Busch provides lone highlight for Hendrick stable
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 said.
"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 37th.
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.
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press