As the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Richmond International Raceway this weekend for the Federated Auto Parts 400, it’s time again to take a look back at a race from Richmond’s past in this week’s edition of “Throwback Thursday Theater”. With the focus of the weekend being who will be in and who will be out of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the race that we will focus on is the 2004 Chevy Rock and Roll 400, a race that featured one driver leapfrogging his way into the Chase while others were only left with disappointment.
Heading into the weekend, Jeremy Mayfield sat 14th in points and needed a miracle to be able to jump into the top 10 in the standings to qualify for the Chase.
Early in the race, Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon as well as Mike Wallace all took turns up front, with the three drivers leading the first 98 laps. On lap 99, Mayfield made his first visit to the lead and showed that he was going to be a force to be reckoned with throughout the evening.
Mayfield’s nearest competitor throughout the remainder of the race was Kurt Busch as the two drivers would swap the lead back and forth over the next 150 laps, which included a multi-car wreck on lap 180 involving 11 cars, including then points leader Johnson.
The crash was triggered when Jimmy Spencer got into the left rear of the No. 41 car driven by Casey Mears, sending Mears spinning and caused a chain reaction crash behind them.
Johnson got the worst of the crash as the entire front end of his No. 48 car was smashed in, rendering his car undriveable. Naturally, Johnson was not very happy after the crash, having lost the points lead to teammate Gordon.
“Just a bunch of idiots,” Johnson said. “You have desperate guys doing desperate things. That’s the one thing I don’t like about this points system, that you can have somebody acting like this, (which) can completely take you out of the championship. We put too much hard work and effort into this to have something stupid like this happen. We’ll just roll on and hope lady luck is on our side from here on out.”
After the multi-car crash, the remainder of the race was relatively quiet except for a few single car spins, which brought another change to the race: fuel mileage.
Busch and Mayfield continued to swap the lead back and forth, with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. also getting a turn up front over the final 150 laps. As the laps wound down, Busch was leading over Mayfield in second, but with just eight laps to go, the fuel gauge on Busch’s No. 97 car began to flutter, forcing him to pit road and allowing Mayfield to take over the lead.
Mayfield would go on to lead the final eight laps to score the win, his first of the season, by 4.928 seconds over Earnhardt, Jr., who had rebounded after being involved in the crash with Johnson and the others.
Mayfield surely did not luck into the win as he led the most laps on the day at 151 and was one of the dominant cars throughout the night.
The emotion of the win and the chance to race for the championship was evident as soon as Mayfield exited the car as he dove into the arms of his pit crew nearby to celebrate the feat he had just accomplished.
“I can’t believe it. Man, what a night. This whole No. 19 team, everybody, I love these guys. Best team I’ve ever been with. I can’t believe it. I don’t know what to say. I knew we had a good car and I was afraid that caution was going to get us in trouble and we kept fighting back and we made our way back and here we are…victory lane,” Mayfield said.
“One year ago, we weren’t even going to be here, you know, but we kept fighting our way back and fighting our way back. This is the toughest bunch of crew guys I’ve ever seen. All of the guys in the shop stuck with me and kept believing in me. This is what we had to do is come here and lead all of the laps and win the race. These guys didn’t let me down and I love ‘em”
With Mayfield jumping from 14th into 9th to make the Chase, there was also the agony of defeat from those left out of the championship hunt. Jamie McMurray was the first on the outside looking in, just 15 points from making the Chase, and was followed by Kasey Kahne, Bobby Labonte, Kevin Harvick, and Dale Jarrett.
“The motor blew up again. It’s about the fifth time this year and we’ve been quick enough, but it’s just too bad. Those guys work really hard and there’s not a whole lot more we can do about it. That’s the way it goes,” McMurray said after the race.
Kasey Kahne was equally as upset, saying: “We just didn’t do good enough, too many problems all night long and a pretty pathetic race car.”