He’s back. Not that he ever went anywhere, but for the last three Playoff races Kevin Harvick has been somewhat quiet with finishes outside the top 5.
That changed Sunday.
Harvick led a race high 177 laps, won both Stages and survived an overtime finish to win the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. It was Harvick’s eighth win of the season and his first since Michigan in August.
Harvick took the lead for the final time on lap 318 and held off Ryan Blaney on an overtime finish to secure his spot in the Final 4 in Homestead in two weeks.
Unlike the spring race here where Harvick led 87 laps only to see victory slip away with struggles in the pits, Sunday his pit crew was nearly perfect and he was able to secure the 45th win of his career. The only real issue all day for Harvick was a tire vibration he reported on lap 225 shortly after pit stops. Crew chief Rodney Childers reported to Harvick that others had been reporting the same but had no issues. Harvick rode it out until lap 282 when he pitted during a round of green flag pit stops.
Among the others reporting vibrations were the other two drivers in NASCAR’s “Big 3”. After fighting his way from the back of the field after an engine change Saturday, Martin Truex Jr. reported a vibration around lap 140 but elected to ride it out. The spring Texas winner Kyle Busch reported a vibration a few laps later. While Truex elected to ride it out, Busch pitted on lap 151; Truex ended the day in the top 10, Kyle Busch 17th the last car on the lead lap. Busch was forced to fight his way back after a pit rod speeding penalty on lap 36.
The key came on the final restart on the overtime finish after the race’s eighth and final caution of the day for a crash between Joey Gase and Daniel Suarez. All race long the leader had started on the bottom on restarts. After Ryan Blaney had taken the lead from Harvick on the outside on a restart with 24 to go, Harvick–who had retaken the lead with 17 to go– took the outside.
“That last restart I knew I needed to pick the top,” Harvick said. “I wanted to be on the bottom to be safe because the top got such a good sidedraft getting into one and the outside groove got rubbered up. I thought if I could keep him from finishing the corner I could drive back by him. It all worked out.”
By turn 2 Harvick had the lead and started checking out leaving Blaney to settle for second.
“We got by the 4 (Harvick) on that one restart but I just couldn’t hold him off,” Blaney said. “He was really good. I kind of missed one and two by an inch and he took advantage of it. We needed to be mistake free and then some and I just couldn’t be that. Then we had another shot at it. The last one, he took the top, like I knew he was going to and he motored around me.”
Harvick will join Joey Logano in the Final 4 at Homestead; Logano finished third Sunday followed by Erik Jones and Kyle Larson in the top 5.
Playoff contender Chase Elliott struggled all day long but staged a late race rally to come home 6th.
“Yeah, I mean, got kind of lucky to finish there,” Elliott said. “But it is what it is and move on.”
Playoff drivers Kurt Busch was seventh, Aric Almirola eighth.
Truex suffered through another vibration and tried to ride that out as well, but on lap 244 reported it was getting worse and dove into the pits. On the stop he was penalized for driving through too may pit boxes and came out 25th two laps down. Truex used smart pit strategy and fought his way back to finish ninth.
“I’m telling you, God is testing us,” Truex said with a smile. “There’s no question. Had to start at the back, got to the front, hung around there for a while and then had a loose wheel there again. Just a tough day. Overall, a good day. Luckily, we were able to get up front and get some stage points in the first two stages and then we had trouble, but we had it at least in time to recover.”
Austin Dillon was tenth.
The lowest ranking Playoff driver was Clint Bowyer. He collided with Denny Hamlin on the first lap of the race and never really recovered. He finished 26th, two laps down.
Heading to the penultimate race of the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup season two more spots in the Final 4 will be up for grabs.
Leaving Texas, the Playoff standings:
1. Harvick 1 win
2. Logano 1 win
3. Kyle Busch +28
4. Martin Truex Jr. +25
5. Kurt Busch -25
6. Chase Elliott -39
7. Aric Almirola -57
8. Clint Bowyer -73