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Published on September 12th, 2011 | by NASCAR Wire Service

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Harvick Wins Wonderful Pistachios 400; Chase Set

As far as the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup was concerned, nothing changed during Kevin Harvick’s victory in Saturday night’s Wonderful Pistachios 400 at Richmond International Raceway—but what happened between the green flag and the checkered flag was astounding.

For the record, Harvick won his fourth race of the season and the 18th of his career as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin secured the final Chase spots they held provisionally entering the race—but not without considerable angst in the process.

Harvick beat Jeff Gordon out of the pits after a stop under caution on Lap 385 of 400 and drove away from the four-time champion. Carl Edwards passed Gordon for the second spot and challenged Harvick for the win, but Edwards ran out of time, finishing .139 seconds back.

With four victories each, Harvick and Kyle Busch are the top seeds for this year’s Chase.

“The guys on pit road had just a great last pit stop and were able to get us the track position,” Harvick said. “I struggled on the restarts getting going with the (gear) ratios that we had, so to be in control of that last restart I felt was pretty important, to get going.

“That last run there, we were actually too tight—Carl was actually a little bit better—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.”

Gordon ran third, followed by David Ragan and Kurt Busch. Kyle Busch, Stewart, Ryan Newman, Hamlin and Mark Martin completed the top 10.

Edwards led 113 laps and dominated the middle stages of the race but lost track position when he failed to pit with other lead-lap cars under caution on Lap 310.

“I don’t know why we didn’t pit,” Edwards said. “I think (crew chief) Bob (Osborne) thought that there was going to be another caution. We were kind of getting caution after caution (a track-record-tying 15 cautions for 85 laps, all told), 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 had … I should have been able to win that race. I just didn’t get a good enough restart, didn’t get by Jeff to have a lap or two once I got to Kevin. We learned a lesson.”

This race had everything, far beyond the dash to the finish. It had a heroic effort from Hamlin, who recovered from a hard hit on Lap 8 to secure a spot in the Chase for the sixth straight year.

It had suspense, as Earnhardt, his Chevrolet also damaged in that Lap 8 wreck, fought hard to hang on to a position in the top 10 in the standings—and succeeded when attrition turned the numbers in his favor.

“We just kept working it and trying to fix the car,” said Earnhardt, who finished 16th and wound up 10th in the standings. “It was tore up pretty bad in the front end, had a lot of camber, was really loose in (into the corners) and wouldn’t turn in the middle.

“But we worked on it and worked on it. … I’m proud to be in the Chase. I feel like I’m a good enough driver to be in the Chase—my team is good enough to be there.”

It featured a solid job from Stewart, who stayed out of trouble to qualify for the Chase for the seventh time.

It saw a renewal of the Kurt Busch-Jimmie Johnson rivalry, as the drivers took turns knocking each other into the Turn 2 wall. Busch got the better of the exchange by far, coming home fifth to Johnson’s 31st.

The race was not yet eight laps old when a massive pileup in Turn 3 sent shock waves through the brains of some of the most notable Chase hopefuls.

Racing side-by-side with polesitter David Reutimann, Clint Bowyer spun and stacked up the field behind him. Earnhardt’s Chevrolet plowed into Bowyer’s, and Hamlin, trying to protect his wild-card spot, slammed hard into the outside wall.

Hamlin lost a lap during a succession of pit stops but regained it with a free pass under a subsequent caution. When the field restarted on Lap 44, Hamlin was 39th and Earnhardt was 21st.

Both recovered, Hamlin in spectacular fashion, as his crew took advantage of 34 caution laps in the first 61 circuits to repair the No. 11 Toyota and prevent the front splitter from dragging the asphalt.

“It was amazing how we were able to battle back,” Hamlin said. “This car is absolutely destroyed. Any other racetrack, we would be down 20 laps, but they just worked on it. It’s amazing how fast they got this car, considering the circumstances. We had to put an inch worth of packers (shims) in the right front, just to get (the splitter) off the ground.”

In addition to Harvick and Kyle Busch, seven other drivers went into Saturday’s race locked into the Chase: Johnson, Edwards, Gordon, Newman, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski.

The 10-race Chase begins Sept. 18 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill.

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