Kevin Harvick’s domination at Saturday’s wreck-fest race at Richmond didn’t change the Chase outlook but provided the intense moments that NASCAR was hoping for. Harvick led a total of 202 of the 400 laps to help secure his 4th win on the season and a seat at the top of the Chase standings beside his rival, Kyle Busch.
Harvick beat Jeff Gordon out of the pits after a stop under caution on Lap 385 of 400 and drove away from the four-time champion. Carl Edwards passed Gordon for the second spot and challenged Harvick for the win, but Edwards ran out of time, finishing .139 seconds back.
“The guys on pit road had just a great last pit stop and were able to get us the track position,” Harvick said. “I struggled on the restarts getting going with the [gear] ratios that we had, so to be in control of that last restart I felt was pretty important, to get going.”
Gordon’s third place finish gives him three straight top five finishes heading into the Chase. David Ragan finished fourth with a very testy Kurt Busch in fifth. Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin and Mark Martin rounded out the top 10. With Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin, all on the Chase bubble entering Richmond, held on to their respective spots and clinched their 2011 Chase berths.
This race had everything, far beyond the dash to the finish. It had a heroic effort from Hamlin, who recovered from a hard hit on Lap 8 to secure a spot in the Chase for the sixth consecutive year.
Richmond had suspense; and looked to try and crush Junior Nation hopes as Earnhardt, his Chevrolet also damaged in that Lap 8 wreck, fought hard to hang on to a position in the top 10 in the standings — and succeeded when attrition turned the numbers in his favor. It featured a solid job from Stewart, who stayed out of trouble to qualify for the Chase for the seventh time.
We saw a renewal of the Kurt Busch-Jimmie Johnson rivalry, as the drivers took turns knocking each other into the Turn 2 wall. Busch got the better of the exchange by far, coming home fifth to Johnson’s 31st.
The race was not yet eight laps old when a massive pileup in Turn 3 sent shock waves through the brains of some of the most notable Chase hopefuls. Racing side-by-side with pole-sitter David Reutimann, Clint Bowyer spun and stacked up the field behind him. Earnhardt’s Chevrolet plowed into Bowyer’s, and Hamlin, trying to protect his wild-card spot, slammed hard into the outside wall.
Hamlin lost a lap during a succession of pit stops but regained it with a free pass under a subsequent caution. When the field restarted on Lap 44, Hamlin was 39th and Earnhardt was 21st.
Both recovered, Hamlin in spectacular fashion, as his crew took advantage of 34 caution laps in the first 61 circuits to repair the No. 11 Toyota and prevent the front splitter from dragging the asphalt. “It was amazing how we were able to battle back,” Hamlin said. “This car is absolutely destroyed. Any other race track, we would be down 20 laps, but they just worked on it. It’s amazing how fast they got this car, considering the circumstances. We had to put an inch worth of packers [shims] in the right front, just to get [the splitter] off the ground.”
The race had the fireworks on and off the track yet again! More feuds flared and more dreams of making the Chase were dashed as some were renewed. We look to Chicago to be the first Chase Race and the first real test to see if these drivers are ready to take on the task of winning a Championship. Also, look for the feuds to get more intense and even see a flare up of a new feud; but only time will tell!