Joe Gibbs Racing brought guns to a knife fight on Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway.
But JGR’s Matt Kenseth did his teammates one better — he brought a howitzer.
Leading 352 of 400 laps in a race he owned from the outset, Kenseth pulled away from Kyle Busch after a restart with 18 laps left and won the Federated Auto Parts 400 by .951 seconds over his teammate.
Kenseth’s fourth victory of the season, tying him for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series lead with Jimmie Johnson and JGR teammate Kyle Busch, meant the 16 drivers who started the race in playoff-eligible positions stayed there.
Jamie McMurray (13th-place finisher), Jeff Gordon (seventh), Ryan Newman (20th), Clint Bowyer (10th) and Paul Menard (26th) all earned berths in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup based on position in the standings — without a victory between them.
Joey Logano ran third on Saturday night, followed by Aric Almirola, whose gallant bid to crack the Chase grid fell 17 points short of the final position claimed by Menard. Dale Earnhardt Jr. came home fifth.
The victory was Kenseth’s second at Richmond and the 35th of his career. Joe Gibbs Racing has won seven of the last nine NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races, with Logano the only other driver to score a win during that stretch.
“Man, these guys gave me a great car,” Kenseth said. “Thanks to (crew chief) Jason (Ratcliff) and all these guys standing behind me. They had the pit stops we needed, held serve every time and kept us out in front.
“We were really superb in the long run. I had to work for it pretty hard in the short run. I was disappointed to see that last caution (called for debris on the backstretch on Lap 375). I knew it was going to be tough, but we were able to get the jump to get out front.”
Emblematic of JGR’s dominance at Richmond was a restart on Lap 126. Hamlin surged from fourth to first on the restart lap, pulling his three teammates with him. The four Gibbs cars quickly separated from fifth-place Kyle Larson, establishing a gap of two seconds back to the No. 42.
It was akin to watching Prototypes streak away from GT Class cars at the Rolex 24 Hours sports car race at Daytona.
Kenseth overtook Hamlin for the top spot on Lap 139, but for 60 straight laps the JGR teammates ran 1-2-3-4, until McMurray (who had qualified for the Chase simply by taking the green flag to start the race) passed Carl Edwards for the fourth position on Lap 186.
The only suspense during that stretch came when Kenseth and Edwards rubbed fenders while fighting for position early in the run.
That brief fracas gave team owner Joe Gibbs an anxious moment.
“That’s the most nervous that I get in a race,” Gibbs said. “Tonight I saw them up there. I saw some beating and banging there. I saw a hand come out the window, and I wasn't sure what it was showing for a minute or two. I got a little nervous there.
“I think that's when I'm always the most nervous, when you got your cars up front and having a good night. Our guys, though, I think they all handled it the right way, it seems like. I know Matt came over the mic there and said his situation there with Carl, he kind of straightened that out, so I thought that was good.”
Logano was the only non-JGR driver who could stay within hailing distance of Kenseth, but the ultimate third-place finisher stayed out on old tires for that restart on Lap 126 and did a creditable job holding the 10th spot before the fourth caution on Lap 209 gave him a chance to pit for fresh rubber.
Almirola posted his best finish of the year, but it wasn’t enough.
“I’m really proud of all my guys,” Almirola said. “We worked our guts out all year long, and tonight was no different. I feel we’ve overachieved this year and really maximized our results week in and week out.
“I’m disappointed to come up a few spots short, but we gave it all we had, and that is all we can do. We’ll go race these last 10 races and try to get a victory.”
Notes: Roush Fenway Racing failed to place a car in the Chase for the first time in the organization’s history… McMurray and Menard earned Chase positions for the first time in their careers… Newman made the Chase without a victory for the second straight year… In his final season as a full-time Sprint Cup driver, Gordon qualified for his 11th Chase in 12 tries…The most bizarre moment of the race went to Michael McDowell, who grazed a safety truck in Turn 3 as the cars circulated under caution and ripped the right rear quarter panel off his car.