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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."




Related Pictures

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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]
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet SS stops in the pits on his way to his win Sunday, March 1, 2015 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet SS races to victory Sunday, March 1, 2015 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Garry Eller/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet SS celebrates his victory with a burnout Sunday, March 1, 2015 after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Andrew Coppley/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet SS celebrates his victory Sunday, March 1, 2015 after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by HHP/Harold Hinson for Chevy Racing)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 1, 2015 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo Credit: Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 1, 2015 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo Credit: Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet, celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 1, 2015 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo Credit: Matt Sullivan/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet, takes the chequered flag to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 1, 2015 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo Credit: Sarah Glenn/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, leads the field during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 1, 2015 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo Credit: Matt Sullivan/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, and Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Ground Toyota, lead the field to the green flag to start the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 1, 2015 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo Credit: Sarah Glenn/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Matt Crafton, driver of the #88 Fisher Nuts/Menards Toyota, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Hyundai Construction Equipment 200 on February 28, 2015 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo Credit: Matt Sullivan/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Matt Crafton, driver of the #88 Fisher Nuts/Menards Toyota, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Hyundai Construction Equipment 200 on February 28, 2015 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo Credit: Matt Sullivan/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Matt Crafton, driver of the #88 Fisher Nuts/Menards Toyota, celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Hyundai Construction Equipment 200 on February 28, 2015 in Hampton, Georgia.  (Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Matt Crafton, driver of the #88 Fisher Nuts/Menards Toyota, takes the chequered flag to win the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Hyundai Construction Equipment 200 on February 28, 2015 in Hampton, Georgia.  (Photo Credit: Sarah Glenn/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmie John`s/Budweiser Chevrolet, suffers a mechanical issue during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on February 28, 2015 in Hampton, Georgia.  (Photo Credit: Rainier Ehrhardt/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Jeffrey Earnhardt, driver of the #55 Fronius USA/Viva Auto Group Chevrolet, spins out during the NASCAR XFINITY Series Hisense 250 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on February 28, 2015 in Hampton, Georgia.  (Photo Credit: Rainier Ehrhardt/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kevin Harvick, driver of the #88 Bad Boy Buggies Chevrolet, celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR XFINITY Series Hisense 250 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on February 28, 2015 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo Credit: Jonathan Moore/Getty Images)

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