RICHMOND, Va. – Rain stopped NASCAR’s pivotal Saturday night race at Richmond International Raceway, where the field for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship was finalized.

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.

The rain then returned during the race, causing another delay that lasted 52 minutes. The race resumed shortly before midnight with 248 laps remaining and was still in progress at press time.

Jeff Gordon, who started on the front row in his bid to grab the final slot in the 12-driver Chase 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 when 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 on a hot streak, with consecutive wins at Bristol and Atlanta, and intent on locking down the top seed in the Chase. NASCAR seeds the Chase field by bonus points earned with “regular-season” victories.

Hamlin’s four victories are a series best, and a win at his home track would widen the cushion he’ll take into the Chase.

With Hamlin leading Earnhardt and with Gordon running 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, and 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 at which it becomes official, and the cars were 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.”