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2011 Chase contenders locked and loaded

The night race at Richmond has set the final positions for the Chase play-offs that will decide who among the 12 drivers will become this year's Sprint Cup champion.
The final regular season race of 2011 has seen the completion of the full 12-driver line-up for this year's Chase play-offs.

Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman had all clinched places before Richmond, with Brad Keselowski also through by at least a wildcard and but the final three spots wide open, with some 14 drivers still mathematically in with a chance of making it in.

The favourites for the final Chase spots going into Richmond were Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin but their chances lay in securing solid finishes on the night and not getting wrecked out. They all did exactly that and all three made it through to the Chase without any upsets - but it was a nerve-wrecking three and a half hours in the process for all concerned.

Much came down to how Brad Keselowski fared and whether he would be able to oust either Stewart or Earnhardt Jr. from the top ten positions in the pre-Chase championship points. In the end, Keselowski faded late in the race and could not continue his strong run but still managed 12th place, not nearly enough to crack the top ten points positions which meant that Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were safe.

Both Stewart and Earnhardt lack any race wins in 2011 and would therefore not have been in the running for a wildcard position if they had fallen out of the top ten. Stewart had a relatively easy run to seventh place in the race to make the Chase at Richmond, but Earnhardt briefly looked in danger when he was caught up in a lap 8 multi-car wreck. A retirement so early on in the race would have meant a catastrophic loss of points, but he was able to get running repairs to the #88 and carry on to the end to finish in a safe 19th place.

"I wasn't worried at all ... I figured we had all night to fix it. I felt like if we were a good enough team, we'd get the job done," said a relieved Earnhardt afterwards. "I'm proud to be in the Chase ... I feel like I'm a good enough driver to be in the Chase; my team is good enough to be there."

Stewart was rather more subdued, answering questions matter-of-factly and as succinctly as possible after taking objection to journalists' questions on Friday in the build-up to the Richmond event.

"I think I'm probably most proud leaving here of Stewart Haas Racing and the fact that we've had six opportunities to be in the Chase and we've made it five out of the six opportunities," he said, having only missed in 2006. "We're able to sit up here tonight and say we've made this thing."

With the top ten points positions all claimed, it meant that Brad Keselowski finished in 11th place and had to take the first wildcard for most wins of those in positions 11 through 20 - not that he was complaining.

"I'm viewing it like a one-year-old that got his first box of crayons: happy and amazed to have them," said Keselowski afterwards. "And it's great. Everything is fresh, new, and a lot of positive momentum."


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Tony Stewart, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin pose after clinching spots in the Chase at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday. [Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images]
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 National Guard Chevrolet SS finished 2nd, Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet SS finished 7th Saturday, April 12, 2014 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Darlington Raceway in Darlington South Carolina. Earnhardt Jr. is 4th, Gordon is 1st in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. Teammate Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet SS won. (Photo Credit: HHP/Alan Marler for Chevrolet)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet SS finished 1st, Kasey Kahne, driver of the #5 Great Clips Chevrolet SS finished 37th Saturday, April 12, 2014 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Darlington Raceway in Darlington South Carolina. Harvick  is 22nd, Kahne is 23rd in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. Teammates Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 National Guard Chevrolet SS finished 2nd and Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Kobalt Tools Chevrolet SS finished 3rd.(Photo Credit: HHP/Christa L. Thomas for Chevrolet)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet SS celebrates his win Saturday, April 12, 2014 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Darlington Raceway in Darlington South Carolina. Harvick is 22nd in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. Teammates Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 National Guard Chevrolet SS finished 2nd and Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Kobalt Tools Chevrolet SS finished 3rd. (Photo Credit: HHP/Tami Kelly-Pope for Chevrolet)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet SS celebrates his win Saturday, April 12, 2014 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Darlington Raceway in Darlington South Carolina. Harvick is 22nd in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. Teammates Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 National Guard Chevrolet SS finished 2nd and Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Kobalt Tools Chevrolet SS finished 3rd. (Photo Credit: HHP/Christa L. Thomas for Chevrolet)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet, races during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bojangles` Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on April 12, 2014 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo Credit: NASCAR Via Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bojangles` Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on April 12, 2014 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo Credit: NASCAR Via Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bojangles` Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on April 12, 2014 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo Credit: NASCAR Via Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet, celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bojangles` Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on April 12, 2014 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo Credit: NASCAR Via Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet, takes the chequered flag to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bojangles` Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on April 12, 2014 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo Credit: NASCAR Via Getty Images)
Aric Almirola, driver of the #43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the #17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford tangle during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bojangles` Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on April 12, 2014 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo Credit: NASCAR Via Getty Images)
Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, and Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet, lead the field to start the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bojangles` Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on April 12, 2014 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo Credit: NASCAR Via Getty Images)
Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Nationwide Series VFW Sport Clips Help A Hero 200 at Darlington Raceway on April 11, 2014 in Darlington, South Carolina.  (Photo Credit: NASCAR Via Getty Images)
Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Nationwide Series VFW Sport Clips Help A Hero 200 at Darlington Raceway on April 11, 2014 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo Credit: NASCAR Via Getty Images)
Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Nationwide Series VFW Sport Clips Help A Hero 200 at Darlington Raceway on April 11, 2014 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo Credit: NASCAR Via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #54 Monster Energy Toyota, leads the field to start the NASCAR Nationwide Series VFW Sport Clips Help A Hero 200 at Darlington Raceway on April 11, 2014 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo Credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet SS won the Pole position Friday, April 11, 2014 for Saturday`s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Darlington Raceway in Darlington South Carolina. Harvick is 26th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. (Photo Credit: HHP/Tami Kelly-Pope for Chevrolet)
Kevin Harvick (Photo Credit: NASCAR)

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