Clint Bowyer raced to victory early Sunday morning in the rain-delayed Federated Auto Parts 400 at the Richmond International Raceway. Rain forced the race to start two hours late, stopped the event for 52 minutes and slowed it another time. With the delays, the fans persevered and were around when the checkered flag dropped at 1:20 a.m. on Sunday.

The 26th race of the year concluded the regular season for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and set the stage for Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. The Chase starts next week at the Chicagoland Speedway.

This is unbelievable.

Clint Bowyer

Bowyer won for the second time in 2012 and the seventh time in his career.

Leading 88 laps, Bowyer drove the 5-hour Energy Toyota to victory and had to work hard to save fuel as the race wound down. After taking the checkered flag, he had to be pushed to victory lane.

While running third on the 231st lap, Bowyer’s race was nearly derailed when he spun after making contact with Juan Pablo Montoya. Bowyer got his car going quickly and didn’t lose a lap, although dropping down in the standings.

“This is unbelievable,” the winner said. “To win tonight the way we won it -- we got the left rear knocked down, which ultimately helped us win the race. I learned a lot and backed off to save gas and the brakes. For 30 or 40 laps, I picked up the pace and it is the same old thing when you back up to save gas, you go faster and they (the crew) are screaming at you.

“Everything (with this team) is new and to be able to bounce back from a bad week like we had, to get a win gets our confidence and momentum back headed into the Chase. And this is exactly what we needed to do. I am very proud of everybody on this team. To come to a new team and have the success we have had in my first year out is a dream come true.”

Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

Added crew chief Brian Pattie, “Goal No. 1 for us was to get into the Chase. For the last two months, we were trying to cruise into the Chase and I was probably calling races too conservatively. Now that we are in, there’s no pressure. We knew our car was fast all weekend, and we just had to play the cards we were dealt.”

Team co-owner Michael Waltrip was choked up and had difficulty controlling his emotions. “Our team has such a great working relationship,” he said. “I am thankful for tonight and am thankful for getting two cars into the Chase. I always wanted to have a team like Dale Earnhardt had, so anytime something goes good, I think about that.”

Jeff Gordon rebounded after a miserable start, to include losing a lap, to earn second place and to gain the final spot in Chase field, besting Kyle Busch by three points.

The former Sprint Cup champion drove the Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet.

“I went from being the most disappointed I’ve ever been to finish second a week ago to the most excited I’ve ever been to finish second,” Gordon said. “Wow, what a race for us. We just flat-out missed the set-up at the beginning, but my crew chief and engineers found the tools that we could utilize to make the car better. The biggest thing was the rear bar. We cut rid of it by cutting the chain.

“With all the things that have gone wrong for us this year; everything went right for us tonight. We had some guys stay out there on (old) tires that really cost them good finishing positions. We came in and got tires, and were belt to drive up through there. It was amazing and I still can’t believe we actually did it.”

Veteran Mark Martin took third place in the Aaron’s Dream Machine Toyota.

“It was a heckuva race,” Martin said. “The No. 24 had better tires at the end, and was coming on pretty strong. It was a really good run; our car was strong on the long runs. I love working with these guys. Rodney Childers is a very under-rated crew chief.”

Tony Stewart finished fourth ahead of Matt Kenseth.

Sixth through 10th were Jeff Burton, Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle and Kevin Harvick.

Sam Hornish Jr. ended up 11th with Kasey Kahne 12th and Jimmie Johnson 13th.

Early leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 14th, two spots ahead of Kyle Busch, who lost momentum toward the end with a slow pit stop.

Greg Biffle and Mark Martin
Greg Biffle and Mark Martin

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

Denny Hamlin, who led 202 laps, ended up 18th after getting out of sync on pit stops.

Going into the Chase, Hamlin is seeded first followed by Johnson, Stewart, Keselowski, Biffle, Bowyer, Earnhardt, Kenseth, Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and wild card winners Kahne and Gordon.

Hendrick Motorsports put all four of its Chevrolets into the Chase and Kahne was thrilled to be the closer, moving forward through the wild-card scenario.

“I am really happy and excited to be able to do it,” Kahne said. “Mr. Hendrick gives us great opportunities to win races and run up front. The way the season started (poorly), to fight back and make it into the Chase is great. I feel like our team has gotten better each race.”

Byline: Joe Jennings, NASCAR Correspondent

The 2012 field of Chase for the Sprint Cup drivers
The 2012 field of Chase for the Sprint Cup drivers

Photo by: Getty Images