Kevin Harvick claimed victory in the "Wonderful Pistachios 400" Saturday night race at Richmond International Raceway - with perhaps just a little conveniently timed help from his Richard Childress Racing team mate Paul Menard.

David Reutimann had qualified in pole but when it came to the green flag at just before 8pm, it was Jamie McMurray who got the better start off the front row to take the lead. It was a short-lived run before Andy Lally hit the wall on turn 4 on the second three-quarter mile lap. Fortunately it didn't collect anyone else: the last thing any of the tense contenders for undecided Chase positions needed at this point was to get involved in a huge multi-car wreck that could see them written out of the battle.

But a huge multi-car wreck involving Chase contenders was exactly what happened at the next restart on lap 8: and it was Clint Bowyer, the driver who desperately needed a win to have a chance of a wildcard spot, who sparked it when he spun while running side-by-side with Reutimann. Another Chase contender on the knife-edge, Dale Earnhardt Jr., then ploughed into Bowyer; and another driver in an even more precarious Chase position, Denny Hamlin, then slammed into the wall trying to avoid the situation. In total, 13 cars got caught up in the wreck.

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Somewhat miraculously, none of the Chase hopefuls were actually written off by the crash - not even Hamlin, who had sustained the most damage. "This car is absolutely destroyed," said Hamlin. "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." Hamlin was helped by the extended yellow for the clean-up, and then three rapid cautions coming between lap 27 and 51.

The first of these was for Kasey Kahne hitting the wall; the second involved Dale Earnhardt Jr. again, this time with the #88 getting into the rear of Marcos Ambrose; and then on lap 51 it was back to Kahne as he had an even more emphatic encounter first with the outside and then with the inside wall, after running three-wide with Ambrose and Kahne's Red Bull team mate Brian Vickers. Vickers made the team sentiment about where the blame lay clear when he then proceeded to exact retribution on the #9 under the ensuing caution by wrecking him and then blocking his entrance onto pit road.

"What can I say? The #9 wrecked us. Both of us," said Vickers.

Kahne didn't even see what had happened to end his day. "I just know that I was on the outside going into the straightaway and then I just started to turn in and then the #83 hit me pretty hard," he said. "He got hit by someone else, but I haven't seen it so I don't know what exactly happened. It was kind of a weird deal."

"Not a good day for the Red Bull cars," added Vickers.

All of which had been music to Hamlin's ears, as it gave him enough caution laps to get the car duct-taped back together again, and he also benefited from a free pass to get back onto the lead lap. Meanwhile, McMurray had lost the lead to Jimmie Johnson on lap 20, who kept it through to the pit stops under the latest caution which allowed Matt Kenseth to take to the front. He kept the lead at the restart after a battle with Kurt Busch, while behind them the fight for third was between Brad Keselowski, David Ragan and Kevin Harvick. Harvick won that battle and then made his way to the front on lap 74, and he kept the lead for the next 82 laps.

That period included two more cautions - one on lap 116 for Mike Bliss hitting the wall after a tyre went down, and another on lap 152 when Earnhardt delivered some street justice on Travis Kvapil for some earlier contact, sending the #38 into the wall at turn 2. Saved from being lapped again, Earnhardt was nonetheless still a lap down and should have received the free pass at this point, but having triggered the caution he was not allowed to benefit from it.

"I think we were racing for the Lucky Dog, and two or three times I got a run on him on the outside - obviously the hard way to pass- and he chopped me a couple times," said Kvapil, explaining the events that led up to the wreck. "So I gave him a tap at the start-finish line, and next time by he let me go and then he just wrecked me. It's just frustrating. Obviously neither one of us was having a very good night, so it just made both of our night's worse."

"The [expletive] deserved it, and he knows it," was Dale's succinct summary of the situation.

Greg Biffle opted for a two-tyre stop and duly emerged first from pit road, but Harvick passed him at the green even though it was just two laps before the caution flags were out again on lap 162 for a backstretch spin by Landon Cassill. This time Earnhardt was blameless and duly got the free pass back into the lead lap after all. The next green flag similarly only lasted four laps before the cautions kept on coming: Paul Menard hit the wall this time and had to crawl to the garage area for a 79-lap visit for repairs that meant his Chase hopes were dashed, while Regan Smith spun in a simultaneous incident but fortunately kept away from the unforgiving walls.

Another green, and this time we got seven laps in before the next caution, which was sparked by Kurt Busch getting into Jimmie Johnson into turn 1 on lap 185 which also caught up Juan Montoya; Jeff Gordon, David Ragan and Ryan Newman had to work overtime to avoid the mel?e. Johnson was not happy and targeted Busch for retaliation on lap 246 which brought out the 11th caution of the night; ironically Busch got away lightly and it was Johnson who ended up on pit road for 34 laps for repairs. (See separate story for more details on the Johnson/Busch fall-out.)

By this point Harvick had faded from the lead and been replaced in front by Carl Edwards on lap 202. He kept the lead through the caution and pit stops for the second act of the Johnson/Busch battle, and also through the next caution on lap 284 for a spin by Jeff Burton into the wall at turn 3. There was a 13th caution half a dozen laps later for Marcos Ambrose spinning again, and Joey Logano's race ended under the ensuing caution when his engine emphatically demonstrate that it simply wasn't going to cooperate any more.

