Johnson Sweeps Richmond

RICHMOND, Va. - Unlike 2006, there was no drama in the final laps of the final event in the “Race to The Chase.”

The sold-out Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at Richmond International Raceway went exactly as most everyone thought it would, with Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick all clinching spots in The Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup. The Chase begins next Sunday at New Hampshire International Speedway.

And, as expected, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will make the move from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, missed The Chase for the second time in the last three years. Earnhardt trailed 12th-place Kevin Harvick by 128 points coming into the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 and needed to win the race and lead the most laps to have a fighting chance. He did neither and was officially eliminated from The Chase with 18 laps to go.

After a strong run, the engine in Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet blew with six laps remaining and he wound up finishing 30th.

Jimmie Johnson won the race, his second straight victory, to solidify his position as the top seed in The Chase.

Johnson led the final 102 of the final 104 laps on his way to the checkered flag and a sweep of the races at Richmond this season.

"We're happy to be hitting our stride at this point in the season," Johnson said. "It's been a tough summer for us, but right now, we're strong on all fronts. Tonight our car was at its best the last 100 laps. The pit stops got me great track position, and it was great to get back into Gatorade Victory Lane here at Richmond."

That’s not to say that things didn’t get interesting during the 400-lap race. Lap 241 saw a multi-car accident involve Kurt Busch, who needed to finish at least 37th or better to get into The Chase. The back end of Busch’s Dodge was badly damaged, but, with just over 100 laps remaining, Busch was locked into The Chase. He managed to nurse the car home to a ninth-place finish.

"My heart was definitely beating 1000 miles per hour when that happened," Busch said. "When I saw my teammate (Ryan Newman) get spun, the best thing I could have done was stop, hunker down and wait for the impact. I thought some material might have been dragging from the car and we had to come into the pits and that threw off our track position. to come home ninth, it's just a testament to how great this team has performed."

Harvick, who needed to finish 32nd or better to make The Chase, went low into the infield grass to avoid the melee. The grill on his Chevrolet became caked with grass and began to overheat, spewing water out of the engine.

Harvick’s crew was able to remove the grass and get the problem under control, but he was penalized and sent to the tail end of the longest line for pitting too soon. He re-started in 29th position, but, ultimately, it didn’t matter as Harvick wound up finishing seventh.

"I didn't hit anything, I just went through the grass," Harvick said. "With the COT, it's just like a shovel. The grill filled up and water started coming out. Once we got that otu, we were OK. Most of the crowd wears red (Earnhardt Jr.'s color), and that's why they got excited about it."

Earnhardt Jr. was obviously disappointed following the race.

”We lost a motor again, that seems like it’s been the thing with us this year,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “We can’t seem to finish a race. We run in the top five every week. I wish we could have done it for the fans. It’s these dang motors.”

By virtue of his six victories this season, which gained him 60 bonus points under The Chase’s revised format, defending NEXTEL Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson will be the No. 1 seed in The Chase and will start with 5,050 points.

Stewart and Gordon tied for the second seed and will each start with 5,040 points. Kurt Busch and Edwards have two victories each and will begin The Chase with 5,020 points.

The only driver who qualified for The Chase without a victory is Bowyer.

Hamlin and Bowyer waged an intense battle for the lead for several laps when the two made contact on lap 200. Bowyer got loose and spun out in Turn 4, but didn’t hit the wall, while Hamlin stayed on the lead.

Carl Edwards took the lead from Gordon on lap 167 and was sailing along until lap 182, when his engine blew up, relegating him to an 42nd-place finish.

”I don’t know what it was, but I think it was something real important because it wouldn’t go very good after it quit working,” Edwards said. “I was having a blast and it’s too bad to have a blown engine.”

Bowyer and Truex Jr, both in their second seasons in the NEXTEL Cup Series, clinched a spot in The Chase for the first time by simply starting the Chevy Rock & Roll 400. Bowyer finished 12th, while Truex Jr. finished 15th.

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