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Earnhardt, Hamlin survive Chase scare

RICHMOND, Va. -- This was no race to make the Chase. For Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin, it was a desperate struggle to survive on a night filled with crashing, spinning, banging and bashing, sometimes on purpose.

It was the Thrilla in Manila, NASCAR style.

The victor was Kevin Harvick, who picked up an important fourth win that enables him to start the Chase tied for the top spot with Kyle Busch.

It also comes one day after Harvick announced he was shutting down his Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series teams. Harvick said he wanted to concentrate on Sprint Cup and winning the championship. I guess it's working.

The real work Saturday night on the Richmond short track was happening back in the pack. The three bubble boys in the Chase 12 -- Earnhardt, Tony Stewart and Hamlin -- held on.

For Stewart, it was relatively easy. He finished seventh by avoiding all the carnage. For Earnhardt and Hamlin, it was the clawing, scratching, bone-rattling fight of the season.

Hamlin finished ninth and Earnhardt was 16th. Eight laps after the green flag, no one would have believed it.

Earnhardt and Hamlin found themselves with badly wrecked race cars before the seat was warm. Both drivers were in a deep danger zone. Trying to race well was out of the picture. Suddenly, it was about hoping to persevere.

They were Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, just trying to get to the end still standing, or in this case, with a car still running. They weren't fighting each other, and the battered bodies were on their cars, but it was gut-check time nonetheless.

This race was "have at it, boys" on steroids. After only 27 of 400 laps, 15 cars had wrecked, including 13 cars on Lap 8. When it ended, 21 drivers were racing with damaged cars and nine others were in the garage.

Earnhardt deliberately wrecked Travis Kvapil. Jimmie Johnson made sure he wrecked longtime adversary Kurt Busch. Brian Vickers went sideways on the track during a caution to keep Marcos Ambrose from moving past him.

It was that kind of night, which included 15 cautions. Get tough or get out. For Earnhardt, Hamlin and their crews, they got tough.

Junior needed three "lucky dogs" to finish on the lead lap. Hamlin restarted 40th early in the race with a car that he wasn't sure he still could drive.

"The car was in shambles," Hamlin said. "It was in bad, bad shape."

And Earnhardt's No. 88 Chevy? I've seen better front ends on a crash test dummy car.

Clint Bowyer spun on Lap 8 and was sideways on the track, right in front of Earnhardt. Ka-boom! Earnhardt slammed head-on into Bowyer's left front quarter panel.

Earnhardt's front grill was dented into a V-shape about a foot deep. The right front also had significant damage.

Crew chief Steve Letarte wasn't sure about any engine damage, but didn't dare let his crew open the hood. Being able to close it back would have been doubtful.

"It was tore up pretty bad," Earnhardt said. "I bent up a bunch of stuff on the car. But I wasn't worried. I've seen wrecked cars run well on short tracks before."

If he wasn't worried, he should have been. Brad Keselowski, the man who could have knocked Earnhardt out of the Chase picture, was running second at one point when Earnhardt was way back in the pack.

Hamlin was worried sick.

"It was nerve-racking," he said. "Every person that could knock us out was running up front at times, and a few were a threat to win all day.''

All the cautions helped Hamlin's and Earnhardt's crews get the cars back in decent shape. Earnhardt pitted 16 times on the night. Hamlin came to pit road 17 times.

"My guys did the best job I've ever seen them do as far as fixing the car after it was damaged," Hamlin said. "Getting the splitter back up off the ground and things like that.

"It's amazing how fast we got this car considering all the problems. My crew did an incredible job. They kept us in it."

And both drivers believe they deserve to be in the Chase.

"It's a second lease on life," Hamlin said. "We come into the Chase with three consecutive top-10s. We've got some momentum."

Earnhardt is in the 10-race playoff for the first time since 2008. He may not have momentum, but he has confidence in a group of guys who made the most of a bad situation Saturday night.

"I think my team is good enough to be there,'' Earnhardt said. "Now we have a chance to run for the championship. We'll go see what we can do."

When this race/fight was over, 11 guys hoping to make the Chase went home without reaching that goal. But Earnhardt and Hamlin and their teams showed some major intestinal fortitude.

In the end, like two brave and battered boxers, Hamlin and Earnhardt were still standing. They earned it.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.