RICHMOND, Va. - The early September 400-lap/300-mile NASCAR Nextel Cup Series race at Richmond International Raceway (RIR) is always of significant importance to Team Chevy teams and drivers. Saturday night's Chevy Rock & Roll 400 is the marquee...
RICHMOND, Va. - The early September 400-lap/300-mile NASCAR Nextel Cup Series race at Richmond International Raceway (RIR) is always of significant importance to Team Chevy teams and drivers. Saturday night's Chevy Rock & Roll 400 is the marquee event of the season for the Bowtie brand. With special musical paint schemes covering the Monte Carlo SS race cars of several top contenders; many of the stars and hit-making groups on hand for the entertainment of the fans as well as numerous interactive displays showcasing the entire Chevrolet vehicle lineup and racing program dotting the RIR property, the weekend is a Chevy extravaganza before the cars even hit the track.
This year three special paint schemes will appear on GM-sponsored race cars during the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 weekend. Clint Bowyer's No. 2 AC Delco Chevrolet will feature the Red Hot Chili Peppers during the Emerson Radio 250 Busch race on Friday night. On Saturday evening Kevin Harvick's No. 29 GM Goodwrench Monte Carlo SS will include a Barenaked Ladies paint scheme while Brian Vickers' No. 25 GMAC Monte Carlo SS will highlight the rock group O.A.R.
The stakes are high for competition on the track as well. For the third consecutive year, the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 is the final Race to the Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup (NNCS). A total of 10 drivers will emerge from the event in contention for the 10-race shootout to determine who will be crowned the NNCS champion following the season's final event at Homestead, Fla. in November.
There are 11 drivers in the running, eight of which are Team Chevy competitors, to make the Chase. For the exception of Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Lowe's Monte Carlo SS, currently sitting second in the standings, just nine points behind leader Matt Kenseth (Ford), the remaining seven Chevy drivers have yet to lock themselves in the final 10 championship contenders. Johnson was the points leader for the majority of the season but dropped to the runner-up spot after finishing 11th Sunday at California Speedway.
Johnson will be making his 10th start at RIR but hasn't experienced the success there that is usually associated with his Hendrick Motorsports (HMS) team. He has one pole and one top-five and one top-10 finish heading into the 26th race of the 2006 NNCS season.
"We want to run good at Richmond," said Johnson. "It's not been one of our best tracks, so we've got personal goals that we want to accomplish. We're just going to try to keep this momentum going and carry the same mindset into the final 10 and hopefully do our job.
"I'm very concerned - not only with Matt's momentum, but you look at the Childress cars and what they've been able to do. There have been a lot of guys earning points over the last 10 races but it's been hard to notice it because the point separation has been so big from first to 11th. But the No. 17 (Kenseth) and the No. 29 (Harvick) and the No. 31 (Jeff Burton) have been doing an awesome job. The No. 24 (Jeff Gordon) has really been earning a lot of points lately. It's going to be an interesting Chase. I think it's going to be the best one we've had yet."
Harvick sits third in the standings. He and his Richard Childress Racing (RCR) team hoped to secure their spot in the Chase at Fontana, Calif. but fell a few points short of actually being locked. The positive is that Harvick is 147 points ahead of 11th place Kasey Kahne (Dodge) going into the critical RIR race.
He won the pole for the 2005 Chevy Rock & Roll 400 and has five top-10 finishes in 11 starts. Harvick finished third in the 2006 Richmond spring NNCS race and won the NASCAR Busch Series race that weekend.
"We've been fortunate to be really good (at Richmond) in both cars," said Harvick. "(In the spring) I led the most laps in the Cup race and won the Busch race, so we've been fortunate to run really well there and hopefully we can continue that this fall as well."
Hendrick Motorsports (HMS) driver Jeff Gordon, No. 24 DuPont Monte Carlo SS, heads to Richmond fourth in the standings. The four-time NNCS champion felt reasonably confident after his fifth place California finish.
