The Hot Pass: Friends help Vickers seal Chase spot

Denny Hamlin won the Chevy Rock & Roll 400, but it was Brian Vickers that was the big winner Saturday night as he claimed the 12th and final spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Vickers finished seventh in the race — two positions behind rival Kyle Busch, but eight points ahead of the No. 18 team in the standings.

Although the final outcome wasn’t decided until the final laps at Richmond International Raceway, Vickers had a strategy. In the last 100 laps of the 400 circuit race, Vickers radioed to his team, “We have a couple of friends out there if we need them.”

Those “friends” included Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and “any of the 42” other drivers in the field that Vickers’ spotter could get a hold of. But it was his former Hendrick teammates that came in handy as picks between himself and Busch in the closing laps.

“Obviously the one team that we had (teammate Scott Speed) had some damage, so there’s no guarantees from anybody,” Vickers said. “You know, obviously you all have friends on the racetrack, but you know, Gordon worked me hard. He didn’t give me anything to be honest with you, but he did — once I got to him, he kind of cut me some slack.

“Anybody that could help us out. It wasn’t really anyone in particular.”

After the Red Bull pit crew picked up five positions for Vickers in the two pit stops prior to the restart on Lap 325, Vickers rolled off sixth — one position ahead of Busch with 75 laps remaining in the race.

“Great job guys,” Vickers said after leaving pit road. “That’s exactly what we need.”

Three laps later, the lineup shuffled once again when Clint Bowyer attempted to pass leader Hamlin underneath in Turn 3. Busch was able to move into fifth place and Vickers dropped back to seventh. On Lap 339, Vickers passed Busch for fifth while the Nos. 24 and 48 turned up the heat on the No. 18 Toyota.

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Who’s battling for the Sprint Cup championship? Larry McReynolds offers a look at the 2009 Chase for the Sprint Cup class.

With 50 laps remaining, Vickers held on to fifth place with Gordon and Johnson between him and Busch. Even with space, Vickers wasn’t satisfied. He overtook Clint Bowyer for fourth place on Lap 364 and remained in that position when the 10th caution erupted on Lap 380 after Brad Keselowki’s engine expired on the frontstretch.

Vickers lost four positions and exited pit road eighth, while the No. 18 crew moved from seventh to fifth for the restart on Lap 387.

“Keep that 18 close and you’ll be in good shape,” Ryan Pemberton said over the radio.

“Any friends you can make aware of our situation, I’d appreciate it,” Vickers relayed to his spotter Chris Lambert.

The points continued to fluctuate in the closing laps with Busch maintaining an eight-point advantage before Vickers eliminated the cars between them.

Pemberton summoned Lambert, “The 77, Chris.”

“I told him, but he’s not helping,” Lambert replied.

Once Vickers passed Sam Hornish Jr., and moved into seventh place, it was game over for Busch despite his fifth-place finish, he fell just eight points short of the Chase.

“Did we make it? Did we make it?” Vickers asked over the radio. “Hell yeah. Great freaking job … Best car I ever had at Richmond.”

And his best finish in 11 starts at the .75-mile track.

“It was team determination,” Vickers said. “This is just one race of many. The guys did a good job and the last stop wasn’t our best. We had a couple of real good pitstops prior to that — really proud of the effort by the guys. We picked a good night to figure this place out.”

Busch accepted his fate gracefully. He didn’t feel that his former Hendrick teammates “were ganging up on (him)”. However, Busch admitted to having a friend of his own — his brother Kurt, who finished second.

“(Johnson) was racing hard all night — everybody,” Busch said. “My brother would get by him and he would go to the inside of my brother and push up top and race him for another five laps until Kurt could finally get by.

“I felt like it, but from what I saw he was just racing hard all night.”

Busch believes the best revenge will be wins.

“We can always look to the rest of the year and go out with a bang,” Busch said. “We need to work on our consistency. It just wasn’t our year. Vickers put up a whale of a fight there at the end.”

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Defining moment

Although Roush Fenway Racing debuted a new short track car at Richmond, the results certainly wasn’t what the company had hoped for — particularly with Matt Kenseth missing the Chase for the first time since the format debuted in 2004. Kenseth started 28th and by Lap 266 was lapped by Hamlin before inevitably finishing 25th.

Kenseth was considerably more gracious than most drivers put in his position. However, his sentiments throughout the race spoke to the discrepancies that have plagued him all season.

“It amazes me that every week we don’t have any adjustments that help the front tires and make them happy,” Kenseth said. “Just think that someone could come up with a front end that turns.

Given that it’s 26 races into the season and the line of communication hasn’t improved between Kenseth and crew chief Drew Blickensderfer, don’t be surprised to see a change on the pit box next season.

Busch still a hot commodity

Joe Gibbs Racing president J.D. Gibbs said “there’s no timetable” on re-signing Kyle Busch, but as far as he’s concerned, “the sooner the better.”

Although Busch did not make the Chase, the 24-year-old is one of the most gifted racers of his generation. Busch’s contract expires after next year. Gibbs added the organization will not race four full-time cars in 2010.

When it came to potential sponsorships, Gibbs said there was nothing JGR “felt was appropriate” to properly run a four-car operation. With the way driver contracts fall, 2011 will have a better pool of candidates, namely Kasey Kahne and Kevin Harvick. Gibbs admits that Kahne “is awesome” but indicated a package deal with Budweiser, given the family’s religious convictions, “would be hard.”

Say what?

Chip Ganassi was in a jovial mood when explaining Juan Pablo Montoya’s turnaround this season:

“I’m glad that (expletive) finally learned how to drive. I’ve been paying him for three (freaking) years.”

When asked if he was surprised that three of his former drivers, Casey Mears, Jamie McMurray and Reed Sorenson, are auditioning for jobs, Ganassi was still on a roll:

“I don’t know, For years people have been saying how s***** my team is.”

Overheard in the garage

  • Bobby Labonte’s popularity has picked up considerably in the last few weeks. Apparently, his name is being presented as a possible candidate for the No. 07 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet to Jack Daniels this week. We’re also hearing that he could be competition for Jamie McMurray in the No. 1 Chevrolet at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing …
  • Speaking of McMurray, could he be in a Yates car next year after all? What former original Yates employees are saying is they would prefer McMurray over Elliott Sadler …
  • Richard Petty said Saturday that “the deal being with Dodge was not for us” in regards to the latest decision to align with Ford where the company will have increased factory support and share in the revenue earmarked for Yates. Petty was adamant that “it’s not a done deal yet” and added that the partner with most financial resources would likely have the most control …
  • A source familiar with Dodge said the company hasn’t abandoned courting another operation to replace RPM.