After a series of mishaps, misfortunes and mistakes lately for Kevin Harvick and his Stewart Haas Racing team, their stars perfectly aligned Saturday night at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway to win the Bojangles Southern 500 in overtime.
Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Budweiser Chevrolet passed Dale Earnhardt Jr. coming to the white flag in the second round of overtime to collect his second victory of the season. With the win, Harvick halted a streak of consecutive winners in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competition.
The Bakersfield, California native proved that when everything goes right for his SHR team, they are virtually unstoppable, as the 38-year old driver won from the pole leading 238 of 374 laps. It was Harvick’s third top-10 finish of the year.
“The first thing I want to do is to thank everybody on this Budweiser Chevrolet,” said Harvick. “Everybody who is a part of this car. Hendrick engines have been great all year. These guys on the No. 4 team and everybody who puts this car on the race track every weekend. We had to overcome a lot in these past several weeks, but we’ve had really fast cars. So, we just kept our heads down and did what we had to do.
“It was just one of those deals where the strategy was going to be hard to overcome with the track position without those green-white-checkers there at the end. The cautions all lined out and this Budweiser Chevrolet was unbelievable all night. We were able to hang on there at the end and I knew I had that high line I hadn’t showed it to them all night on the restarts and I wanted to save it until the very end. I kind of learned that last night as we were in the Nationwide race. It was a good tool in your tool bag to have there at the end.”
Earnhardt Jr. after winning the night before (Friday night) as a car owner (JR Motorsports with driver Chase Elliott) put an exclamation point to his weekend at a track, where he admits hasn’t been too kind to him. Still, his third runner-up performance of the season gives his Hendrick Motorsports team light heading into the off week and Richmond (Va.) International Raceway in two weeks.
“Just didn’t have enough tires you know,” offered NASCAR’s most popular driver Earnhardt Jr. “(Kevin) Harvick had the best car and the best tires at the end. It was real hard to hold him off. I should have probably ran the top down there in (Turns) 3 and 4 and made him go around the bottom, but I think he was going to get us anyway and we were going to try. A great run, good job by my team, this isn’t one of my best tracks so my team gave me a great car. I’ve got to give them a lot of credit.”
It seemed that nothing could detour Harvick’s domination of the first two-third of the race. Despite a dropped lug not on a pit stop on Lap 22, which dropped him to ninth for a restart on Lap 227, Harvick would fail to falter. Harvick stormed through the field on the restart and by Lap 247 when the seventh caution flag waived, he was fourth. Four laps after a Lap 252 restart, Harvick was back on point, passing Brian Vickers for command.
Bad luck has snake bitten the SHR team for a majority of the season and Saturday night it nearly happened again, after Paul Menard hit the outside wall for the second time on Lap 271. Harvick ran over a piece of his brake rotor – twice, but his No. 4 Budweiser Chevrolet was unaffected. Biffle would take charge, thanks to a two-tire stop, but Harvick regained control on the restart Lap 279 and quickly checked out from the field.
Caution nine sent the field to pit road, where Jimmie Johnson utilizing pit strategy would lead eight laps, but not before debris would put them back under yellow setting up for the first green-white checkered attempt. An on-point restart would allow Dale Earnhardt Jr. to swing by Johnson on Lap 368, but when Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer tangled, the cars with just two tires knew they were now sitting ducks.
Despite a gallant effort by Jr., he would be no match for “Happy Harvick”, giving the first-year SHR pilot his 25th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win and SHR’s third triumph of the 2014 season.
Behind, Harvick and Earnhardt Jr., came six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who appeared to have his best shot at winning this year, despite starting 26th and hovering in the back in the early stages of the 500-mile event. With the magic of crew chief Chad Knaus and Johnson spawning into life near the halfway point. The risky two-tire gamble during the last pit stop nearly allowed the driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet SS to lock himself in the chase.
Said Johnson, “Things were really going our way there when we took two tires and got the restart under control and had a good lead there. Then the caution came out and at that point I knew that us on two tires we were probably in big trouble and the No. 4 had worked his way up through there and did a great job, it seemed like the fastest car all night long. We had to gamble to kind of take a shot at getting a win and Chad (Knaus, crew chief) played it right and we were in the right position, but just got two cautions there at the end that kept us from getting to Victory Lane.”
Matt Kenseth another mogul winless in 2014 was fourth, tucked with Greg Biffle to close out the top-five.
Kyle Busch who had an eventful night to stay the least in his No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry was sixth followed by Jeff Gordon, rookie Kyle Larson, Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman to comprise the top-10.
While Harvick led eight times for 238 laps including his longest stretch of 104 markers, outside pole sitter Joey Logano led 37 laps before late race issues plagued him with a 35th place finish.
Brian Vickers driving for the No. 55 Aaron’s Dream Machine Toyota Camry impressed utilizing pit strategy during the eighth race of the season, however, a spin coming to pit road under green wiped him from contention and a dismal 26th place finish.
Jeff Gordon leads the series standings with 297 points. Matt Kenseth is second (-1), Carl Edwards third (-19), Dale Earnhardt Jr. fourth (-26) Jimmie Johnson fifth (-27). Kyle Busch sixth (-28), Brad Keselowski seventh (-51) Joey Logano eighth (-52), Ryan Newman ninth (-61) and rookie Austin Dillon 10th (-62).
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will take a much welcomed weekend off before returning to action on Saturday, April 26 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway for the running of the Toyota Owners 400.
Follow Chris Knight on Twitter @Knighter01.