"We have had our troubles at Richmond in the past," Gordon stated. "But I am confident right now with the way our cars are driving and with the way the team is performing, I feel like we are going to turn Richmond around like we have these other tracks."
Gordon and Johnson's teammate Kyle Busch, No. 5 Kellogg's Monte Carlo SS, is fifth in points giving HMS the only organization to have three cars eligible for the Chase. He too feels like he is in a comfortable position for Saturday night's Richmond race.
"I feel good about Richmond," said Busch. "Last three runs there we have finished better than fifth so if we can go there and do what we have done the last times and have a good solid run, I think we will be fine. I think you will see the Kellogg's Monte Carlo strong in the Chase and going to Loudon trying to win that one."
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., No. 8 Budweiser Monte Carlo SS, sits in sixth, 77 points ahead of Kahne. After a solid third place run at Bristol and an impressive second place finish at California, Junior and his Dale Earnhardt, Inc. (DEI) team have momentum on their side approaching the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 but also a relaxed approach to it as another race on the schedule.
"Hey, it is just good runs for us," Earnhardt, Jr. said. "I am always one week at a time and having good finishes is having fun and that is what it is all about. I don't really feel any of the pressure of the Chase, about trying to make the Chase; most of the pressure is trying to run good, no matter what. I am just so happy for my team."
Tied with Tony Stewart at three wins on the .75-mile track, most of active drivers, Earnhardt won the 2006 spring Richmond race starting from 10th on the outside of row five.
Raybestos Rookie points leader Denny Hamlin, No. 11 FedEx Express Monte Carlo SS, is the only first-year driver in the Race for the Chase. The Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) driver currently holds the seventh place position in the standings, 76 points out of 11th place.
"It's not a comfortable margin by any means," said Hamlin. "But I feel like we do have a car good enough to run top-five there. We finished second in the spring and if we finish second this race, I guarantee we'll be in the Chase."
Two-time and defending NNCS champion Tony Stewart, No. 20 Home Depot Monte Carlo SS, Hamlin's JGR teammate, sits in eighth with just a 45-point margin over Kahne's 11th spot. However, his three wins, including his NNCS career-first victory, five-top five and 10 top-10 finishes in 15 starts at the Virginia race track makes him among the favorites to take home the trophy for the race and lock in to the Chase.
"We have been pretty good at Richmond," Stewart stated. "But so are the guys who are with us in the Chase. We have one more week, we will see. I am not very comfortable at all with 41 points. But if we go do what we normally do at Richmond, we should be all right, but it is no gimme by any means.
"I think we just have to go out and do what we always do. That is how we have won two championships and how we have been in the top-10 in points every year I have been in the series. It is what I have been doing for eight years and it isn't going to change next week. It is just a matter of going out and doing our job and not worrying about it. At the end of the day, we will see where we are."
On the bubble in the 10th spot is RCR driver Jeff Burton, No. 31 Cingular Wireless Monte Carlo SS. With a disappointing 16th place finish at California, Burton dropped three spots in the standings and rides just 30 points ahead of Kahne. But there is no give-up in Burton or his team.
"We got real good at the end; it was just too late," Burton stated. "We just struggled during the middle part of the race and lost a lot of track position. At the end, we finally got good. But these guys were just so far in front of us we couldn't do more; we ran a bunch of them down but we just ran out of time. So I'm not real happy with the way we ran. Nobody is. We sure expected more than that, but we'll go to Richmond and give them all we've got."
Chevrolet leads all manufacturers with Modern Era (1972 to present) victories at RIR with a total of 27 trips to victory lane. Since the 1988 reconfiguration to the current .75-mile layout, Bowtie drivers have won 11 times.
The only practice for the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 will begin on Friday, September 8 at 11:15 AM EDT for two hours. Qualifying is scheduled for 6:10 PM EDT after which NASCAR will impound the 43-car field until the 7:40 PM start time on Saturday night.
-credit: gm racing