RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Rain stopped NASCAR's pivotal Saturday night race at Richmond, where the championship field is set when the checkered flag falls.
A steady shower soaked the track about 90 minutes before the scheduled start, and the delay prevented Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney from giving the command to start the engines. Romney was long gone when the race started almost two hours late.
Jeff Gordon, who started on the front row in his bid to grab the final slot in the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field, struggled from the start. He was unhappy with the setup on his Chevrolet, and as he dropped through the field, he radioed his team "I'm just hanging on" to the car.
The four-time series champion went into Saturday night needing to either win the race or outrun Kyle Busch for one of the two wild card slots into the Chase, which begins next Sunday at Chicago. Although Gordon outqualified Busch, Richmond is one of Busch's best tracks and his May victory here is his only win of the season.
Busch started the race 15th but quickly worked his way into the top 10 on a night he simply needed to finish ahead of Gordon to wrap up his Chase berth.
Meanwhile, at the front of the field, pole-sitter Dale Earnhardt Jr. showed he's ready for a championship run. He gave the lead up to Gordon so his Hendrick Motorsports teammate could lead a lap and earn a bonus point, then claimed it back and stayed at the front of the field.
He swapped the lead several times with Denny Hamlin, who came into the race hot off of consecutive wins at Bristol and Atlanta intent on locking down the top seed in the Chase. NASCAR after the race seeds the Chase field by the bonus points earned with "regular season" victories.
Hamlin's four victories are a Sprint Cup Series best, and a win at home track Richmond would widen the cushion he'll take into Chicago.
With Hamlin leading Earnhardt and Gordon, a lap down, trying to keep Busch in sight, the rain resumed and NASCAR called a caution. It gave the drivers a chance to pit, Hamlin beat Earnhardt off pit road to maintain the lead, but NASCAR's attempt to go back to green failed when the rain picked up in intensity.
The race was stopped 48 laps before the halfway point, the mark it becomes official, and the cars parked on pit road as the drivers waited out the rain.
Brad Keselowski thought it was a waste of time.
"Let's race. I'm not afraid to drive in the rain," he smiled. "We're supposed to be good drivers, right? Let's just do it once."