Tensions were high at the start of the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday evening. For many of those lining up under the floodlights this was the all important, do-or-die moment of the entire season as it came down to a matter of making the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup.

No one felt this more than the polesitter, four-time champion Jeff Gordon. He'd made the Chase last year in a last-gasp push that saw him pip Kyle Busch to a play-off spot by just three points in last year's Richmond outing, and he needed the same sort of resolve and good fortune here again this year if he was to make it through in 2013.

It started off well enough for Gordon, who led the first 49 laps of the 400 lap race before being passed by current Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski, who knew that a Chase berth was an outside bet for him but determined to do all that he could to try and secure one anyway, and that meant nothing less than a race win at Richmond. Keselowski was passed for the lead by Kurt Busch on lap 66, but the first round of pit stops saw Keselowski restored to the front on lap 97.

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Matt Kenseth had a brief turn at the top before Kurt Busch was back in charge, and the #78 led to the first caution of the night which was for debris in turn 1 on lap 137 which saw all the leaders take the opportunity to come into the pits, once again to the benefit of Keselowski who picked up the race lead at the restart and this time sustained it for 67 laps until the next caution on lap 208 triggered by a spin by David Stremme.

Kurt Busch won the race off pit lane but Keselowski was still back at the front. Meanwhile, a slew of problems hit the Hendrick Motorsport contenders, with Jeff Gordon having dropped back after his opening run at the front and now reporting a loose right-front wheel at the same time as his team mate Dale Earnhardt Jr. was fretting about overheating. The most serious setback was for Jimmie Johnson, who had started from the back of the grid after missing Friday qualifying following the birth of his second daughter the previous night and who was now stuck on pit lane with battery problems.

A new debris caution on the backstretch on lap 268 provided some much-needed relief for the struggling Gordon who received the lucky dog free pass, as Clint Bowyer beat Keselowski and Busch off pit road to lead at the green flag. Bowyer might already be locked into the Chase, but with no wins so far this season the Michael Waltrip Racing #15 dearly wanted a victory tonight to ut towards his post-cut off points score going into the title fight rather than be at a disadvantage from the get-go.

Bowyer led until lap 342 when he came in as part of a scheduled green flag pit stop; but that cycle was interrupted by a caution for Jimmie Johnson blowing a tyre, ensuring the fourth consecutive poor result for the man who had once led the championship standings so imperiously it seemed that he'd be able to take a week off and still go into the Chase with the points lead. Not any more: that honour now seemed certain to fall to Bowyer.

Gordon was once again the lucky dog recipient as the race went green again, far from having given up his dream of making the Chase. After falling way down the running order earlier on, he was now back on the lead lap and rapidly advancing positions, soon moving into the top ten on lap 365 and seemingly on rails after his earlier handling issues.

But at the restart on lap 348 it was Carl Edwards who led for the first time of the night and quickly pulled a second clear of Kurt Busch with Ryan Newman up into third place as he flew the colours of Stewart-Haas Racing on behalf of the sidelines team owner and co-driver Tony Stewart, who was at Richmond watching on. There was little chance of the #39 finishing in the top ten, but thanks to his victory at the Brickyard he was still in with a chance of one of the two wild card spots. Once was guaranteed to go to Hendrick's Kasey Kahne (with two wins under his belt at Bristol and Pocono this year) leaving Newman slogging it out with MWR's Martin Truex Jr. for the other with one win apiece. All Newman had to do was finish ahead of Truex in the points; unfortunately Truex was also running in the top ten, and that was too close for Newman, who put his foot down and moved into the lead on lap 391 with just ten laps remaining to the chequered flag; if he couldn't beat Truex on points then he'd darn well try doing it by adding an extra win instead.

No sooner was victory in sight than a caution was out, and it was a big one: Clint Bowyer had spun on the frontstretch, throwing away his opportunity of ending the regular season on top of the points. Although he was able to get underway again, he lost two laps and would be credited with 25th place at the finish.

"I think we had something going wrong," said Bowyer afterwards. "The #88 got up underneath me. I had so much wheel, by the time I got to the gas, he was underneath me. I spun out."

Even though the race was nearly full-distance, the leaders pitted for fear that they would be sitting ducks if they attempted to take the restart on worn tyres while their rivals were charging hard on fresh tyres for the final three-lap shootout on the three-quarter mile short track. Edwards and Newman were among those who pitted for four tyres, while the race lead went to Paul Menard who tried a two-tyre gambit instead which put him on point ahead of Carl Edwards at the lead with Mark Martin, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, Greg Biffle and Martin Truex Jr. filling out the top ten with Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth.

Edwards won the restart battle and took off into the lead, and Menard's two tyre strategy made him a sitting duck for Busch, Newman and McMurray to get past him in the final laps. No one could catch Edwards before the chequered flag came out, while Busch was more than ecstatic with claiming second place which came with it a famous Chase spot for the #78 Furniture Row Racing car.

"Unbelievable," celebrated Busch after managing to secure eighth place in the points standings. "To make the Chase with these guys is an unbelievable feeling. It's been an 18-month work in progress, and I've been through a lot, and I've learned a lot, and I feel like I'm better ready for the Chase and life in general as a 35-year-old," he said.

