Richmond is always one of the strangest races on the NASCAR slate, and Saturday night was no exception. Kyle Larson won the race after a last-second wreck by regular-season champion Martin Truex Jr., and the final standings of the 2017 NASCAR regular season were determined by, of all things, an ambulance parked in the wrong place.
On lap 255, Danica Patrick spun and brought out a caution flag. During the subsequent caution period, an ambulance rolled onto the track just as a dozen cars were coming to pit road. The cars accordioned up behind the ambulance, and several then rolled onto pit road with damage.
Truex had won the second stage and appeared headed to another victory when a late-race caution forced a restart. Larson took the lead on the restart, and Truex, in overtime, slid up into the wall. The result? A Larson victory, and a playoff slate that looked exactly like it had at the race’s start.
This marked the final race before the playoffs began, the last chance for drivers to win their way in. Coming into the race, 13 drivers had already punched their tickets into the playoffs: Truex, Kyle Busch, Larson, Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney, Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, and Austin Dillon. All of those drivers won at least one race in the season’s previous 25, leaving the final three spots for Matt Kenseth, Chase Elliott, and Jamie McMurray. Notables on the far side of the cut line included Clint Bowyer; Dale Earnhardt Jr.; and Joey Logano, whose win earlier this year at Richmond didn’t count toward the playoffs because of rules violations.
Kenseth dominated the early laps of the race from the pole, leading the first 89 laps with little trouble. But he locked his brakes in lap 90, kicking up a plume of smoke and bringing out an immediate, inexplicable caution. In the ensuing restart, both Kyle Busch and Larson zipped around Kenseth, and Busch won the first stage.
The second stage saw hungry drivers working their way up to the front. Kenseth, Erik Jones, Logano, Earnhardt, and Elliott all fighting their way up into the top 10. But they trailed the cars that have dominated all year: Truex, Larson, and Kyle Busch. Truex won the second stage, his point total now totaling 53, and continued to set himself up with a huge advantage in the playoffs which begin next week.
The ambulance, which apparently rolled onto the track without authorization from NASCAR, is yet another strange incident at a track now known for them. A tow truck nearly cause a wreck earlier this year, a fence-sitter brought out a caution three years back, and the now-defunct Michael Waltrip Racing executed a clumsy attempt at team orders at Richmond four years ago, a move that resulted in Truex being booted from that year’s Chase. That won’t happen this year, as Truex rolls into the playoffs with a strong points lead.
This race marked Richmond’s final bow as the cut-line race; next year, Richmond will move into the playoffs, and Indianapolis Motor Speedway will take over the final regular-season slot. That historic track will have to work hard to replicate the strangeness that Richmond has brought year after year.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at email@example.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.