RICHMOND, Va. -- Tension was high even before the final race to set the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field.
That didn't change even after the champagne-fueled celebration for the 12 drivers in this year's title hunt.
Kevin Harvick was all smiles after his Saturday night win at Richmond International Raceway moved him into a tie with rival Kyle Busch atop the Chase standings. And Dale Earnhardt Jr. was thrilled to be back in the Chase for the first time since 2008.
Blount: Earnhardt, Hamlin still standing
Like two brave and battered boxers after a 12-round title fight, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin raised their arms in triumph Saturday night at Richmond. The Chase? Bring it on, writes Terry Blount. Story
But a lingering feud between five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson and former champion Kurt Busch flared up again -- on the track with intentional contact and off the track with angry words -- and the aftermath led to a surreal post-race scene. Busch angrily confronted a reporter in the press room as soon as he entered the news conference, and when he went to take his spot on the podium, brother Kyle, Ryan Newman and Stewart had already filled the three seats.
As he waited for a chair to be added, Johnson entered the room and stood awkwardly to the side. He was crammed in on the opposite end of the podium from Busch, and the mood turned suddenly sour.
It almost spoiled a night that should have been a celebration for what NASCAR likely believes is a perfect championship field.
But on they go now to Chicago, where the 10-race Chase begins on Sunday. The field consists of Johnson, both Busch brothers, Stewart, Hamlin, Newman, Earnhardt, Harvick, Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski and Jeff Gordon, and it's wide open for the first time in years.
"It's really going to come down to who makes the least mistakes," Harvick said. "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."
Harvick stormed into the Chase with his Richmond win, his fourth of the season, which moved him into a tie with Kyle Busch for most in the Cup Series. It came after a long slump and a horrible run three weeks ago at Bristol that led to a lengthy team meeting at Richard Childress Racing on a rare off day.
"The Sunday morning meeting wasn't pretty, most of the meetings haven't been pretty the last month or so, but we went back and found a lot of things that we felt like we had done a little bit different," Harvick said. "It's been stressful the last month, but I think as you see the last two weeks it's paid off."[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Clem BrittDrivers who made NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship pose after the race at Richmond.
These last few weeks have made the difference for many of the title contenders.
A wrinkle added to the Chase format this year awarded two wild-card positions, and those were claimed by Keselowski and 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 1-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.
Stewart also claimed his spot with back-to-back strong runs that have shown some new life in his race team.
Earnhardt, meanwhile, got in almost in spite of himself. He's been slumping for almost three months, putting what once looked for sure like a Chase-contending season in serious jeopardy.
"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."
Earnhardt was involved in the same wreck as Hamlin, but his recovery did not come the way Hamlin's did. It left NASCAR's most popular driver 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.
Chase for the Sprint Cup Standings
Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick are the co-leaders of the pack as the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship begins.
T-1. Kyle Busch T-1. Kevin Harvick 3. Jeff Gordon 4. Matt Kenseth T-5. Jimmie Johnson T-5. Carl Edwards T-5. Kurt Busch T-5. Ryan Newman T-9. Tony Stewart T-9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. T-9. Brad Keselowski T-9. Denny Hamlin Full standings
"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."
Then there's Kurt Busch and Johnson, who haven't been able to avoid each other of late on the race track.
Busch said after the event "I know we're in his head," and that the five-time champion has got "to learn to race. He's been able to beat guys the last five years just by outdriving them with what he has for equipment. If he wants to switch equipment, let's see what he can do."
Johnson scoffed at Busch's remarks.
"I'm sure I'll go find him and talk to him and he'll run his mouth and we'll go from there," Johnson said. "If he can stop running into my Lowe's Chevrolet, everything would be just fine."
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press
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