RICHMOND, Va. - NASCAR's regular season ended not with a bang but a blip, and barely that, in the scenario of the Chase for the Championship last night.
All that changed as a result of the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 was that Ryan Newman replaced Jamie McMurray in 10th place in the points standings, the last spot in the playoffs that will begin next Sunday.
Kurt Busch led a 1-2-3 sweep of Roush Racing drivers in the race, allowing the team to place all five of its drivers in the Chase, accounting for half of the playoff field.
Busch's win was mainly a morale booster for the defending Nextel Cup champion, who had clinched a playoff berth by merely starting the race. Teammate Greg Biffle, who finished third, had come into the race locked into the playoffs.
But Matt Kenseth, who finished second, had entered the race ninth in the standings and mathematically vulnerable.
Four-time champion Jeff Gordon, down to his last chance to make the playoffs, missed by a mile, finishing 30th with an awful-handling Chevrolet that was typical of his miserable summer.
Newman claimed 10th place by finishing 12th, while McMurray got caught up in a late wreck and wound up 40th.
After Busch clinched, seventh-place Jeremy Mayfield had a virtual cakewalk, needing to finish only 39th or better to lock up a spot. He finished sixth.
Then, Roush drivers Carl Edwards and Kenseth, who'd entered the race eighth and ninth in the standings, ran solidly enough that, by the halfway point in the race, all the suspense about the Chase had fizzled to nothing but the 10th berth.
Kevin Harvick put some pizzazz into the first half of the race, hinting at winning his way into the Chase after arriving in Richmond 15th in the standings, 131 points out of 10th. Harvick dominated the early going and threatened for a while to lead the most laps and win the race outright.
But he faded and Busch took command in the second half, occasionally challenged by his younger brother, Kyle.
Just past the halfway point, Gordon's shot at a playoff spot was clearly over.
"We're done now," Gordon radioed his crew, seconds after he smacked into the wall on Lap 212. On his two extensive pit stops for repairs that followed, he dropped back to 36th, one lap down.
But he'd already been all but out of it, running in 28th position at the halfway mark.
After Dale Earnhardt Jr. was officially knocked out of the playoffs last week in Fontana, Calif., Gordon's elimination last night meant NASCAR will have to do without its two best-known and most popular drivers for the playoffs.
For Gordon, this season will be the first time he has finished out of the top 10 in points since his rookie year, 1993.
Mayfield, who made last year's Chase by winning this race, jumped into the lead on pit-crew performance during the first caution. It came out on Lap 31 for debris, after Jeff Green slowed with a cut-down tire.
During that yellow, Gordon, who'd started sixth and maintained the position in the early going, slipped back to eighth when his rookie teammate, Kyle Busch, got in his way in the race off pit road. After the restart on Lap 37, Gordon began to fade further and was 11th by Lap 75.
Harvick, who'd started on the pole and dominated early, quickly charged back to challenge Mayfield for the lead after the restart. After a dozen-lap duel, with Harvick darting inside and outside of Mayfield, Harvick regained the lead by outpowering Mayfield down the backstretch on Lap 51.
The leaders all pitted again under the second caution, which came out on Lap 89 after Sterling Marlin hit the wall. Harvick won the race off pit road to retain the lead, followed by Biffle, Kurt Busch, Kenseth, Travis Kvapil and Kyle Busch. Gordon was still stuck in 11th for the restart on Lap 92, but then faded further, back to 13th by Lap 106.
The first playoff contender to have trouble was long shot Elliott Sadler, who'd come into the race 13th in the standings, 52 points out of the top 10. Sadler spun on Lap 114 and dropped back to 23rd, but his car had already been handling terribly, so the spin wasn't a drastic setback.
During the caution for Sadler's spin, Gordon pitted twice - the second time to re-install a loose lug nut on his left rear wheel - and dropped back to 28th.
The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
NASCAR Nextel Cup
Chevy Rock & Roll 400
At Richmond, Va. Lap length: 0.75 mile (Start position in parentheses)
1. (5) Kurt Busch, Ford, 400, $242,900.
2. (13) Matt Kenseth, Ford, 400, $191,561.
