RICHMOND, Va. -- The "Race to the Chase" started way back in February with Trevor Bayne's stunning upset victory in the Daytona 500 and finally concluded 26 races later with Kevin Harvick winning Saturday night's NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Raceway.
The 12-car field is set for the "Chase to the Championship" which begins next Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway.
So let's "Cut to the Chase" and get straight to the "Five Things We Learned from NASCAR at Richmond."
The only drama came when Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was involved in an early-race crash damaging his Chevrolet. More about that later but with Earnhardt able to finish 16th and Tony Stewart finishing seventh those two drivers protected their positions in the top 10 which locked both into the 12-driver Chase field.
Brad Keselowski made it exciting in the middle portion of the race when he was as high as second place. If Keselowski were able to make it into the top 10 in points that would have knocked Earnhardt out and allowed David Ragan to grab the final "Wild Card" position based on his lone victory at Daytona in July. But Earnhardt held on which kept Keselowski 11th in points and allowed Denny Hamlin to take the final Wild Card position based on his win at Pocono in June. Hamlin entered the race 12th and that is where he will start "The Chase."
Kyle Busch will be seeded first in the Chase based on his four victories although he will be tied with another four-time winner, Harvick. Four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon will be seeded third based on his three victories this season followed by two-time winner Matt Kenseth and Phoenix winner Carl Edwards. Five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is seeded sixth followed by Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman. All of the top eight drivers have won at least one race. Tony Stewart and Earnhardt are the only drivers in the Chase without a victory but by finishing in the top 10 they didn't need a victory.
The two wild cars are three-time winner Keselowski and Hamlin.
When NASCAR introduced changes to the Chase that included the introduction of the final two positions going to race winners it was intended to add drama, intrigue and excitement to the final event of NASCAR's "Regular Season."
Unfortunately, all of those elements were missing Saturday night. The only drama was whether Earnhardt could overcome early race adversity and whether Keselowski could race his way into the top 10 in points to really shake things up.
Alas, that never happened as the same 12 drivers in the night were the same 12 drivers coming out at the end of the night.
"We would have preferred to have gotten into the top 10 and capitalized on those bonus points but we're in the Chase and that's all that matters," Keselowski said. "I'm just thankful for the year we had. I feel that we can be a serious contender."
Gordon is attempting to join teammate Jimmy Johnson as a five-time Cup champion.
"This team couldn't be more pumped and excited about getting this Chase started next week in Chicago," Gordon said. "I'm really looking forward to the next 10 weeks."
NASCAR did its best to come up with a system that was intended to spice up the Chase. They were able to put more emphasis on winning races and that goal was accomplished as 10 of the 12 drivers in the field are race winners. But as far as building a crescendo at Richmond it missed the mark.
"Somebody knocked the (crap) out of us and drove us right into it," Earnhardt radioed to his Hendrick Motorsports crew, who used the caution laps to make several pit stops to repair the damage to his Chevrolet. Earnhardt brought the car into pit lane four different times for repairs before the green flag waved to resume racing on lap 20.
Hamlin was mired back in 41st place on the restart while Earnhardt was 25th.
Most of Earnhardt's radio communication afterward was laced with profanity as crew chief Steve Letarte tried to calm him down to make the best out of what was already a bad situation.
"I can't think of the big picture because I really can't see it," Earnhardt said.
"Do the best you can -- I know you are -- but do the best you can," Letarte said.
Later in the race, Earnhardt ran into the back of Travis Kvapil's car sending it spinning. Earnhardt was in position to be the "Lucky Dog" but NASCAR rescinded it from him because he caused the caution.
"He got what he deserved and he knew it," Earnhardt said of Kvapil.
But over the long course of the race, Earnhardt and his team were able to keep it together and when he crossed the checkered flag 16th he was back in the Chase for the first time since 2008.
"Welcome to the Chase, Bud -- that was the longest 350 laps of my life," Letarte said. "We've got 10 weeks to turn this thing around but we'll get it done."
Later, Earnhardt was able to talk about his accomplishment.
"We had a pretty good year and tonight didn't start off too good," Earnhardt said. "One or two guys drove through there and drove us into it. We got lucky and ended up finishing 16th somehow. It's all over with now and we'll see how we do in this Chase.
"I figured we had all night to fix it and Brad would have to run his ass off to fix it. I knew my team could fix the car and if we got those lucky dogs we would be fine. I'm proud to be in the Chase and I feel that we're good enough to be in the top 10. We can look back in the top 10 of the season and easily think about where we cost ourselves 10 or 15 points but we're a good team and I'm proud to carry my sponsors in the Chase.
"I'm in the Chase and I have an opportunity to race for the championship."
As for Hamlin, he also had to survive his moments of high anxiety to finish ninth.
"It was one of those days," Hamlin said. "Very nervous moments. It was the best job I've seen of a crew fixing the car. They did a great job getting the splitter off the ground. They kept us in it."
Both Earnhardt and Hamlin are in the Chase. Now the big question is whether they can actually become a factor in the battle for the championship.
But Johnson wasn't going to let this one slide. He raced his way back to Busch's Dodge in time to put a wheel into him on lap 246 to send both cars into the wall.
"I got your number," Busch yelled in the radio. "I got your number."
The tensions continued after the race when Busch called Johnson a `Five-Time Chump.'"
"To fight back from that and be in good position all night we had a top-five car," Busch said. "We raced down into Turn 1 and I locked up the left front trying to avoid him but when he came back after me I could see it coming. I'm good with where we are. We raced hard and have good cars but Jimmie Johnson has to learn to race. He's won the last five years by outdriving people but he has to learn to race."
Johnson snickered when told of Busch's comments.
"Huh, OK -- I got run over going into Turn 1," Johnson said. "I'm sure I'll go find him and he'll run his mouth and we'll go from there. If he can stop running into my Chevrolet everything will be just fine. He ran me over going into Turn 1. It is what it is. We had a very strong race car and were in the top four or five but we'll go to Chicago and have a good race."
This will be the feud that will spark the Chase pitting the five-time Cup champion going against one of NASCAR's "Bad Boys." This is just what NASCAR needs to attract some attention in the early stages of the championship race.
"We had a huge team meeting on a Sunday after Bristol because we had such a horrendous Bristol race as a team," crew chief Gil Martin said. "It's been a solid two races for us."
Harvick's fourth win of the season came at a perfect time to reassert his standing entering the Chase. Along with Kyle Busch, Harvick is at the top of the standings heading to Chicagoland next weekend.
"It's been stressful the last two months but we've had a solid last two weeks," Harvick said. "The guys on pit road had a great last pit stop and got us the track position. To be in position on that last restart really got us going. It all worked out."
Nobody was happier about that than team owner Richard Childress.
This is what championship teams are built of," Childress said. "When you find something that needs to be fixed you fix it and that's what we did."
After taking a few terse comments about the media during the formal media conference Busch took offense to a question from Jenna Fryer of The Associated Press referring to a comment Busch made that he had "gotten inside Johnson's head." Busch said he never said that but when Fryer produced the transcript of the comments that he said on Dodge Motorsports letterhead, Busch took the release, tore it in half and tossed it on her computer as he stormed out of the room.
"I almost feel bad for her," Matt Kenseth said after the incident.
Instead of celebrating a fifth-place finish, Busch had another monumental meltdown at Richmond. This was where he lit into his crew in a profanity-laced tirade back in April, which led to major changes on the team.
Busch is a great driver and won the championship in 2004 but his actions on Saturday night were far from the character of a true champion. This is a sport of passionate competitors where tempers flare, but it might be time for Busch to hit the reset button before the real battle for the championship begins next weekend.