart. A strong restart by Larson allowed him to pull away; on the final lap, Truex was clipped by Hamlin and hit the turn one wall. The caution came out as Larson passed the overtime line, allowing him to clinch his fourth win of the season.
Logano finished 2nd, followed by Kurt Busch, Newman, Daniel Suárez, Hamlin, Jones, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, and Elliott. After his wreck, Truex finished 20th.
With the playoff grid now set, Truex remains the points leader despite the reset with 2,053 points. Behind him are Larson (2,033), Kyle Busch (2,028), Keselowski (2,019), Johnson (2,017), Harvick (2,015), Hamlin (2,013), Stenhouse (2,010), Blaney (2,008), Elliott (2,006), Newman, Busch, Kahne, Kenseth (2,005), and McMurray (2,003).
Next week, the playoffs commence at Chicagoland Speedway. Truex is the defending winner.
Featured image by Brian Lawdermilk, Getty Images