3. (2) Greg Biffle, Ford, 400, $135,700.
4. (7) Kyle Busch, Chevy, 400, $127,800.
5. (15) Rusty Wallace, Dodge, 400, $131,833.
6. (10) Jeremy Mayfield, Dodge, 400, $117,520.
7. (25) Tony Stewart, Chevy, 400, $126,711.
8. (14) Kasey Kahne, Dodge, 400, $112,025.
9. (39) Terry Labonte, Chevy, 400, $82,125.
10. (1) Kevin Harvick, Chevy, 400, $146,661.
11. (3) Travis Kvapil, Dodge, 400, $82,325.
12. (8) Ryan Newman, Dodge, 400, $113,441.
13. (4) Mark Martin, Ford, 400, $86,525.
14. (26) Mike Wallace, Chevy, 400, $71,575.
15. (31) Mike Bliss, Chevy, 400, $70,750.
16. (20) Jeff Green, Dodge, 400, $97,686.
17. (19) Elliott Sadler, Ford, 400, $104,741.
18. (12) Jeff Burton, Chevy, 400, $94,645.
19. (42) Ken Schrader, Dodge, 400, $68,075.
20. (29) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevy, 400, $112,808.
21. (18) Carl Edwards, Ford, 400, $83,225.
22. (23) Bobby Labonte, Chevy, 399, $102,175.
23. (17) Casey Mears, Dodge, 399, $94,433.
24. (30) Scott Wimmer, Dodge, 399, $91,233.
25. (24) Jimmie Johnson, Chevy, 399, $112,466.
26. (11) Joe Nemechek, Chevy, 399, $88,833.
27. (40) Kyle Petty, Dodge, 399, $78,108.
28. (36) Johnny Sauter, Dodge, 399, $63,225.
29. (37) Scott Riggs, Chevy, 398, $83,647.
30. (6) Jeff Gordon, Chevy, 398, $112,211.
31. (28) Michael Waltrip, Chevy, 396, $93,064.
32. (43) Mike Garvey, Ford, 395, $65,225.
33. (27) Dave Blaney, Chevy, 395, $71,550.
34. (21) Tony Raines, Dodge, 394, $62,475.
35. (38) Robby Gordon, Chevy, 394, $62,350.
36. (35) Jimmy Spencer, Dodge, 393, $62,200.
37. (22) Brian Vickers, Chevy, 374, $70,075.
38. (16) Ricky Rudd, Ford, 366, accident, $89,164.
39. (9) Dale Jarrett, Ford, 364, accident, $95,983.
40. (32) Jamie McMurray, Dodge, 362, acc, $69,700.
41. (41) Sterling Marlin, Dodge, 358, $89,468.
42. (34) David Stremme, Dodge, 321, accident, $61,435.
43. (33) Bobby Hamilton Jr., Chevy, 193, acc, $61,631.
Time of race: 3 hours, 2 minutes, 37 seconds. Margin of victory: 0.899 seconds. Winner's average speed: 98.567 mph. Caution flags: 12 for 60 laps. Lead changes: 23 among 10 drivers.
Lap leaders: K.Harvick 1; T.Kvapil 2; G.Biffle 3-4; K.Harvick 5-33; J.Mayfield 34-50; K.Harvick 51-90; R.Gordon 91; K.Harvick 92-93; G. Biffle 94; K.Harvick 95-143; T.Labonte 144-150; K.Harvick 151-154; Kurt Busch 155; K.Harvick 156-193; Kurt Busch 194-195; K.Harvick 196-199; Kyle Busch 200-207; Kurt Busch 208-277; Kyle Busch 278; Kurt Busch 279-312; Kyle Busch 313; K.Kahne 314-319; M.Kenseth 320-322; Kurt Busch 323-400. Points standings: 1. T.Stewart, 3,716. 2. G.Biffle, 3,531. 3. R.Wallace, 3,412. 4. J.Johnson, 3,400. 5. Kurt Busch, 3,304. 6. M.Martin, 3,273. 7. J.Mayfield, 3,228. 8. C.Edwards, 3,114. 9. M.Kenseth, 3,114. 10. R.Newman, 3,055. Note: acc-accident