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Kevin Harvick! Back in form, after a long, hard summer...just in time for the championship playoffs. But bruised feelings abound after Richmond

   Yes, it was just that kind of night at Richmond. Would you believe 15 cautions? And a lot of bruised feelings.....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern


   Kevin Harvick -- one of the 'forgotten' men in this year's championship chase, had been complaining the past several weeks about not being competitive this summer.  But he closed out NASCAR's 'regular season' with a flourish Saturday night with a solid victory in the Richmond 400….on a wild night at Richmond International Raceway, that featured yet another series of bruising run-ins between Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch.

   Carl Edwards was the only man who had anything for Harvick over the three-hour race, until Jeff Gordon launched a late charge.
   Gordon took the lead with some 20 laps to go. But the final yellow, of a caution-filled night, set up a pit road battle for gas and fresh tires, and Harvick came out with the lead.
    Harvick got a good jump on the restart, Gordon faded into a duel with Kyle Busch, and Edwards made a vigorous charge in the final miles.
    Edwards got to Harvick's rear but couldn't get close enough to make a move, and Harvick crossed the line two lengths ahead.


Kevin Harvick (29) approaching the finish line, with Carl Edwards sideways in a desperate bid to beat him (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   "Just a great weekend," Harvick said after his fourth win of the year. "Now it's all about the last 10 races, and we've got momentum."
    NASCAR's 10-race championship playoffs open next weekend at Chicagoland Speedway, just outside the third biggest market in the U.S., Bears Country of course, which could create some promotion and marketing issues. It's the first time NASCAR has opened the playoffs at a track other than New Hampshire Motor Speedway, which the second playoff stop.
   Kyle Busch, who had a ragged night but a strong finish, goes to Chicago with the tour points lead, and four regular season wins.
   The top 10 drivers over the regular season's 26 races made the chase, plus two wild cards – Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin. All 12 men had their point totals essentially 're-zeroed' for the start of the playoffs, putting them on equal footing, though with some bonus points for regular season wins.
   And for the first time in a while Dale Earnhardt Jr. also made the chase. Just barely.
   The five strongest men in the playoffs are Kyle Busch, Johnson, Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Gordon.
   For all the pre-race hype and hoopla, the 12 men who were 'in' the chase before the race all actually made it in.
   Edwards went to Harvick's car after the race to congratulate him.
  "He wouldn't give me enough room to run into him," Edwards said with a laugh. "I wanted to get him for Trevor (Bayne) last night."
   In Friday night's Nationwide race Harvick and Bayne had a controversial run-in.

A very nice crowd at Richmond International Raceway Saturday night for the final race of NASCAR's regular season (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


  "We went down into the last corner, and I thought I would be able to move him," Edwards said of Harvick. "But I couldn't get to him. He was too fast. If we'd had another lap or two, we'd have been all over Harvick.
   "But as much as this hurts, we feel we're back and ready to go to Chicago.
   "It was a fun race….and now I'm ready to go win this championship. I'm excited to go to Loudon and Martinsville now; these guys might have someone else to worry about on these short tracks."
    Gordon' late bid went awry on the final yellow, for Paul Menard's spin, when Gil Martin's pit crew got Harvick off pit road with the lead.
   "We're ready to go into the chase now," Gil Martin, Harvick's crew chief, said.
   "We struggled," Gordon said. "To come back and take the lead with 20 to go and have a shot at the win, that was great."

   Just a day earlier Harvick had announced he'd be closing his own racing shop, Kevin Harvick Inc., a highly successful Truck and Nationwide operation. But he said he'd now be focusing on the Cup playoffs, and he certainly did that Saturday night.

   When Jimmie Johnson (48) is backwards and in the wall, something's gone wrong. This time it was, guess who -- Kurt Busch. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Earnhardt making the chase was one of the night's storylines….not necessarily because he has any great shot at winning the title, considering his generally lackluster season. But it was a relief for Earnhardt to make the playoffs. He's been in the top-10 most of the season; however he came close Saturday night to missing.
   "We almost gave it away," Earnhardt conceded.
   For Earnhardt to make the chase, however, he had to rely on Brad Keselowski not having a good night, and Earnhardt himself had to rally from several problems.
   Another storyline here – Kurt Busch versus Jimmie Johnson, again. They tangled several times, and Johnson wound up with the worst of it, finishing 31st. Busch finished fifth.
   The first incident occurred when Busch tried to pass Johnson on the inside going into the corner but slid up into Johnson.
   Johnson came back later with a similar move on Busch, both spinning out.
   Kurt Busch, who expressed his displeasure with some of Johnson's contacts: "We raced down into turn one and I locked up my brakes," Busch said of the first run-in.
   The second? "You could see it coming," Busch said. "Jimmie Johnson doesn't race this way.
   "If we're going to race this way, he'll have to remember there are 10 other guys in the chase too.
   "He has to learn to race. He has been able to beat guys these last five years with equipment."   
   Johnson, who had a run-in with Busch at Pocono at few weeks ago, didn't take that kindly: "I got run over going into one. If you're going to spin me out, I'm going to spin you out.
   "I'll go see him, and I'm sure he'll run his mouth….
   "It's in his hands (how the relationship goes during the next 10 races). I passed him two or three times without touching him."

Now that Junior made the

Now that Junior made the Chase, the media can focus upon 12 drivers instead of 13.

"For Earnhardt to make the

"For Earnhardt to make the chase, however, he had to rely on Brad Keselowski not having a good night, and Earnhardt himself had to rally from several problems."

Not true, Mike. Little E's finishing position at Richmond guaranteed that Brad would not bump him from the top 10 even if BK won and led the most laps.

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