RICHMOND, Va. -- With the pre-race buildup over teams
needing to be sharp and drivers on top of their games in the race
to set the field for NASCAR's Chase for the Nextel Cup, Hendrick
Motorsports instead stumbled into the 10-race playoffs.
Led by Jeff Gordon, who declared his bid to sneak into the Chase
over just past the midpoint of the race, the Hendrick organization
got a solid run from rookie Kyle Busch, who finished fourth, and
less-than-inspired efforts from its other three teams.
Gordon slammed into the wall leaving the second turn on lap 211,
needed a series of pit stops to make repairs and told his team,
"I'm done now," on the radio after the crash.
He was, finishing 30th in the race and 12th in the points, 83
out of the top 10.
On his radio, Johnson said Vickers was preparing to head onto
pit road, but changed his mind at the last minute and turned
sharply back onto the track. When he did, his car hit the left rear
of Johnson's, spinning him and cutting the tire.
The pit stop that followed dropped Johnson to near the back of
the field, and Vickers took his car to the garage complaining of
transmission trouble to boot.
But problems were evident long before the accident, Johnson
"The car was no good," he said. "Thankfully we had a strong
start to the season where this last month we really didn't have to
race our way in. It wouldn't have worked out for us. We've got
to get things turned around."
Johnson, the runner-up in the championship race in each of the
past two seasons, led the point standings for 16 of the first 20
weeks, but has faded to fourth.
He'll be the only Hendrick driver in the 10-race playoff that
begins next week.
Johnson finished 25th Saturday night, Gordon 30th and Vickers
Busch, who became the youngest winner in Nextel Cup history last
weekend at California, raced in the top five for much of the night
and finished fourth.
We'll be watching
Several contending and noncontending
drivers talked before Saturday night's race at Richmond
International Raceway about getting aggressive and even physical,
if necessary, late in the race to help themselves or a teammate get
into the 10-team Chase for the Nextel Cup.
NASCAR president Mike Helton made sure during the drivers'
meeting that they knew race officials would be especially tuned in
to signs of that behavior in the Chevy Rock & Roll 400.
"We're not going to officiate the race any differently," he
said during the mandatory meeting, but "if anyone chooses to do
anything to alter the outcome of this race or any other race, we
will react very quickly and very severely."
NASCAR likely tipped its hand to the kind of penalty it has in
mind two weeks ago at Bristol when it gave Dale Jarrett a two-lap
penalty for crashing into Ryan Newman. It was retaliation for an
earlier accident between the two that Newman had caused.
Dale Jarrett has mostly himself to blame for
his likely exclusion from the Chase, thanks to
a crash into Ryan Newman two weeks ago at Bristol. His 31st-place
finish, helped by a two-lap penalty dropped him from 11th to 14th
in points, and he remained there entering Saturday's race.
But Jarrett said he warned the brass at Robert Yates Racing in
March that their aerodynamic performance was subpar, and that his
comments fell on deaf ears.
"I was told then that our aero department was second to none," he said. "I'm not good enough as far as aerodynamically to go be
specific with them. I just saw that what they could do wasn't a
chassis issue, it was an aero situation so we're now addressing
that. It's a little late, but, hopefully, it'll be better for these
last 11 races."
Country music star Gretchen Wilson performed
the national anthem Saturday night, and said she was more than a
little nervous about the task.
Besides the difficult range of the song, she said, "It's mostly
always televised and it's just your big face right in the middle of
the television with lots of people watching and it's the only song
you just can't mess up or you'll just be crucified.
"I feel like I could mess up any one of my own tunes at a show
and I'd just laugh it off and move on. But this is one that you've
got to be perfect."
Dignitaries attending the drivers' meeting included
Virginia governor Mark R. Warner and Richmond mayor L. Douglas
Wilder. Warner even made a proclamation making Saturday "Rusty
Wallace Day" in Virginia. The retiring driver started the night
with six career Nextel Cup victories here, tops among active
drivers. The last nine poles at Richmond have been won by nine
different drivers; the last 11 races going into Saturday night's
race had been won by different drivers. The rock group
Nickelback performed a pre-race concert. Chesapeake, Va. native
Ricky Rudd made his record 778th consecutive start, but is only one
of six drivers to have started all 35 races at Richmond since the
track was reconfigured in 1988. The others are Mark Martin,
Sterling Marlin, Ken Schrader, Rusty Wallace and Michael Waltrip.