Vickers spoils party for rival Kyle Busch
The final spot for the 12-man playoff wasn't determined until the final lap of the Chevy Rock & Roll 400. Busch finished fifth, but Vickers was seventh, good enough to make the Chase by eight points over Busch.
It was the closest margin ever for the final playoff spot.
"Hell yeah," Vickers told his crew as the race ended. "That's what I'm talking about, boys."
Vickers and his Red Bull team are in the Chase for the first time after a remarkable summer run with seven top-10s in the last nine races.
"The last 10 weeks have proven what this team is made of," Vickers said. "And we picked a darn good time to figure this place out.
Vickers had a career-best finish at Richmond, a track where his average finish was 28th coming in to Saturday night. And it didn't escape his attention that he beat out his biggest rival to make the Chase.
"Everyone knows that Kyle and I have had our differences and don't always get along," Vickers said. "But the last two weeks we raced each other really hard and clean and I really appreciate that."
When it ended, Busch didn't act like the Rowdy Busch we've come to know. He didn't storm off after the race. He didn't make any snide remarks. He handled his disappointment with the utmost integrity.
"We did all we could do," Busch said. "Fifth place is a good showing, but it wasn't enough. And Brian put up a whale of a fight at the end.
"This is a result of our whole year. Some days I didn't do my best and some days we didn't have the best cars. For us, it just wasn't to be. The Good Lord put me in this position for some reason. One day I'll figure out what that is."
Busch becomes the first driver to miss the Chase after tying for the most victories in the regular season. His four wins equaled that of Mark Martin, who finished fourth Saturday and now starts the playoff on top of the standings as a 50-year-old favorite.
"It's a huge weight off my shoulders," Martin said. "This is the best year of my career and the most fun."
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In this wacky points system, winning isn't enough, even when you start the year 2-for-2.
It all began so well for Kenseth. He won the Daytona 500. He won a week later in California. He was on top of the NASCAR world.
That must seem like eons ago now.
A season that began better than any other will end worse than any other for Kenseth. He is outside looking in with no shot at the Cup title.
Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson were the only drivers who had earned a spot in the five previous Chase playoffs. Now Johnson has that distinction to himself.
Kenseth never had a chance Saturday. His No. 17 Ford ran about as fast as Forrest Gump's lawn mower all night. He finished 25th and never challenged the leaders.
No one in Sprint Cup is better than Kenseth at making a tub of bolts into a competitive machine that produces a top-15 finish at the end.
Not this time. He even made a rare mental mistake by missing his pit stall on a stop under caution at Lap 109.
Losing his playoff spot to Vickers marked the fourth time in six Chase seasons that someone outside the playoff field made it in at Richmond.
"We really haven't run good enough to be in the Chase anyway," Kenseth said. "Brian's been running good. He deserved it. Even if I had made it in, we wouldn't have a shot at the championship.
"But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed. I know I can do better and I know our team can do better."
Newman joins his boss, team owner Tony Stewart, as a championship contender. Stewart surprised almost everyone in proving an owner/driver could win again in Cup -- three times so far this year.
This season was a year of surprises. Montoya, in his third season since coming to Cup from Formula One, becomes the first foreign-born driver to make the NASCAR playoff. The Colombian gave team owner Chip Ganassi his first Chase driver.
Ganassi merged his team with Dale Earnhardt Inc. this year to form Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.
"When the merger came, no one gave us a chance," Montoya said. "No one thought we could do this. It really means a lot to everyone on our team. It's big."
Richmond is the one event where multiple teams can celebrate their achievements without having to win the race.
Vickers plans to enjoy it. He'll watch some tennis Sunday, attending the U.S. Open in New York.
"But I'll have one heck of a hangover when I get there," Vickers said.
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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