Kevin Harvick fended off Carl Edwards to claim his fourth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win of the season while Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr and Denny Hamlin claimed the final Chase spots in an incident-filled race at Richmond.
Harvick had made the headlines earlier this week after announcing he is set to shut down the shop where his Truck and Nationwide Series team have operated for the past few seasons but on Saturday night he hit a high by winning the final race of the regular season, placing him tied in the Chase lead with Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch.
Richard Childress Racing driver Harvick was strong from the early running, leading 122 of the first 200 laps, but then seemed to have lost his momentum into the second half of the race as Roush Fenway's Carl Edwards suddenly became the benchmark.
However as the race entered the deciding stages, Edwards found himself having to save fuel in order to make it to the end after staying out during the 14th caution of the day. Despite having to back off, Edwards was able to hold on to third while Harvick, armed with fresh rubber and enough fuel to make it to the end, jumped to the lead again.
Hendrick Motorsports' Jeff Gordon put the pressure on Harvick and seemed to have the speed to pass him and go for the win but a record-tying 15th caution, 15 laps from the end, opened things up again up front. Harvick pitted and his rivals followed him down pit road, putting everyone on equal terms of fuel and tyres for the final shoot-out.
When the race resumed Gordon struggled to keep the pressure on Harvick and instead Edwards surged to become the RCR driver's main opponent, arriving on his rear bumper and trying to look for a way past.
However that was as far as he would get in his hope of beating the driver nicknamed 'the closer', as Harvick wrapped up his regular season with a fourth victory, the most he has ever achieved ahead of the Chase.
"That's what it's all about in these first 26 [races]," said Harvick, whose win gives him an additional three points to his total Chase tally of 2012, the same as leader Busch. "We learned that last year, we didn't win enough races in the Chase and we didn't think we did a very good job of that in the last 10. It's all about the last 10 races and we've got a little momentum now."
Edwards finished second and lamented not scoring those key bonus points as he starts the Chase nine behind the leaders, having won only once during the regular season - at Las Vegas early this year.
Gordon finished a strong third ahead of Roush Fenway's David Ragan, who was a top-five contender during the second half of the race while trying to look for a second win that would have placed him in the Chase as a wildcard.
Penske's Kurt Busch had an up and down night - as did his team-mate Brad Keselowski - but finished fifth in the end following a couple of on-track clashes with reigning champion Jimmie Johnson. The Hendrick driver led the race early on but his contact with Busch was the start of his demise as a possible contender for victory.
Tony Stewart had a solid race to seventh, which was more than enough to lock him in the Chase for the seventh time in his career - only missing it once in 2006. Two places behind him in the order was Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin, who recovered from contact as soon as lap seven, which dropped him a lap down, to come home in ninth place and secure his sixth consecutive Chase entry as the final wildcard.
Even more dramatic than Hamlin's race was Dale Earnhardt Jr's night as the Hendrick Motorsports driver crashed into Clint Bowyer in the second incident of the night, after the RCR driver spun while battling for position with polesitter David Reutimann.
Earnhardt ran outside the top 20 for most of the night after being involved in a few incidents and at one point his chances of being in the Chase looked compromised but in the end a late push to 16th - coupled with Keselowski losing form in the final part of the race - put him back in title contention.
Keselowski looked to have the speed to contend for victory but in the end he struggled to a 12th place finish. However he enters his first Chase from 11th place as the leading wildcard thanks to his three wins this year.
Results - 400 laps: Pos Driver Team/Car Time/Gap 1. Kevin Harvick Childress Chevrolet 3h20m12.000s 2. Carl Edwards Roush Fenway Ford + 0.139s 3. Jeff Gordon Hendrick Chevrolet + 2.373s 4. David Ragan Roush Fenway Ford + 3.283s 5. Kurt Busch Penske Dodge + 3.437s 6. Kyle Busch Gibbs Toyota + 3.916s 7. Tony Stewart Stewart Haas Chevrolet + 4.579s 8. Ryan Newman Stewart Haas Chevrolet + 5.371s 9. Denny Hamlin Gibbs Toyota + 5.473s 10. Mark Martin Hendrick Chevrolet + 5.742s 11. AJ Allmendinger Petty Ford + 6.032s 12. Brad Keselowski Penske Dodge + 6.277s 13. Greg Biffle Roush Fenway Ford + 6.794s 14. Jamie McMurray Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet + 7.633s 15. Juan Pablo Montoya Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet + 8.667s 16. Dale Earnhardt Jr Hendrick Chevrolet + 8.859s 17. Casey Mears Germain Toyota + 9.200s 18. Regan Smith Furniture Row Chevrolet + 9.517s 19. Dave Blaney Baldwin Chevrolet + 19.443s 20. Bobby Labonte JTG Daugherty Toyota + 20.623s 21. Marcos Ambrose Petty Ford + 1 lap 22. Clint Bowyer Childress Chevrolet + 1 lap 23. Matt Kenseth Roush Fenway Ford + 1 lap 24. Stephen Leicht Baldwin Chevrolet + 1 lap 25. Landon Cassill Phoenix Chevrolet + 1 lap 26. David Reutimann Waltrip Toyota + 1 lap 27. David Gilliland Front Row Ford + 3 laps 28. Travis Kvapil Front Row Ford + 6 laps 29. Jeff Burton Childress Chevrolet + 7 laps 30. Martin Truex Jr Waltrip Toyota + 9 laps 31. Jimmie Johnson Hendrick Chevrolet + 38 laps 32. Andy Lally TRG Chevrolet + 43 laps 33. Brian Vickers Red Bull Toyota + 72 laps 34. Paul Menard Childress Chevrolet + 81 laps Retirements: Joey Logano Gibbs Toyota 296 laps Mike Bliss FAS Lane Ford 198 laps Robby Gordon Gordon Dodge 51 laps Kasey Kahne Red Bull Toyota 50 laps Michael McDowell HP Toyota 46 laps David Stremme Inception Chevrolet 42 laps Joe Nemechek NEMCO Toyota 24 laps JJ Yeley Front Row Ford 22 laps Scott Speed Whitney Ford 7 laps