RICHMOND, Va. — Kevin Harvick stormed into the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship by winning at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday night.
The victory moved him into a tie with rival Kyle Busch at the top of the championship standings.
“We ran good here, and we feel like we’ve got some good cars lined up for the Chase,” Harvick said. “It’s really going to come down to who makes the least mistakes. There are a lot of cars that can win. A lot of cars that can be competitive. It’s going to be who makes the least amount of mistakes and capitalizes the most on the days that you are off.”
The 10-race Chase begins next Sunday at Chicago with a field NASCAR likely considers close to perfect. The 12-driver field will include Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will race for the championship for the first time since 2008.
“I’m proud to be in the Chase,” Earnhardt said. “I feel like I’m a good enough driver to be in the Chase; my team is good enough to be there.”
Also in the Chase are former series champions Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon. Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman and five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson claimed the top 10 spots in the field.
The two wild cards, a wrinkle added to the Chase format this year, went to Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin. Keselowski made the field with a spectacular summer, winning two races to put himself in contention, and Hamlin earned his spot by turning around his season when everything was on the line.
It will be Keselowski’s first appearance in the Chase.
“I’m viewing it like a one-year-old that got his first box of crayons — happy and amazed to have them,” Keselowski said. “And it’s great. Everything is fresh, new, and a lot of positive momentum.”
Hamlin, who nearly knocked off Johnson last year, now has made the Chase every year he’s been eligible and earned his spot Saturday night with a spectacular comeback from an accident on the eighth lap of the race.
“That was not what I planned on happening,” he said of the early accident. But a frantic series of repairs put Hamlin back on track. He seemed stunned by his ninth-place finish.
“My car is just in shambles. It is in bad, bad shape,” Hamlin said.
Earnhardt was involved in the same wreck. Although his car suffered less damage than Hamlin’s, his recovery was difficult, and NASCAR’s most popular driver was frustrated during long stretches of the race. With so much pressure on Earnhardt to make the Chase, he had to race with one eye on Keselowski, who would have knocked Earnhardt out of the field had he climbed into the top 10 in the standings.
So as Earnhardt was stuck back in the field and Keselowski made a furious charge to the front, the tension was tremendous on Earnhardt’s radio. Crew chief Steve Letarte begged the driver to stay focused, but Earnhardt seemed dubious.
“I can’t think of the big picture because I really can’t see it,” he sighed.
But Keselowski faded to a 12th-place finish, and Earnhardt, who got the free pass back onto the lead lap three times in the race, finished 16th. He later said he never stressed about not making the Chase.
“I wasn’t worried at all,” Earnhardt said. “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.”
Harvick, meanwhile, snapped out of his summer slump to put himself in solid position to win his first Cup championship. He was passed by Gordon with 22 laps to go, but a caution by Harvick teammate Paul Menard with 16 laps left sent everybody to pit road.
Harvick beat Gordon back onto the track and restarted in the lead with 12 laps to go. He then had to hold off a hard-charging Edwards over the final few laps to get the victory. Even though Harvick led a race-high 202 laps, both Edwards and Gordon thought they had a shot at the win.
“That was a tough race not to win,” Edwards said. “I felt like we had the car to beat, and if we had another lap or two, we would have been all up — all over Harvick there.”
Gordon, who won Tuesday at Atlanta and would have moved to the top of the standings with Busch had he also won Richmond, still thinks he’s got his best chance in years to win a fifth title.
“I feel like we’ve got more momentum going into the Chase. I feel like our team is really, really strong,” Gordon said. “We’ve got an awesome race team right now. I’m extremely excited.”