RICHMOND, Va. – Jimmie Johnson did what he could do while Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick did what they had to do in Saturday night’s Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at Richmond International Raceway.
Johnson won for a second straight week, leading the final 104 laps for his sixth victory this year to notch another 10 bonus points to take into the Chase for the Nextel Cup when it begins next week in New Hampshire.
Johnson will start first in the 10-race Chase with 5,060 points, 20 points ahead of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon. Gordon finished fourth Saturday night after leading 126 of the first 166 laps.
“At the end of the night we made enough changes to get the car right and it was awesome at the end,” said Johnson, the defending Nextel Cup champion. “We’re off to a good start.”
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Busch and Harvick made the Chase, too, securing their spots by avoiding – narrowly, at times – a disaster that would have opened the door for a rally by Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Harvick finished seventh and Busch finished ninth, easily allowing them to hold off Earnhardt Jr., who was battling for second position with Tony Stewart and rookie David Ragan when the engine in his No. 8 Chevrolet started smoking with seven laps left.
Earnhardt Jr. pulled off the track having completed 394 laps, leaving him 30th in this race and 198 points short of the Chase.
Stewart finished second, with Ragan third for his best career Cup finish. Johnny Sauter was also a surprise, finishing fifth behind Gordon.
“We just kept sneaking up on it all night, but we felt like we let one get away from us tonight,” said Stewart, the 2005 champion who missed the Chase last year but who starts this year’s Chase third with 5,030 points.
“After missing the Chase last year obviously we’re excited to be back in it. We never in our wildest dreams thought we’d miss it last year, but it just shows you have to be on top of your game.”
Busch and Harvick both got big scares in a multicar wreck on Lap 242 that began when Ryan Newman’s Dodge spun out. As cars stacked up in traffic, Busch got damage to the rear of his No. 2 Dodge when he got hit in the rear by Juan Pablo Montoya, whose car erupted in flames before he was able to climb out uninjured.
Harvick, meanwhile, had to go through the infield grass to avoid the mess. Debris collected on the nose of his car and when the field was stopped under a red flag there was steam coming from Harvick’s engine.
With Earnhardt Jr. second, for a moment there was a slight whiff of drama.
Earnhardt Jr. came in 128 points behind Harvick at the Chase cut line, and Harvick needed to finish 32nd and Busch 36th to clinch their spots. Had either been unable to continue, things really could have become interesting.
But Busch’s car wasn’t damaged too badly to continue, and Harvick’s crew got the debris cleaned off his grille and the overheating issue went away. Both made it uneventfully to the checkered flag and will race for the title starting next week.
“We had a lot of things happen tonight, a lot of close calls,” Harvick said. “We haven’t had a whole lot go right the past month. We overcame a lot of things and it’s nice to start back a ground zero with everybody just a few points behind. All in all everybody did a good job and we did what we had to do.”
Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards will start the Chase with 5,020 points after winning twice in the first 26 races.
Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Burton, Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have all won one race and will have 5,010 points to start the Chase.
Clint Bowyer didn’t win in the “regular season,” but still made the Chase and will roll off in the playoffs with 5,000 points.
While the run-up to the Chase cutoff might have lacked some of the drama it had in the first three years of the championship format, what lies ahead shapes up as something potentially special. The top three seeds – Johnson, Gordon and Stewart – are all past champions. Johnson and Stewart have won the past two and Gordon has four on his career resume.
“It makes it fun because you respect the guys who’ve made it,” Stewart said. “The guys who’ve won it before know how to win championships, and then you have the other guys who’re capable. If they can put 10 good weeks together they’re on the list.
“The teams that are running the best right now have the best shot of winning the championship. You can call it momentum, I call it how you’re performing.”