Sparks and sheet metal flew on a night where the record for cautions was tied at Richmond International Raceway. Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch went at one another in the latest edition of their running feud. Dale Earnhardt Jr. limped around the short track in a busted-up race car, trying to salvage his position in the Chase. Drivers wrecked one another and sought retribution in a wild, dramatic event that concluded the Sprint Cup tour's regular season.
There was so much to keep track of, that Tony Stewart nearly got lost. And that was just fine with him -- amid all the rancor, the two-time series champion quietly logged a solid finish much better than he needed to secure his spot in the Chase.
"We're able to sit up here [Saturday] and say we've made this thing," said Stewart, who needed only to finish 18th to qualify for the playoff, and eased his way in with a seventh-place result. "I wouldn't have predicted it halfway through the year, with the way our season was going, but [I'm] real appreciative our guys have kept their heads up and kept working really hard."
Both Stewart-Haas Racing entries qualified for the Chase for the second time in three years. But coming to Richmond, only one of those spots was guaranteed -- Ryan Newman had wrapped up at least the eighth position Tuesday in Atlanta. Stewart arrived in the Virginia capital in the 10th and final spot determined on points, without a victory that would help him salvage a wild-card position, and only 23 points ahead of surging Brad Keselowski in 11th place. Friday in his mandatory media session, he seemed chippy and easily irritated. The No. 14 car, it seemed, would surely be at the center of whatever drama unfolded Saturday night on the .75-mile track.
Instead, it was a relatively quiet, productive night for Stewart, who steadily worked his way up from his 22nd-place starting position, and sewed up his Chase berth almost unnoticed given all the other incidents that came to define the race. He even improved a position in the standings, overtaking Earnhardt for ninth.
"I think the last two weeks have been awesome for us," said Stewart, who backed up a third-place finish Tuesday at Atlanta. "[Saturday] was the best that we've run here in a long time. I think we ran ninth here in the spring, but it was because we put four tires on at the end. [Saturday] we were on an even keel with everybody tire wise and ended up with a solid top-10 run. It's definitely been a good two weeks for us. But we've got a 10 week stretch ahead of us, and we've got to be better than we've been the last 26 weeks. I'm proud of our guys. I mean, our guys have kept their heads up. It's going to be a long 10 weeks, but every Friday when we show up at the track we start with a clean slate and just do the best we can. So we'll keep digging."
The craziness Saturday didn't take long to erupt. Just eight laps into the race, 13 cars jammed up in a wreck that occurred when David Reutimann and Clint Bowyer leaned on one another a little too hard, and the No. 33 spun sideways into the outside wall. A few Chase contenders were among those who incurred damage in the aftermath, when cars slammed into one another trying to slow down. Stewart got through, and then realized he didn't have many cars behind him. It was a fortunate beginning to what became a welcomingly uneventful night.
"It was nice to not have drama and have to overcome something," Stewart said. "There were a lot of teams that had to overcome some sort of a problem at certain stages of the race [Saturday]."
Now Stewart tries to contend for a third series title in what until Tuesday had been a decidedly uneven year. Atlanta was only his third top-five finish of the season. Richmond helped him string together consecutive top-10 finishes for the first time since New Hampshire and Indianapolis earlier this summer. Given his position deep in the Chase field, he'll go to the opener next week outside Chicago somewhat overshadowed by other championship contenders -- a situation that worked out just fine for him Saturday night.
"As far as where we're at, I think we're kind of the underdogs with the No. 14 car," Stewart said. "I feel like Ryan's guys have done a great job this year, and we're definitely pretty strong right now in my opinion. It's kind of nice for us I guess to a certain degree to be the underdogs going into it, and we've got nowhere else to go but up. It's the least amount of pressure for us than any other teams out there right now. I feel like the last two weeks, it's kind of shown what this team is capable of and the strength behind it to be in this kind of a clutch situation and get ourselves in here. But we've got 10 weeks that we're up against 11 great organizations and teams, so we're going to have to rise to the occasion now."