RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Chris Buescher was already in good position to qualify for NASCAR’s playoffs.
Now, even something remarkable over the last four races of the regular season won’t keep him out.
Buescher pulled away on a restart with three laps to go to win at Richmond Raceway on Sunday and snag one of the final spots in NASCAR’s playoff field.
Buescher led 88 laps and was ahead by nearly 6 seconds when a caution came out with under 10 laps to go. That erased his lead over Virginia native Denny Hamlin, who was booed by his hometown crowd before the race.
But Hamlin got a poor final restart and Buescher easily pulled away for his first Cup Series win of the season, third of his career.
“I knew that last restart was going to be tough, but I knew we had the speed in this thing,” Buescher said.
He and RFK Racing teammate Brad Keselowski led a combined 190 of the 400 laps in their Fords. Keselowski, now a part owner of the team, led 102 laps on the 0.75-mile oval.
Buescher started 26th and had to drive through the field for the win that locked him into the 16-driver playoff field. Buescher became the 13th race winner this year and there are three playoff spots up for grabs over the next month.
It was the 139th Cup win for primary team owner Jack Roush, second since Keselowski joined the ownership group.
Ford now has 723 wins in NASCAR’s top Cup Series.
“Everybody at RFK Racing who has worked so hard to get us to this point,” said Buescher.
Hamlin, winner last week at Pocono, finished second in a Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. Kyle Busch was third in a Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing, followed by the Fords of Joey Logano from Team Penske and Ryan Preece of Stewart-Haas Racing.
“One win is good, but you get three or four or five and then you feel a lot better,” Keselowski said. “It sure beats not having any at all, but we want to keep going. It’s nice to have one car locked in the playoffs. We need to get both cars locked in the playoffs. We have a good points gap, but we want wins and this is where we need to be.”
Keselowski, despite being winless this season, is still mathematically in contention for the playoffs.
The race was slowed just three times by caution flags, with the final yellow sending the leaders to pit road for four tires with eight laps to go. When the green flag was shown again, Buescher used the inside line to pull away for his third career victory.
Hamlin’s bid for the victory ended on the second lap of the final sprint when he drove in too deep in the first turn and slid up the track. He finished 0.549-seconds behind Buescher.
“I got a bad restart,” Hamlin said. “I had to recover too much ground from what I lost on the front stretch. Almost got to the outside, and then in turn four, almost got to the outside again, and then in turn one, I was like ‘I’m just going to ship it in there and try to get to the outside one more time’ and I just carried way too much speed and locked up the left front tires.”
Kyle Larson, angered last week when Hamlin caused him to hit the wall while leading while Hamlin went on to win, was running a few laps down when he nudged Hamlin out of the way with 70 laps to go during Sunday’s race.
Larson, who won at Richmond in April, finished 19th.
“I think he was having a frustrating day,” Hamlin said. “It’s all good.”
With temperatures in the mid-80s, it was about 15 degrees cooler than Saturday, when the temperature approached 100 and the heat index was at least 105.
Nevertheless, points leader Martin Truex Jr. still struggled.
“It was definitely really, really hot,” he said. “It felt longer than 400 laps. I’ll be honest, when we got to the end of stage two —– I thought there was no way. I thought that was the checkered flag. It just felt really, really long.”
Truex finished seventh.
All 36 cars that started the race were still running at the end.
The series moves to Michigan where Kevin Harvick, winless so far in this his final season, is the defending champion.