RICHMOND, Va. - Denny Hamlin finally grabbed a coveted win at his home track in a bittersweet night for Joe Gibbs Racing. As he celebrated in Victory Lane, teammate Kyle Busch was shut out of the Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship.
It was a compelling night of racing in Saturday night's Chevy Rock and Roll 400 at Richmond International Raceway, where 11 drivers vied for the final eight available spots in NASCAR's 10-race, title-deciding Chase.
On the bubble was Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth, who started the race in the 12th and final qualifying spot. Hard-charging Brian Vickers and Busch were right on his bumper.
Kenseth struggled from the drop of the green flag and quickly fell out of contention. But Busch and Vickers swapped the final spot multiple times over the 400 laps, setting up a final 14-lap sprint to the finish.
Busch used a flawless final pit stop to beat Vickers off of pit road, but he restarted sixth and could only gain one spot on the track. He finished fifth.
Vickers, meanwhile, finished a career-high seventh at Richmond to grab the final Chase spot by eight points - the tightest margin between the last driver in and first one out since the Chase format began in 2004.
"We'll live to see another day, we'll go on and race the rest of the year," said Busch, who tied for the series high in victories with four but was done in by 10 finishes of 20th or worse. "It's not just one night. It's a slew of bad races."
Busch and Vickers, one-time teammates who feuded last month, showed no ill will toward each other after the frantic finish.
Busch extended a handshake and said, "Good job," as Vickers entered the post-race news conference.
Vickers, on a frantic 11-race push with upstart Red Bull Racing, promised a long night of celebrating his first Chase berth.
And for good reason: After finishing eighth in his Richmond debut in 2004 as a member of Hendrick Motorsports, Vickers had been awful at the 0.75-mile oval, with six finishes of 28th or worse in nine races, plus one failure to qualify.
"We picked a good night to figure this place out," Vickers said.
Kenseth, winner of the first two races this season, was shut out of the Chase for the first time since it started in 2004. He and three-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson were the only two drivers to make the Chase each year.
Kenseth finished 14th in points, 38 out of the Chase.
"Third race of the year, Las Vegas, we finished last and it's been downhill from there," said Kenseth, the 2003 champion. "The way we're running right now, even if we made it, we wouldn't have a shot at the championship."
Six of the top 10 finishers made the 10-race Chase, including Hamlin, runnerup Kurt Busch and third-place Jeff Gordon.
Others clinching Chase spots: Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Juan Montoya, Ryan Newman, Mark Martin and Greg Biffle. They join leader Tony Stewart, Johnson, Gordon and Hamlin, who had clinched spots coming into Saturday.
Martin, a four-time series runnerup who is widely considered the best NASCAR driver never to win a title, is the new points leader with 5,040. The field is reset at 5,000 points each, plus 10 bonus points for each win.
Aside from Kenseth and Kyle Busch, the other driver who was eliminated was David Reutimann of Zephyrhills.
Meanwhile, Hamlin won at last at his favorite track, where he had earned two poles, had three top-three finishes and dominated a couple of times. Last spring he led 381 laps but finished 24th.
Now the winner of two races this year thinks he's the favorite to dethrone Johnson's title run.
"They better watch us," he vowed. "I am telling you, this team is dangerous."