The race avoided going yellow again when Landon Cassill spun on lap 304, but had no such luck when David Reutimann slammed into the wall on lap 309 after contact with Clint Bowyer to bring out the 14th caution. Edwards and Matt Kenseth were among the few not to use this latest opportunity to dive into pit road again, Edwards mindful of past races where he has been caught out taking to pit road and losing track position to those who stayed out. This time the situation was reversed - he would stay out, but have the older tyres. And the difference in fresh rubber immediately told as Edwards slipped out of the lead at the restart on lap 314 and Harvick was back in charge. Edwards fell back to fourth place, but when he was told that he was still ten laps short on fuel to make it to the end of the race the question marks about why he hadn't come in under the caution with everyone else only multiplied.

"I don't know why we didn't pit," Edwards said. "I think Bob [Osborne, his crew chief] thought that there was going to be another caution. We were kind of getting caution after caution, and we just thought more guys would stay out."

As the race neared its climax, now the star of the show was Jeff Gordon who was charging his way up to the front, finally taking the lead on lap 378 with just 22 laps remaining and looking set to claim the race win as he pulled out a comfortable one second lead.

But the race had one more twist - or rather, a record-equalling 15th caution - to play out, which materialised on lap 384 when Paul Menard spun on the backstretch to break Gordon's momentum at the critical moment. Menard's Richard Childress Racing team mate Kevin Harvick won the race off pit road with the #24 consequently stuck on the outside line, a situation that irked Gordon no end.

"I thought it was interesting when I saw a Childress car sitting down this in the grass," said Gordon wryly.

"To know with 20 laps to go you're driving away with the lead, I was feeling pretty good about that. I didn't want to see a caution," he admitted. "But we dealt with it. We didn't have the best of pit stops. I didn't do them any favours. I didn't get into the box as good as I needed to. We got beat off pit road, plain and simple."

Harvick took the restart on lap 388, quickly jumping away from Jeff Gordon who was left battling with - and losing to - Carl Edwards, the latter man mighty relieved that he'd had another chance to pit under caution after all before the fuel situation had forced him in under green.

After Edwards won that battle he set off in pursuit of Harvick, but it was now too late to make it. "I should have been able to win that race. I just didn't get a good enough restart, didn't get by Jeff to have a lap or two once I got to Kevin. We learned a lesson." It certainly wasn't for lack of effort, the #99 practically sideways off turn 4 for the last time as Kevin Harvick claimed the chequered flag ahead.

"That last run there, we were actually too tight," said Harvick. "Carl was actually a little bit better. And then, with about three or four laps to go, I just locked it on the bottom and hoped for the best there, so it all worked out."

It was a long-overdue return to form for Harvick's team, which had looked to have taken a steep dip in form since winning three races earlier in the year.

"During the middle of the summer, to be quite frank, we've run like crap," admitted Harvick's crew chief Gil Martin. "We got off our game trying to do some things to just win races because I think after we won the three races and kind of thought we were locked into the Chase, we kind of got off our game some trying some things that probably we shouldn't have. I think that taught us a valuable lesson through the summer and going into Atlanta."

The dip in form may also have one of the factors that persuaded Harvick that he could no longer afford to split his attention between Cup racing and running his own Nationwide/Truck Series manufacturing company, Kevin Harvick Inc., which he announced this week he would be closing down. (See separate stories about KHI merging its Nationwide operations into Richard Childress Racing, and also closing down or selling off its factory and remaining Truck Series teams.)

Gordon finished in third place ahead of David Ragan, one of the outside contenders for the remaining Chase positions who had needed a win to be in with a chance and so for whom fourth place was little consolation. "We needed to win this thing ... We had a race winner here if things would have fell our way," said Ragan after the race.

Ragan also talked about why tempers had been on such a short fuse up and down the field during the night, with so many acts of retaliation and retribution in evidence. "Everyone was racing hard and I think the Chase atmosphere and the Saturday night racing here at Richmond I think there are some guys that had some payback before the Chase started," he suggested. "It was fun to watch that. If one of them had gotten in our way we would have been mad but we were able to drive around them. I am glad we had a fast enough car that we could be the aggressor and not the one being pushed around."

Ragan finished ahead of Kurt Busch (who survived that midrace spat with Jimmie Johnson) and his brother Kyle, who finished in sixth despite going a lap down early in the race after having to make an unscheduled extra pit stop on lap 69 in green for a suspected loose wheel.

Tony Stewart had a perfectly solid, unspectacular but most of all safe run to seventh place to clinch his Chase position, while Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. brought their battle-scarred cars home in ninth and 16th positions respectively to secure their own Chase spots as well. (See separate story on the Race for the Chase outcome.)

In all, it had been a long night, with drivers not getting to head off to the press conferences until after midnight and a strange mix of relief, euphoria and exhaustion lending a very surreal and often fractious air to proceedings. But finally the first major milestone of the 2011 season has been reached: the Chase contenders are locked in, and Harvick's win among the high drama, nerves and acts of retribution makes him the joint leader with Kyle Busch going into the title-deciding last ten races of the year.

Full race results and positions available.