Denny Hamlin won the race Sunday at Martinsville Speedway and Jimmie Johnson left with the points lead in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
But it may have been third-place finisher Kevin Harvick who made the most impressive statement during the Tums Fast Relief 500, even if he didn't win over many friends in his own Richard Childress Racing stable in the process.
"Coming into this race, no one gave us a chance to even run anywhere toward the front," Harvick said.
On Friday, Harvick had said he felt he like he needed to "hit a home run" at Martinsville to stay in the hunt for his first Cup championship. Even though Hamlin won impressively to pull within six points of Johnson in the standings, Harvick gained ground, too, by at least finishing two positions ahead of Johnson.
Considering they were competing at a track where Hamlin and Johnson now have combined to win the past nine races, Harvick was happy with his finish. Now he gets to move on to a track more to his historical liking at Talladega Superspeedway next Sunday.
"We came pretty close," Harvick said. "I mean, coming here and getting our first top-five [at the track], beating the 48 [of Johnson], being in contention to win ... that was pretty close to a home run."
Not that anyone is ready to say Harvick is the favorite to win this championship. That still has to be the four-time defending champion Johnson. And Hamlin, by virtue of Sunday's run and his continued staying power throughout the Chase, seems to be gaining confidence and maturity each minute of every day. The six-point deficit between him and Johnson is the smallest going into the final four races since the Chase was established in 2004.
But on Sunday, Harvick sent a message that he is here to stay in the hunt, too -- probably all the way until the end.
That's not all
Of course, that wasn't the only message Harvick sent Sunday. He also riled up RCR teammate Jeff Burton by shoving Burton's No. 31 Chevrolet out of the way at one point, after earlier admonishing him over his radio -- with Harvick telling his own No. 29 crew that Burton was "out of mulligans."
Afterward, Harvick dismissed the incident.
"We were just racing," he said.
Burton, who led a race-high 134 laps before fading to ninth at the end of the caution-filled event, had a bit more to say about what transpired with his championship-contending teammate.
"Every time there's a conflict, he's involved," an obviously angry Burton said. "And you would think over the amount of years that he's done it that he would get the hint that he's always in the middle of it, and maybe sometimes if he just backed up a little and caught his breath a little bit, it'd be OK.
"I'm not out to harm him. I'm a teammate of his; I'm trying to help him. There comes a point where he needs to catch his breath and realize it's my race track, too. And I didn't do anything wrong. And if he thinks I did anything wrong, then we can't race. There is nothing I did that I regret; and there was nothing I did that I won't do next week."
Burton said he had no idea what Harvick was even complaining about.
"I don't understand what he was upset about," Burton said. "I have no clue what he could possibly be upset about. I cleared him and turned to the bottom the same way he cleared me when he passed me on the restart and turned to the bottom. It's Martinsville. That's what you do.
"I'm sure it's heat of the moment. I'm sure he's racing for a championship and he's up on the edge and I'm sure it's all that because I didn't do anything wrong."
Headed to 'Dega
So now they'll all head to the crapshoot that can be Talladega. Except Harvick usually is very good there. He also has added confidence of an improved pit crew, as he and his other RCR teammate, Clint Bowyer, exchanged pit crews for Sunday's race and for as long as Harvick stays in championship contention this season.
Harvick spent less time on pit road Sunday than all but two other drivers -- Kyle Busch in his No. 18 Toyota and race winner Hamlin in his No. 11 Toyota.
"I didn't have anything to do with how all that went down or anything like that," Harvick said. "That was something they handled internally at the shop.
"Clint is obviously doing everything he can to try to help us win the championship. It's just unbelievable the stops that those guys had on pit road [Sunday]. That makes life a lot easier."
Harvick's job now, though, will be to make life as difficult as possible for the two Chasers still in front of him. Harvick is only 62 points out of the lead behind Johnson, 56 behind Hamlin in second.
And they know he's coming.
"They don't give up," Hamlin said. "He probably had one of the best cars [Sunday] except maybe for the 31 [of Burton]."
Johnson added: "Coming into the Chase I definitely felt like the 29 was the favorite with the speed they showed on all types of tracks. It didn't matter. Short track, big track -- those guys did a great job.
"Kevin's done a great job at the big tracks [like Talladega]. But man, you can make all the right moves there and something out of your control happens. We'll just have to see what happens. I know he's going to be a great threat."
After his surprising Sunday at Martinsville, everyone does.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.