RICHMOND, Va. — NASCAR is guaranteed a new Sprint Cup Series champion this season, and now new controversies.
Carl Edwards’ surprising victory in Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Speedway settled the 26-race battle to set the 12-driver field for this season’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.
The most glaring omission: reigning series champion Brad Keselowski. He led a race-high 142 of 400 laps but failed to earn the win, which was his only realistic chance to make the Chase.
Matt Kenseth, who leads all drivers with five wins this season, enters Sunday’s race at Chicagoland Speedway as the Chase’s No. 1 seed. Five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson is second, three points behind.
Making up the remainder of the championship field: Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Edwards, Joey Logano, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne and Martin Truex Jr.
Edwards’ second victory of the season couldn’t have had better timing for his opportunity to win his first series title.
The race “was about three points (for a win). That’s what this was about. It was three points for our Chase,” Edwards said. “I know firsthand, we all know, what a point in the Chase is worth. We came here with the mission to get those three points.
“The last three weeks have been spectacular. We had a extremely fast race car at Bristol. Atlanta went well the first half of the race. To come here, have another week where we run up front, win the race, this is great.”
Edwards’ win had its own cloud of controversy. On a restart with three laps remaining, Edwards was lined up second next to Paul Menard but clearly beat Menard to the start/finish line, which is against the rules.
NASCAR, however, elected not to penalize Edwards, even after officials reminded competitors in the pre-race drivers’ meeting just hours before of the need to keep their restarts “clean.”
Kurt Bush finished second, Ryan Newman was third, Jamie McMurray was fourth and Menard ended up fifth.
The bigger controversy remains over how Edwards ended up in position to win the race in the first place.
With seven laps left, Newman had a sizable lead and was in position to clinch a berth in the Chase with a victory. Bowyer, who was on the lead lap, suddenly spun on his own on the frontstretch, which brought out a caution.
All of the lead-lap cars pitted, and Menard took two tires and came out in the lead. Newman’s team took four tires, but came out fifth, effectively ending his chance at a victory. Newman’s loss, however, helped ensure Bowyer’s Michael Waltrip Racing teammate, Truex, would get the final wild card spot in the Chase.
Speculation began almost instantly by fans on social media and commentators in the ESPN TV booth about whether the spin was done intentionally.
In-car video and audio from played by ESPN from Bowyer’s car only fueled the controversy.
Shortly before Bowyer’s spin, his spotter reminded him it looked like Newman would win the race. Then Bowyer’s crew chief, Brian Pattie, chimed in on the radio with two odd comments: “Is your arm starting to hurt?” he said. “I bet it’s getting hot in there. Itch it.”
Bowyer then spun out.
In the three laps remaining, Bowyer fell two laps down and dove to pit road before the end of the race. Fellow teammate Brian Vickers lost several positions on the last lap as well, driving well off the pace. Truex ended up finishing seventh after spending most of the race outside the Top 10.
“I think we had something going wrong. I had so much wheel, by the time I got to the gas, he was underneath me. I spun out,” Bowyer said, although no other driver was next to him at the time of the spin.
“I know it’s a lot of fun for you guys to write a lot of wacky things. Go ahead if you want to. Get creative. But don’t look too much into it.”
Earnhardt was behind Bowyer at the time of the incident and said the spin looked odd.
“He just spun right out,” Earnhardt said. “That’s the craziest thing I ever saw. He just came right around.
“He was hemming around on the brakes and jerking the car around, and then the thing just spun out. It was crazy. I don’t know what was going on.”
Cup series director John Darby told USA Today he didn’t believe the spin was intentional, but it was unclear how much information NASCAR gathered before making that determination.
Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter.