NASCAR | Playoff field yields no surprises

The pit crew for Kyle Larson services his car on the last pit stop during the NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Richmond International Raceway in Richmond, Va., Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Steve Helber/AP photo

A late caution flag produced a wild finish in Saturday’s Monster Energy Cup series race at Richmond International Raceway. But the Federated Auto Parts 400 did not produce a shakeup in the playoff field, as all three drivers who were in on points coming into Saturday left with spots in NASCAR’s 10-race postseason. Some takeaways from the last regular-season race:

Larson pounces late

Kyle Larson didn’t seem to have much of a chance of catching leader Martin Truex Jr. until a caution came out on Lap 398 of a scheduled 400. The field made a last stop, and Larson’s No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing crew got him out of the pits first. Larson held off Truex on the green-white-checkered restart and went on to his fourth victory this season. “They were money all night long, we gained spots,” Larson said of his crew in an interview with NBCSN. “This win is a huge congrats to them.”

Kenseth still can’t catch a break — until he does

The look on Matt Kenseth’s face on his postrace Twitter post told its own tale:

That “what do I have to do to catch a break” expression is well-earned. An ambulance unexpectedly stopped on pit road while cars were coming in for service and several drivers had to swerve to miss it.

But Kenseth, who earned the pole and led 89 laps, rear-ended Clint Bowyer on his way into the pits, damaging his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota enough to end his race with a 38th-place finish.

Kenseth truly has had rotten luck this season — he was caught in a few crashes early in the season, none his fault — but the one break he caught at Richmond came at the best time. Had a driver who entered the night outside the playoffs won the race, Kenseth would have been eliminated. But Larson, who was in the playoffs already, held off Joey Logano, who wasn’t. Chase Elliott and Jamie McMurray also got into the playoffs on points along with Kenseth. NASCAR vice president of competition Scott Miller said the ambulance driver “didn’t stop when he was told to.”

Outsiders stay out

Logano came so close to earning his way into the playoffs at the site where his ticket to the postseason was taken away after his car failed post-victory inspection in April. But on Saturday he didn’t have enough laps left to catch Larson.

“Homestead (the season finale) maybe came a little early for us,” Logano said. “This may be the end of our championship run but not the end of our season.”

Rookie Erik Jones, perhaps the biggest threat to break into the playoff field, finished seventh after being third on the final restart. “I missed third gear and messed up. I don’t know if I have ever missed a shift before,” he said.

Truex bid ends late

Truex led 198 laps and — stop us if you have heard this before — won a stage. He looked set for victory until the last restart, then hit the wall after contact with Denny Hamlin, bringing out the race-ending caution flag. Truex finished 20th but that didn’t affect his status as the regular-season champion. Hamlin, speaking of his night in general and the wreck in particular, said, “Today I was a clown,” in a postrace interview.

Did you know?

Two drivers are making their first playoff appearance — Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Ryan Blaney. On the other end of the experience spectrum, seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson has appeared in every postseason (this is his 14th) since NASCAR introduced the format in 2004. Kenseth is in his 13th; he only missed in 2009.

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