The 2011 NASCAR Chase Field is Set

Harvick Wins at Richmond

Kevin Harvick has reason to smile in Victory Lane at Richmond with reality star Snooki and team owner Richard Childress. Harvick heads into the Chase tied with Kyle Busch after the points reset and should be a contender for the Sprint Cup trophy at Homestead-Miami Speedway Nov. 20 (photo courtesy: Patrick Smith, GETTY IMAGES SPORT)

On a night when the final three Chase spots were decided and some old scores were settled, last year’s Championship contender Kevin Harvick made a statement of his own.

By winning the 26th race of the season – and the final race of the regular season – Harvick snapped out of a slump and declared himself a favorite in what has become one of the most wide-open championship races in the eight-year history of NASCAR’s Chase For The Sprint Cup. The Chase will consist of the Top 10 drivers in points plus the two drivers from 11th to 20th with the most wins. Tickets for this year’s Ford Championship Weekend—Nov. 18-20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway—are on sale NOW. For ticket information, click [HERE] or call (866) 409-RACE.

Harvick took the lead from Jeff Gordon on pit road during the final caution period and then held off Gordon and Carl Edwards to win the Sprint Cup race Saturday night at Richmond.

“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, so to be in control of that last restart, I felt like that was pretty important to get going.”

It was his fourth win of the season and tied him with Kyle Busch for the most wins this season. The win put Harvick and Busch atop the standings after the points were reset for the Chase, which begins Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway.

While Harvick was adding to his 2011 win total, five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and 2004 Champion Kurt Busch renewed their simmering rivalry as they wrecked each other Saturday night at Richmond.

While Busch locked up his tires when he got into Johnson on Lap 186, Johnson clearly and undeniably turned Busch on Lap 246 of the 400-lap race.

It marked the renewal of a rivalry that has escalated in the last 14 months that included incidents at Infineon, Chicagoland, New Hampshire and Pocono between the two former champions.

“I have no clue what it’s going to play into,” Johnson said. “He has no one to be upset with except himself. If he didn’t run me over going into Turn 1, nothing would have happened.

“We were at Atlanta and raced just fine with one another, passed each other on the track and everything was great and I had passed him a couple of times tonight without any issues and then we go into Turn 1 and I get run over and it damages my car. So at that point, I’m going to equal the scale out and settle the score. Simple stuff: You wreck me, I wreck you.”

Busch seemed more upset with the media than Johnson, although he did call the defending five-time Cup champion “a five-time chump.”

“He’s got to learn to race,” Busch said about Johnson. “He’s been able to beat guys the last five years just by outdriving them with what he has for equipment. If he wants to switch equipment, let’s see what we can do but I’m going to beat him fair and square with my Penske Dodge.”

With the conclusion of the regular season, the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup is now set. And while it turned out that the Chase comprised the Top 12 drivers after all, the furious battle for the wild card and the unpredictability of the entire season mean that picking a winner at this point is a tough proposition. Here are the 2011 Chase contenders, in order of their seeding:

1. Kyle Busch (2012 points, four wins): The last time Busch entered the Chase on this kind of roll, back in 2008, he knocked himself out of contention almost immediately with ugly finishes in his initial races. This time around, he's older (obviously), wiser (in theory), and one of the season-long favorites for the Chase. His prospects for winning are excellent.

2. Kevin Harvick (2012 points, four wins): Harvick's win at Richmond reversed an ugly string of substandard (for him) finishes; he hadn't had a top 10 since June prior to his domination on Saturday night. And suddenly, his prospects for the Chase have improved considerably.

3. Jeff Gordon (2009 points, three wins): His inconsistencies in the start of the season are a distant memory now. He was one curiously-timed caution courtesy of Paul Menard from winning at Richmond, and while the restart issue continues to plague him, Gordon now has to be considered one of the favorites in the Chase.

4. Matt Kenseth (2006 points, two wins): Kenseth has been fairly quiet of late, but he's shown the ability to jump up and grab a win at any time. If he can do that once or twice in the first half of the Chase, he'll suddenly vault into the "favorites" category.

5. Carl Edwards (2003 points, one win): Edwards has done everything this year but win. If he can continue the run of consistency he's had all season, he'll be a threat right from Chicagoland. But he can't afford to let other drivers pile up wins and get distance on him. Still, his ability to run in the top 5 even with a rotten car keeps him among the favorites.

6. Jimmie Johnson (2003 points, one win): For all the talk of Johnson having troubles this season, he's nonetheless able to run well and up front on every track in the Chase. You count him out at your peril, and until he loses this thing, the Chase still has to go through the 48.

7. Kurt Busch (2003 points, one win): When he's on, there's nobody better than Kurt Busch. But when he's off, he's way off. He's staking out turf in a battle against Jimmie Johnson; could that be a recurring subplot once the Chase begins? Busch is a few consistent races away from being a favorite.

8. Ryan Newman (2003 points, one win): Newman has run consistently in the mid-single digits all year long. That's good enough to get you into the Chase, but not good enough to throw a scare into anyone once you're there. He'll need more strong finishes to become a legit contender for the Cup.

9. Tony Stewart (2000 points, no wins): This has been a rough year for Stewart, a zero-win season for a guy who usually has no trouble finding victory lane a few times a year. While his two straight top 10s heading into the Chase are a very good sign, he hasn't shown the long-term consistency to give confidence in his Chase chances.

10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2000 points, no wins): Earnhardt hasn't run at a Chase level in weeks. His strong early season proved to be just enough to hold up and get him into the Chase, but his "happy to be here" act won't sustain him. One more weak finish, just one, and he'll be a Chase afterthought.

11. Brad Keselowski (2000 points, wild card winner): Keselowski's three wins ended up going for naught as he couldn't quite close the gap on 10th place. Still, while Richmond ended his streak of top 10s, he ran well in the race. If he can post two or three top-five finishes out of the gate, he'll have to move into the "favorite" category.

12. Denny Hamlin (2000 points, wild card winner): Like Earnhardt, Hamlin's early-season success held up for just enough time to keep him in the Chase. Still, he's a shadow of the driver who was within a single race of taking the Cup last year. He'll need far more confidence and consistency to even move toward the "could be a favorite" category.

Favorites: Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards.

A good break from being a favorite: Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman.

Lots to prove: Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin

With the field set, it's your turn: who's your favorite?

The Chase gets underway at Chicagoland Sunday with the Top 10 drivers in points plus the two drivers from 11th to 20th with the most wins. Tickets for this year’s Ford Championship Weekend—Nov. 18-20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway—are on sale NOW. For ticket information, click [HERE] or call (866) 409-RACE.

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