CONCORD, N.C. — Kevin Harvick moved into the third round of NASCAR's championship race with a victory Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where tempers flared after the race and two drivers had to be restrained from fighting Brad Keselowski.
Harvick had to win a two-lap sprint to the finish to grab his third victory of the season, but attention turned quickly to two near-brawls in the garage involving Keselowski. Denny Hamlin was held back by his own crew from going after Keselowski, who appeared to try to wreck Hamlin after the race.
Then Matt Kenseth appeared to jump on Keselowski from behind between two haulers and multiple team members had to pull back Kenseth. Kenseth and Keselowski made contact racing for the lead on a late restart, and Kenseth was livid that Keselowski hit his car after the race.
"It was really the safety. He was doing something with Hamlin, I had my seatbelt off, my (head-and-neck restraint) off and he clobbers me," Kenseth said. "The race is over, come back to pit road. If you want to talk about it like a man, go do that. But if you want to wreck somebody on the racetrack with people standing around, that's just inexcusable.
"There's no excuse for that. That's a champion and he's supposed to know better than that."
It capped a terrible night for three of NASCAR's biggest stars: Keselowski, six-time and defending champion Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. all go into next Sunday's elimination race at Talladega needing a victory.
Keselowski finished 16th, Johnson was 17th and Earnhardt was 20th — last in the 12-driver Chase field. Earnhardt broke his shifter early in the race and it put him in a deep hole he couldn't climb from.
"The vibration broke the shifter in half," Earnhardt said. "The car wasn't handling well and the vibration was giving us problems."
The four drivers now in danger of being eliminated next week are Kenseth, Keselowski, Johnson and Earnhardt.
Kenseth also had his own rough night and didn't even make it to the green flag before things went awry.
NASCAR ordered him to drop to the back of the field at the start of the race because his Joe Gibbs Racing team was penalized for making an unapproved change to his Toyota.
"They are out of control. Absolutely out of control," crew chief Jason Ratcliff radioed about NASCAR.
Kenseth remained calm and urged his crew to do the same: "Let's just get it together here, keep our composure and do the things we know how to do. It's not a big deal. It's 500 miles."
He was anything but calm, though, after his 19th-place finish and tussle with Keselowski.
Keselowski, the 2012 champion and most dominant driver of the first round of the Chase, also had a post-race issue with Tony Stewart. He seemed to run into the back of Stewart after his issues with Hamlin and Kenseth, and Stewart backed his car up to crumple the front of Keselowski's Ford.
Watching the replay in the media center after the race, second-place finisher Jeff Gordon was clearly entertained. He put his arms in the air and yelled "Kenseth!" and thought Stewart's move was "awesome!"
Harvick, meanwhile, was celebrating in Victory Lane.
He had the strongest car for most of the race — as he does almost every week, only to have some sort of problem keep him out of Victory Lane. It almost happened again Saturday night as a caution with seven laps to go forced Harvick to win it on a two-lap sprint to the finish.
The Stewart-Haas Racing driver leads the Sprint Cup Series in laps led and poles, but had only two victories to show for his effort. The win was his first since Darlington in April
"This is the night that we needed to win. I didn't want to go to Talladega next week," he said.