- Associated Press - Sunday, September 11, 2011

RICHMOND — Tension was high even before the final race to set the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field.

That didn’t change even after the champagne-fueled celebration for the 12 drivers in this year’s title hunt.

Kevin Harvick was all smiles after his Saturday night win at Richmond International Raceway moved him into a tie with rival Kyle Busch atop the Chase standings. And Dale Earnhardt Jr. was thrilled to be back in the Chase for the first time since 2008.

It was relief for Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin, who both went into the “regular season” finale on the edge of being ousted from the field.

But a lingering feud between five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson and former champion Kurt Busch flared up again — on the track with intentional contact and off the track with angry words — and the aftermath led to a surreal postrace scene. Busch angrily confronted a reporter in the press room as soon as he entered the news conference, and when he went to take his spot on the podium, brother Kyle, Ryan Newman and Stewart already had filled the three seats.

As he waited for a chair to be added, Johnson entered the room and stood awkwardly to the side. He was crammed in on the opposite end of the podium from Busch, and the mood turned suddenly sour.

It almost spoiled a night that should have been a celebration for what NASCAR likely believes is a perfect championship field.

But on they go now to Chicago, where the 10-race Chase begins on Sunday. The field consists of Johnson, both Busch brothers, Stewart, Hamlin, Newman, Earnhardt, Harvick, Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski and Jeff Gordon, and it’s wide open for the first time in years.

“It’s really going to come down to who makes the least mistakes,” Harvick said. “There are a lot of cars that can win. A lot of cars that can be competitive. It’s going to be who makes the least amount of mistakes and capitalizes the most on the days that you are off.”

Harvick stormed into the Chase with his Richmond win, his fourth of the season, which moved him into a tie with Kyle Busch for most in the Cup Series. It came after a long slump and a horrible run three weeks ago at Bristol that led to a lengthy team meeting at Richard Childress Racing on a rare off day.

“The Sunday morning meeting wasn’t pretty, most of the meetings haven’t been pretty the last month or so, but we went back and found a lot of things that we felt like we had done a little bit different,” Harvick said. “It’s been stressful the last month, but I think as you see the last two weeks it’s paid off.”

These last few weeks have made the difference for many of the title contenders.

A wrinkle added to the Chase format this year awarded two wild card positions, and those were claimed by Keselowski and Hamlin. Keselowski made the field with a spectacular summer, winning two races to put himself in contention, and Hamlin earned his spot by turning around his season when everything was on the line.

It will be Keselowski’s first appearance in the Chase.

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