The FRR team had only three top-five finishes and eight top-tens in its 193 Cup starts before Busch joined the team at the end of 2012; Busch has eight top-fives and 13 top-tens this season alone, an effort which has secured his high-profile passage to Stewart-Haas Racing for next season, and on the evidence of Saturday night it seems that Gene Haas has made an excellent decision to expand SHR to a four-car line-up ahead of schedule.

Behind Busch, Newman came across the line in third place - but that was agonisingly one position short of what he needed: Truex was up to seventh place and that put the #39 and the #56 level on points.

Considering Newman had looked to be on his way to a Chase-clinching race win before that spin by Truex's team mate Bowyer, Newman couldn't help but wonder whether he'd fallen foul of some team tactics - a possibility given fuel by Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s recollection of the incident from behind.

"That's the craziest thing I ever saw," Earnhardt said. "He just came right around ... He was hemming around on the brakes and jerking the car around, and then the thing just spun out. It was crazy. I don't know what was going on."

That was enough for Newman. "They are teammates. I don't know if he looked at the scoring pylon, knew I was leading, it doesn't matter," he said. "If that was the case, I'll find out one way or the other. At the same time we still had the opportunity to make our own destiny and win it on pit road, and we didn't. That being said, we're out.

"Winning would have changed everything," Newman admitted. "That last caution definitely hurt us but we just got killed on pit road. Carl and those guys beat us on four tyres. We should have been able to come down pit road first and come off pit road first. If we were a championship-contending team, we would have a championship-contending pit crew and we didn't have that tonight."

"I know it's a lot of fun for you guys to write a lot of whacky things," responded Bowyer when asked about the conspiracy theory that he'd spun on purpose. "Go ahead if you want to, get creative. But don't look too much into it."

Truex meanwhile didn't care about any of that: he'd made the Chase despite driving the last two races wit a broken wrist, forcing him to wear a special cast. Saturday's result meant that the pain had been worth it. He hadn't even known Bowyer had been the cause of that crucial final caution.

"I didn't even know it happened until after the race," Truex insisted. "I raced my [backside] off all night long. That's all I can do. I tell my crew chief what my car is doing, what I need to go faster. That was enough to worry about. I don't have to worry about any other people out on the racetrack.

"I'm speechless. I don't even know what to say," a tearful Truex added. "I'm so proud of my guys. We were terrible, just terrible on long runs and we fought and fought and fought. The good Lord was on our side tonight."

Also clinching Chase spots at Richmond were Biffle and Earnhardt who finished with no-drama 12th and 13th places respectively in the race to maintain their top ten positions in the points for the cut-off. Kasey Kahne clinched the other wildcard as expected courtesy of the two wins and a 14th place finish this weekend.

The final spot in the Chase went to Penske Racing's Joey Logano, who clung on to tenth spot in the standings despite a bad day at the office as far as he was concerned, finishing

"I feel really good after a rough night," a relieved Logano said. "Were were struggling all night. Thank God for that last caution. I think we were out before that. We just have to forget about tonight and reset our goals for the Chase."

The restart allowed Logano to take the wave-around and gain several crucial spots as he finished in 22nd. That was just enough to pip Jeff Gordon by a single point in the standings despite the #24 finishing in the top ten; if Logano had been pushed out of the top ten then he'd have stolen the wins wildcard from Truex (and Newman).

But there was no joy for Logano's Penske team mate, the reigning Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski. he ended the day in 17th position at Richmond which meant 16th in the Cup standings and without a win all year.

"I don't really have any emotions right now. We weren't good enough to make it and we didn't. That is the reality," a deflated Keselowski said. "We have work to do. At the end of the day, the thing about points is it is the best measuring stick in sports. You know who deserves to be where because the results speak for themselves. We didn't have enough results to get where we needed to be."

That contrasted with the jubilation in victory lane for Carl Edwards, who not only made the Chase with his win on Saturday night but now went into the play-offs with the momentum of victory behind him.

"We're gonna win the championship. That's our mission. That seemed like a crazy idea about a month-and-a-half ago," said Edwards. "We've got two guys in the Chase. We've got Ricky Stenhouse, who had an awesome night tonight, but this championship would mean the world to me. The next 10 weeks, we're gonna be on them hard. They're gonna know we're here."

The memory of 2011 when he lost out to Tony Stewart on a wins tie-break after finishing the season level on points is far in the past for Edwards. Maybe this year will indeed be his moment.

Despite finishing in the lead on points after Richmond, Edwards will start the Chase in fifth place after the point reset, which sees all the contenders credited with 2000 points and then an extra three points for each regular season win they have up to this point - save for the two drivers who make it through on a wildcard, their wins having been deemed to have been 'burned up' in making the play-offs.

As a result, Matt kenseth is top seed thanks to his five wins so far in 2013, ahead of four-time winners Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch. Kevin Harvick starts level with Edwards, while Joey Logano and Greg Biffle are next up ahead of the five contenders who start the Chase with the baseline score of 2000 - Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne and Martin Truex Jr.

The 2013 Sprint Cup champion will be one of these 12 men. Which one it will be is impossible to tell, as Tony Stewart's 2011 run to the title demonstrated all too well. One thing's for sure, though: we'll know by the time the drivers get to the chequered flag at Homestead-Miami in ten weeks time.

Full race results and Sprint Cup Championship standings are available.