RICHMOND — Clint Bowyer didn’t arrive to Victory Lane until the early hours of Sunday morning. He almost didn’t make it.
Bowyer’s car nearly ran out of gas shortly after he took the checkered flag at the Federated Auto Parts 400, but after an exhausting night that included two rain delays at the Richmond International Raceway, both Bowyer and his car had just enough in the tank to win the final race of the Sprint Cup Series.
“I learned a lot,” Bowyer said. “When you start backing up and saving gas, you go faster.”
Jeff Gordon overcame a shaky start to take second and secure the 12th and final wild-card spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, which begins next week at Chicagoland. Eight drivers entered the race still in the hunt for the last two wild-card berths into the 12-driver chase field. Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch held those two spots entering Saturday’s race — leaving two of the sport’s pillars, Gordon and Carl Edwards — in desperate need of high finishes to sneak into the chase.
Kahne held onto his 11th spot with a 12th-place finish. Mark Martin finished third and Tony Stewart finished fourth, with Stewart solidifying the 10th spot in the Chase field.
Thunderstorms delayed the start of the race for about 90 minutes, and heavy rains persisted throughout the evening. The race was delayed for about another hour 146 laps in — and there were serious questions if the race was even going to make it to the halfway point.
Edwards fizzled, finishing 17th, and Gordon looked like he was going to follow suit after falling from second to 16th early on. By the 56th lap, Gordon reported to his pit a 300-degree oil temperature, and the rear bar on the car had to be removed due to mechanical problems.
“We just flat out missed the setup at the beginning,” Gordon said. “I felt like I won the race tonight.”
Gordon made his charge subtly, and even though he was in 10th place with 100 laps to go, he was still in position to win. He benefited from the drop-off of Virginia native Denny Hamlin, who entered the race with two straight Sprint Cup wins and led for 202 laps on Saturday. Hamlin lost his dominant lead after pitting late before a green flag, and Busch faded down the stretch, a meltdown that included a mishandling of a lug-nut on the right rear tire during a pit stop. He finished 16th.
Bowyer’s rear left tire blew on Lap 235. His pit crew regrouped, and Bowyer crept up on second –place runner Tony Stewart on Lap 301 after moving up on the green flag that doomed Hamlin’s lead. Bowyer took the lead from Ryan Newman coming off the second turn 11 laps later, and his crew made the conscious decision to not pit over the final stretch. His car slowed considerably as he tried to conserve gas in the final 10 laps. But he kept the lead for that run, and the car didn’t finally come to a stop until he was celebrating with his team near the edge of the infield.
“Unbelievable,” said Bowyer. “To be able to win again, everything’s new.”