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."
With Harvick taking his fourth win of the season, that blocked off anyone taking an unexpected last-minute first- or second-time win of the season that could have threatened Denny Hamlin from claiming the second wildcard. Even so, Hamlin's heart was in his throat when he too was involved in that same lap 8 multi-car wreck as Earnhardt was.
"My car is just in shambles. It is in bad, bad shape," said Hamlin, who nonetheless recovered to a ninth place finish. "That was not what I planned on happening.
"It was nerve wracking because every person that could win and then knock us out was running up front all day long, and it was just like, you know, if it wasn't one guy, it was another," he continued. "One of them was always a threat to win throughout the entire day. It was one of those days where [there were a lot of] very nervous moments."
If things had gone differently, then the next man in line for the wildcard would have been David Ragan, who came out top on the battle of the "one-time winners" to finish ahead of Paul Menard and Marcos Ambrose and in the top 20 after securing fourth place at Richmond.
"We needed to win this thing," said Ragan. "We had a race winner here if things would have fell our way." If he had managed to win then the two victories would have seen him leapfrog Hamlin for the wildcard, but it was not to be.
Now the Chase line-up is locked, the Cup championship points
adjustment goes into effect that sees all those in the Chase boosted to 2000pts, free and clear of the rest of the Cup drivers.
Those who qualified in the top ten get a further three bonus points for each win that they have taken during the regular season, meaning that as four-time winners Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick are tied in the lead with 2012pts ahead of Jeff Gordon (2009pts) and Matt Kenseth (2006pts).
However, those who qualified on a wildcard are deemed to have 'burned up' their wins bonus in getting through to the Chase in the first place, so Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin both start on 2000pts as do the winless Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
But the Chase is really designed to level the playing field at a crucial moment. It makes the last part of the season a thrilling finale to a year of racing by stopping any one car or team already having amassed a runaway lead by this point that the title is already de facto decided (as is the case, for example, in F1 with Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull).
In other words: with the Chase reset, it's wide open again.
"I am ready to go get this Chase on," said Carl Edwards, who narrowly missed out on an extra 3pts in the Chase when he was pipped by Harvick to the Richmond win in the final laps. "I am pretty excited about all the races we are going to after tonight."
"It's been a good 26 weeks and certainly built off some pretty good consistency, but we've got to make sure that we can relish in that and be able to do it in the next ten weeks," said Kyle Busch. "There's a lot of guys out here that have a lot of great things going for them, including us, that can certainly make it a big challenge.
"There are a lot of cars that can win, a lot of cars that can be competitive," contributed Harvick, who feels that Richmond gives him back the momentum going into the Chase that's been missing in recent weeks. "It's going to be who makes the least amount of mistakes and capitalizes the most on the days that you are off."Richmond race results