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Tempers heat up for Chase drivers

Two things are clear as the 2011 version of the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins this week.

For the second consecutive season, Kevin Harvick has emerged as a serious championship threat, and drivers' tempers - with each other as well as the media - are running high.

When the dust settled after Saturday night's Wonderful Pistachios 400 at Richmond International Raceway, Harvick emerged the winner, his fourth victory of the season.

He also earned a share of the points lead with Kyle Busch entering this weekend's race at Chicagoland Speedway, the first of NASCAR's 10-race playoff.

"I think last year we felt like we were a little behind on the win total, so to be even on the bonus points and the win total is a good accomplishment for us," said Harvick, who finished third in the title Chase last season. "I think the momentum is just as important.

"It's been stressful the last month, but I think as you see, the last two weeks it's paid off."

When the dust settled in the media center early Sunday morning, Kurt Busch, who had to be restrained during a confrontation with a media member on pit road, had returned to verbally spar with him again.

Then later, when confronted by another reporter with a transcript of his comments made on pit road, Busch tore up the paper and tossed it aside.

And there was the awkward situation of Busch and Jimmie Johnson - about whom Busch's comments were directed - having to share a podium during a postrace interview session.

The two had tangled twice on the track during the race and have had other run-ins over the past two seasons.

As much chaos as there was, in the end, the final 12-driver lineup for the Chase didn't change from before the race.

Nine drivers - Harvick, Kyle Busch, Johnson, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards - entered the race already locked in the Chase.

The three drivers who could get knocked out during Saturday night's race - Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin - ran well enough to make the cut.

Although Harvick led the most laps (202 of 400), Jeff Gordon passed him for the lead with 22 laps left and appeared headed to his fourth win of the season.

However, Harvick's teammate at Richard Childress Racing, Paul Menard, spun on the frontstretch on Lap 385 to bring out a track-record 15th caution.

The lead-lap cars elected to pit for fuel and tires, and Harvick came off pit road with the lead, taking back command of the race on Lap 389.

Edwards closed to Harvick's bumper in the final laps but could not complete a pass for the lead.

"Kevin wouldn't give me enough room to run into him. He stayed on the bottom (lane) because he said I knew I was going to hit him," Edwards joked after the race.

"He did a good job staying on the bottom and I couldn't get a run to get up to him at all. That was a great race."

Gordon finished third, David Ragan was fourth and Kurt Busch still managed to finish fifth, despite his run-ins with Johnson.

"We raced down into Turn 1 and I locked up the left front trying to avoid him," Busch said of his first incident with Johnson. "When he came back to us, you know, you could see it coming.

"That's not something you see from Jimmie Johnson every day so I know we're in his head. If we're going to race this way, he's got to worry that there's 10 other guys in this Chase, not just (me)."

Johnson remained upbeat about his chance to win a NASCAR-record sixth consecutive championship regardless of the rivalry with Busch.

"Competition is competition, and there's been plenty of rivalries," he said. "The bottom line is we can race out there without running into each other, and that's where it goes.

"And unfortunately we have had a history over the years."

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