Kyle Busch holds off Kevin Harvick to win Richmond race

RICHMOND, VA - SEPTEMBER 22: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M's Toyota, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway on September 22, 2018 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Reid Spencer – NASCAR Wire Service

RICHMOND, VA – SEPTEMBER 22: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M’s Toyota, leads a pack of cars during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway on September 22, 2018 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

RICHMOND, Va. – On a night of important milestones, in a car hastily repaired after a brush with the wall during qualifying, Kyle Busch held off Kevin Harvick to win Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway to advance to the second round of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.

After a pitched battle against Brad Keselowski that lasted 21 laps, Busch made the winning pass for the lead on Lap 364 of 400 at the .75-mile track. Busch’s first victory in a fall race at Richmond was his sixth at the track, most among active drivers, and it gave him a season sweep at the short track.

The win was Busch’s seventh of the season—tying him with Harvick for the series lead—and the 50th of his career, tying him with NASCAR Hall of Famers Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett for 11th on the all-time list.

Martin Truex Jr., who won the first and second stages and led a race-high 163 laps, recovered from a penalty for an uncontrolled tire to run third, marking the first time this season NASCAR’s so-called Big Three have finished 1-2-3 in a race.

Busch, who led 92 laps, had to fight for the win. Harvick passed Keselowski for second on Lap 372 and quickly gained ground on Busch, who had punished his equipment in the fight against Keselowski.

“Yeah, that was a little too close for my comfort,” said Busch, who started from the rear of the field after his team did yeoman work on the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Camry to repair the damage sustained during qualifying. “I thought we were a little bit better than that on the long runs, (but) I know Harvick… that’s kind of his specialty. We had a really, really good race car tonight.

“The guys did a great job coming back from a dismal qualifying effort and preparing a really, really good race car for us tonight. We started dead last, came up through the field and won this thing… I put us a little bit behind yesterday in qualifying, and the guys did a great job rallying to put it together.

“Hey, I finally won a fall race at Richmond! What do you know?”

Harvick simply ran out of time in his quest to reel in the race winner, but he was pleased with his recovery from an accident that sidelined him 73 laps into last Sunday’s Playoff opener at Las Vegas. Currently third in the standings and 57 points ahead of 13th place, Harvick has a comfortable cushion heading to the Round 1 cutoff race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course.

“We were starting to track him down there at the end,” Harvick said. “I needed about 25 more laps… Any other round of the Playoffs, I would say it didn’t matter—we just needed to try to win. But I’m terrified of next week, to tell you the truth, just because there are so many unknowns.”

Thanks to his stage wins, Truex retook the series lead from Busch and clinched a spot in Round 2 on points. Chase Elliott ran fourth, recovering from a Las Vegas wreck as did Harvick. Aric Almirola came home fifth, scoring his second top five of the season.

Austin Dillon, Kyle Larson, Jimmie Johnson, Keselowski, Clint Bowyer, Erik Jones, and Alex Bowman finished sixth through 12th, respectively, as Playoff drivers swept the top 12 positions. Bowyer, Johnson, Jones and 16th-place finisher Denny Hamlin are 13th through 16th in points and in danger of falling out of the Playoffs after the elimination race at Charlotte.

Busch’s only complaint after the race was an aching back.

“My back is killing me,” said the 33-year-old driver. “You’re so on edge here that you’re just trying to feel the race car the entire time, and you’re clenched, and you can never let go.

“You can never relax and it’s just that way the entirety of this race. Long runs like that, it wears on you a little bit, especially when you get to be an old man.”

But the “old man” can relax now, with nothing on the line at the Charlotte Road Course except for the desire to add another new track to his portfolio.

Christopher Bell gains upper hand in NASCAR Xfinity 

Series Playoff Victory at Richmond

RICHMOND, Va. – A short run at the end of Friday night’s 250 was just what pole winner Christopher Bell needed to charge into the second round of the NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs.

In a race that saw regular-season champion Justin Allgaier end his night with a hard crash into the Turn 3 wall with 24 laps left, and in a race that saw Dale Earnhardt Jr. lead the most laps in his only scheduled race of 2018, Bell surged past race leader Matt Tifft after a restart on Lap 237 of 250 and pulled away to beat Ross Chastain to the finish line by .566 seconds.

Assured of a place in the next round of the NASCAR Playoffs by virtue of his fifth victory of the season, Bell now can pay a stress-free visit to the Charlotte Road Course on Sept. 29.

“I tell you what, that’s pretty cool,” said Bell, who won for the second time at Richmond—both this season—and for the sixth time in his career. “It’s not very often you get to win with a car that’s not a winning car. So, we’ll take it.

“I want to thank my pit crew for the awesome pit stops tonight. (Crew chief) Jason Ratcliff did a great job making this thing better each and every time we hit pit road. I’m just pumped. To be able to sweep Richmond and get five wins on top of that, moving on to Round 2, I couldn’t be happier.”

Chastain, who won his first NASCAR Xfinity Series race last Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, started from the rear after his clutch locked up following a third-place effort in qualifying. Over the last 14 laps, he chased Bell, eventually running a much higher line around the .75-mile short track—but to no avail.

“I can’t believe I’m disappointed with second, but a dream-come-true to drive for you guys,” Chastain told his team over the radio at the end of his third and final ride in the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet.

“I can never thank you enough. It’s something I’ll never forget.”

Earnhardt, who led 96 laps, won the second stage under caution after the No. 60 Roush Fenway Racing Ford of Ty Majeski slammed into the inside SAFER barrier, the result of contact from teammate Ryan Reed.

“That’s the first stage win of my career,” a jubilant Earnhardt said on the team radio after taking the green / checkered flag.

“It got my expectations all messed up,” Earnhardt added after the race. “Man, I’m like, ‘Dang, I’ve got to win now.’ But we didn’t have the car at the end. We started on the outside (on the final restart), which was kind of tough. Just didn’t have what we needed at the end. But I’m glad that we got to lead a lot of laps. We ran really good for all the people that came down to watch us.”

Earnhardt, who finished fourth behind NASCAR Playoff driver Daniel Hemric, then won the race off pit road and led the field to green for a restart on Lap 159. He held the top spot until Katherine Legge—making her first oval-track start in NASCAR racing—hit the outside wall between Turns 1 and 2 to bring out the fourth caution on Lap 218.

After the race, Earnhardt hugged long-time friend and JR Motorsports driver Elliott Sadler, who announced he will retire from full-time racing at season’s end.

“We’ve been really close friends since we raced late models together,” Earnhardt said. “It just dawned on me in that moment, ‘We’ll never race (together) again.’ I’m glad he’s enjoying this.”

Tifft finished fifth, followed by Sadler, Tyler Reddick, Brandon Jones, Shane Lee and Ryan Reed. Bell took the series lead by 28 points over Hemric and 34 over Allgaier, who held third because of his points advantage entering the NASCAR Playoffs.

“It’s really disappointing,” said Allgaier, who clobbered the Turn 3 wall after contact between the Ford Mustangs of Austin Cindric and Cole Custer knocked Custer’s car into Allgaier’s. “Just unfortunate to be in that position, but at least we’ve got a good points lead.”