-- RICHMOND, Va. -- The Federated Auto Parts 400 certainly didn't provide a brilliant showcase for the upcoming NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup.
The 407-lapper Saturday evening at Richmond International Raceway was supposed to be a dramatic build-up for NASCAR's elimination-style playoffs but instead served as a tedious, four-hour demonstration of Toyota dominance.
Martin Truex Jr. tried to make things exciting, driving the fastest car through the field from 27th place to contend for the win following a pit-lane speeding penalty. But the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Camry fell short, finishing third behind winner Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson.
A race-record 16 cautions slowed the average speed to 85.778 mph, the kind of pace I'm hoping to achieve for the drive back home to Indianapolis on Sunday.
The highlight of the long evening was a no-holds-barred interview from Ryan Newman after he was eliminated from Chase contention when his fellow Hoosier,? Tony Stewart, triggered the most damaging of the night's many wrecks.
Hamlin, who won for the third time this year for Joe Gibbs Racing and entered the Chase as the No. 3 seed, was far less colorful in his postrace remarks.
The native of Chesterfield, Virginia, was clearly delighted to have triumphed for the third time at what he considers his home track.
"It's awesome," Hamlin said. "I've won at home before and every one is better than the next, especially going into the Chase. Any time you can win going into the Chase, it really gives you a huge momentum boost. We were already on a roll, it seems, over the last two months and this just caps it off.
"This is as peaky as you can get going into the Chase."
With none of the 10 tracks in the Chase resembling Richmond's fast 3/4-mile bullring, Saturday's result by itself can't be used as a predictor moving forward.
But headed by defending Cup Series champion Kyle Busch, Toyota drivers hold five of the top seven seeds for the Chase.
Between the four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers and Truex, who drives for the affiliated Furniture Row Racing team, Toyotas won 13 of the 26 regular-season races and led more than half of all laps.
Still, JGR's Hamlin refuses to call himself or any of his fellow Toyota drivers a favorite for the 10-race Chase.
"I think any one of these guys can get going," Hamlin said. "You don't know what they have at the shop waiting to come racing. So I think it's really hard to figure out what's going to happen."
Chevrolet driver Larson has really stepped up his game over the past month or so, and obviously the No. 4 (2014 Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick)?has great speed week in and week out in his Chevy.
"Until you get to Chicago and see how the first race goes, to me, that's the barometer of where we're really at," Hamlin added. "But I like our chances at this point."
Truex has led more laps than any other driver in 2016 and posted a pair of race wins. But once again Saturday, he watched a race slip out of his hands.
Despite his disappointment in finishing third, Truex said he's feeling good about the upcoming playoffs.
"Our chances are as good as anybody's," Truex said. "I don't think anybody has got a leg up on us, for sure. We've got fast cars and smart people. The cars have been fast all year long, we've shown that. We've got to do our job and be consistent like we've done for the past couple weeks, and hopefully we can keep that up.
"We've got a lot of confidence, and I think that's really important. We feel like we've got a really good shot at it."
With the Toyotas dominating at the front and the many cautions limiting excitement to a minimum, it was up to Newman and Stewart to spice up things.
They got together with 37 laps remaining, sweeping in six other cars and bringing out a 21-minute red flag. Newman said that Stewart intentionally drove into him before later launching into an extraordinary verbal attack.
"I guess he thought he was in a Sprint Car again -- didn't know how to control his anger," Newman said. "He should be retired the way he drives. It's just ridiculous.
"I don't think there was any reason other than him just being bipolar and having anger issues. Google Tony Stewart; you'll see all kinds of things he's done. Look it up. YouTube and everything else. Quite the guy."
Said Stewart: "He's right. That was the third time he had driven into me tonight. How many times does a guy get a free pass before you've had enough of it? Three times? That's two more times than I normally let somebody run into me."
If Richmond was generally a boring race, does that mean NASCAR fans are in for a boring Chase? Not necessarily. Team Penske features a strong two-car attack for Ford, while Chevrolet hopes that Hendrick Motorsports can regain its championship-winning form.
"I think there are so many well-prepared cars, and this is going to be a battle," said winning team owner Joe Gibbs. "There's no way you can pick a favorite right now because it's a series of three-race playoffs. In the past, Denny has been knocked out and Kyle has been knocked out. You can't afford a bad race. You've got to be consistent, but you also have got to be on your game and race extremely hard.
"It's the greatest reality show going."