RICHMOND, Va. — Kevin Harvick stormed into NASCAR's Chase for the Championship by winning at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday night.
The victory, his fourth this season, moved him into a tie with rival Kyle Busch at the top of the championship standings.
The 10-race Chase begins Sept. 18 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.
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 spots in the top 10 of the field as well.
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.
Hamlin, who nearly knocked off Johnson last year, has now made the Chase every year he has been eligible and earned his spot Saturday night with a spectacular comeback from an accident on the eighth lap of the race.
Earnhardt was involved in the same wreck, and 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 if he had climbed into the top 10 in the standings.
So as Earnhardt was mired back in the field, and Keselowski made a furious charge to the front, the tension was tremendous on his 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.
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.
Meanwhile, Johnson and Kurt Busch were at it again. Both already locked into the 10-race Chase, the rivals tussled repeatedly on the 0.75-mile oval.
First, Busch nudged Johnson into the wall. Then Johnson retaliated, sending Busch spinning and then spinning, too, a battle that he wound up losing because while Busch was still contending for the victory, Johnson headed for the garage.
"I got your number," Busch fumed on his radio.
When Johnson got back on the track, he was 34 laps off the pace, and he and Busch never tangled again. Busch finished fifth, Johnson 31st.