KANSAS CITY, Kan. – No matter what kind of misfortune befalls Kevin Harvick in the early rounds of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, his team always seems to get things together when it matters.
The No. 4 crew did it again Sunday.
One week after a mechanical issue doomed him to a lousy finish at Charlotte, and put his hopes of advancing to the round of eight in jeopardy, Harvick roared to the front on the final restart to win at Kansas Speedway and take all of the pressure off next week’s elimination race at Talladega.
“These races are hard to win and these guys are so good at the details,” said Harvick, the 2014 champion, “and when you put their backs against the wall they’re even better. I’m so proud of them.”
Harvick was among the fastest in the final qualifying session, and hung around the front all day while other Chase contenders faltered. He was still at the front when Regan Smith brought out the final caution, and was able to keep Carl Edwards at bay over the final 30 laps.
“I was pretty sure we were in control of the race,” said Edwards, a Missouri native who has yet to win at what he considers his home track. “As much fun as I had running up front, it stings. There’s negative emotions tied up with not winning here with that fast of a car.”
It was the fourth win of the season for Harvick, and his second of the Chase – he rebounded from a poor performance at Chicago to win at New Hampshire and advance from the round of 16.
He joined Jimmie Johnson, the winner at Charlotte, in securing a spot in the next round of NASCAR’s playoffs, while also ramping up the pressure on the other 10 contenders fighting for points.
“They usually when it comes to this situation find a little more speed in their cars,” said Joey Logano, who finished third and now sits in the precarious eighth spot in points. “I don’t know how, but it seems like in must-win situations they always find a little more speed.”
Johnson was fourth, followed by fellow Chase drivers Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon. Matt Kenseth was ninth after dominating the first half of the race from the pole, giving him a nice points cushion as the series heads to the unpredictable pressure-cooker at Talladega.
Other drivers competing for the championship dealt with trouble all afternoon.
Martin Truex Jr. again found himself at the front at Kansas, only to have issues with the refueling mechanism that forced him to pit out of sequence. He wound up 11th and now sits seventh in points.
Kurt Busch finished two spots back in 13th after having to go to his backup car. He spun into the grass on the front stretch with seconds to go in the final practice session Saturday, tearing up the front of his car and forcing him to start from the back of the field.
Denny Hamlin had an issue with the front splitter that creates downforce on his car, sending him to the pits for repairs. He was also penalized for a loose tire but rallied to finish 15th.
The biggest losers on the day were Brad Keselowski and Chase Elliott.
Keselowski began wiggling with 78 laps remaining, and Hamlin came up behind him and a tap sent the No. 2 car shooting down the track. He slammed into the grassy turf, tore up the front of his car and wound up 38th, putting him seven points out of the eighth and final spot in the Chase.
“It’s an automotive war zone here. There’s parts, there’s pieces, they were working under it, there was oil, there was fire at one point,” said Keselowski, who briefly got back on the track before retiring for the day. “If my guys keep putting in this effort, I’m not worried about it.”
Elliott was near the front when his left rear tire began rubbing on his fender, forcing a stop that left him a lap down.
He managed to get back on the lead lap, only to have the same issue with another set of tires that forced him into another unscheduled stop.
He wound up finishing 31st and is now 25 points out of the final spot in the round of eight, which essentially makes Talladega a must-win situation for the Hendrick Motorsports rookie.
In other words, all the pressure that Harvick avoided with his win.