Sprint Cup race No. 26, the final regular-season event on the NASCAR 2011 schedule, was rather uneventful in terms of altering anything we knew going into the Wonderful Pistachios 400 Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway.
Richard Childress Racing's Kevin Harvick outlasted the field to win his season-tying fourth Cup race in 2011 and move to the second seed behind Kyle Busch in the Chase for the Cup lineup, from which the championship in NASCAR's top level will be decided over the next ten races. Harvick, Busch and seven other drivers had already secured their place in the Chase field prior to Saturday night, but for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin, Richmond brought finality to their season-long quest to be among the 12 Chase qualifiers.
Carl Edwards led 113 of the 400 laps and finished second to Harvick in Saturday night's race at Richmond, but the Columbia, Mo., driver and his Roush Fenway Racing crew made what turned out to be a critical tactical decision when the No. 99 Ford chose not to pit along with the other lead-lap cars following the 14th of a record 15 cautions three-quarters through the race.
"I don't know why we didn't pit," Edwards said afterwards. "I think Bob (Osborne, Edwards' 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.
"We were still running third when the next caution came out (on lap 384), and we still should have...I should have been able to win that race," he said. "I just didn't get a good enough restart, didn't get by Jeff (Gordon) to have a lap or two once I got to Kevin. We learned a lesson."
Four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon, a co-owner of Hendrick Motorsports, came in third behind Edwards. He was followed to the finish by Edwards' Roush-Fenway teammate David Ragan and Kurt Busch of Penske Racing. Only two of the drivers who will be competing in the Chase for the Cup field did not finish among the top 12 at Richmond.
Jimmie Johnson, seeking an unprecedented sixth consecutive Sprint Cup championship and who was leading in the standings coming into Richmond, got into it with Kurt Busch on lap 246 in what appeared to be a continuance of the long-standing feud between the two veteran NASCAR drivers. Both cars spun out, and Johnson's No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet crashed into the wall. Johnson was forced to retire to the garage for repairs. Although the 48 car did return to the track, Johnson finished 38 laps down in 31st place.
Earnhardt, seeded tenth among the Chase qualifiers, was 16th in Saturday's race. Fortunately, the driver of the No. 88 Hendricks Motorsports Chevrolet just needed a finish of 18th or better to stake his 2011 Chase claim, joining teammates Johnson and Gordon in the championship round. Earnhardt pitted 17 times in the race and earned three free passes on restarts.
"That last run there, we were actually too tight," Harvick said. "Carl was actually a little bit bitter. 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."
Harvick's fourth victory of the season raised his career total to 18. It was his second at Richmond in 22 career starts at the three-quarter-mile venue.
Clint Bowyer's 22nd-place finish spoke to the season-long frustration that the Emporia, Kan., native has experienced this year. Bowyer ended up 14th in the regular-season points standings and out of the Chase. He has had nine top-ten finishes this season, but most of those were in the first-to-middle part of the season.
The 10-race Chase for the Cup championship gets under way next Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill. It will be the first time the Chase, NASCAR's version of the playoffs, has kicked off at Chicago. Previously, New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, now the second race on the schedule, has served as the opening venue