JOLIET, Ill.—Kevin Harvick got the track position he needed with a two-tire call under caution late in Saturday’s Jimmy John’s Freaky Fast 300.
Then he and crew chief Ernie Cope got the victory they deserved for choosing the right strategy at the right time.
Harvick beat Kyle Larson to the finish line by 2.108 seconds to win for the fourth time this season and the 44th time in his career—a numerologist’s delight for those who favor Harvick’s No. 4 Chevrolet in Sunday’s MyAFibStory.com 400, the first race in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Larson held off third-place finisher Kyle Busch in the closing laps. Ryan Blaney ran fourth, followed by Trevor Bayne. Series leader Chase Elliott came home 10th and maintained an 18-point lead in the standings over second-place Regan Smith, his JR Motorsports teammate.
For Harvick, the tipping point came on Lap 154, when Cope called for the two-tire stop while race leader Busch took four fresh tires and got mired in traffic.
“Well, we didn’t have many laps on the tires, but that’s the call that won us the race,” Harvick said. “Ernie won the race for us, and the car was fast, but when we got out front and the tires not having many laps, and the 54 (Busch) being buried in the field—that’s what won us this race today.”
Busch, who led every lap in a dominating win last week at Richmond, looked to make Saturday’s race a runaway, too, but caution for Jeremy Clements’ blown engine on Lap 151 created an opportunity for divergent strategies and scrambled the field.
By the time the field restarted on Lap 160, Busch had led 141 laps, but after a four-tire stop under the yellow, he restarted 16th in the No. 54 Toyota and made up eight positions before the engine in teammate Denny Hamlin’s No. 20 Camry erupted on Lap 165.
Harvick, who had changed right-side tires only under the caution on Lap 154, made short work of four cars that stayed out under the yellow and surged into the lead past Aric Almirola and polesitter Brian Scott on Lap 161. But the caution for Hamlin’s engine failure bunched the field for a restart on Lap 174, with Busch taking the green flag from the eighth spot.
Harvick drove away after the restart, while Busch advanced quickly to third in the running order. But the No. 54 Toyota stalled behind Larson’s No. 42 Chevy, as Harvick cruised to the comfortable win.
“I fought my butt off the last run of the race,” Busch said. “It sucks not being in Victory Lane where we should be. This car was fast—but can’t get through traffic.”