Reid Spencer – NASCAR Wire Service
FORT WORTH, Tex. – This time, there was no late-race glitch to interrupt Kevin Harvick’s domination of a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race.
Streaking away from pole winner Ryan Blaney during an overtime restart on Lap 336, Harvick won Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway with the utmost of authority, sweeping the stages and leading a race-high 177 laps on the way to his series-best eighth victory of the season and a guaranteed spot in the Nov. 18 Championship 4 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The victory was Harvick’s first since Michigan in August, and it broke a streak of bad luck during which the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford led laps but failed to find Victory Lane, thanks to mechanical issues or pit road mistakes.
“We’ve been working day after day to make speed,” said Harvick, who won for the second time at Texas and the 45th time in his career, 17th most all-time. “This place has been really good to me. We finally knocked that barrier down (with a win in last year’s Playoff race at TMS).
“The expectations are to win. Like I told you guys before the race, we don’t race for points. We race for wins. We don’t count our fingers and our toes trying to figure out how to make it in (to the Championship 4 race). Today we earned our way in, and we’re going to race again next week (at Phoenix) and try to win another race and then see what we can do at Homestead.”
Harvick joins Martinsville winner Joey Logano, last Sunday’s Martinsville winner in the title race. Logano ran third at Texas after leading 54 laps, second only to Harvick.
The only stress for Harvick was lane choice for the overtime. On the previous restart on Lap 311 of a scheduled 334, following caution for Matt DiBenedetto’s hard crash into the inside wall on the backstretch, Harvick picked the inside lane, and Blaney cleared him off Turn 2.
It took Harvick seven laps of chasing to regain the lead, but in the two-lap overtime, he didn’t have the luxury of time to mount a pursuit. So Harvick picked the top lane for the first time and roared around Blaney in Turn 1.
Then Harvick was off into the Texas sunset.
“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 side-draft getting into Turn 1 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.”
Blaney got a shove from fifth-place finisher Kyle Larson on the final restart, but it wasn’t enough.
“The 42 (Larson) gave me a heck of a push, but I didn’t quite get far enough ahead of the 4 into (Turn) 1,” Blaney said. “We went in side‑by‑side. If I sailed off in there as fast as he did, I would have got loose, wrecked us both.
“You kind of knew you were beat getting into 1 when you’re there, because you know the guy on the outside is going to pin you. I figured when he took the top, it was going to take a really good push and position into 1 to have a prayer at it. Just didn’t happen.”
Harvick was the only one of so-called Big Three to avoid trouble on Sunday.
Kyle Busch drew an early speeding penalty entering pit road and later had to make an unscheduled pit stop because of a loose wheel. He finished 17th, the last driver on the lead lap.
Martin Truex Jr. came to pit road early on Lap 247 to correct a loose left front wheel and in the process drove through too many pit boxes entering his stall. Two laps down after a pass-through penalty, Truex rallied to finish ninth.
Nevertheless, with the Round of 8 elimination race at Phoenix looming, Busch holds a 28-point edge over his brother Kurt Busch, who is fifth in the Playoff standings after running seventh on Sunday. Truex is 25 points ahead of Kurt Busch, who likely will need a victory at Phoenix to advance to the Championship 4.
The same is true for sixth-place Texas finisher Chase Elliott (39 points below the cut line). Aric Almirola (eighth Sunday) and Clint Bowyer (26th, after contact with Denny Hamlin’s Toyota on Lap 1) are both in must-win situations.
Erik Jones ran fourth for the third time in the last five races.
One race left to decide the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup
Series Championship 4
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – One race. Two championship bids remain.
There is so much anticipation as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to the new-look ISM Raceway in Phoenix this week to set the final two positions eligible for the series Championship 4.
Kevin Harvick win Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway secured his fourth championship run in five seasons. Team Penske’s Joey Logano won at Martinsville Speedway two weeks ago to punch his first ticket to the title race in two years.
That leaves two positions remaining to earn a chance in the title bout. Regular season champion Kyle Busch holds a 28-point edge on the field going to Phoenix. And reigning series champion Martin Truex Jr. sits 25 points to the good.
Kurt Busch, Chase Elliott and Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer round out the list of eight eligible Playoff drivers, who will essentially need to hoist a trophy at ISM Raceway to earn their opportunity at the 2018 Monster Energy Series title.
If the race winner of Sunday’s Can-Am 500 is one of the eight championship eligible drivers, he would automatically earn a position in the Championship 4. If not, then two drivers from that group of eight would advance based on points.
All four Stewart-Haas Racing Fords are among those still vying for a title – Harvick, Kurt Busch, Almirola and Bowyer – and it’s the only four-car team to have all its drivers advance this far in the title run.
“Just the fact that we were able to get all four of them this far is an accomplishment, a huge year for our company,” team co-owner Tony Stewart said Sunday.
“Couldn’t be more proud of everybody. But the reality is we knew, everybody knew, when they started the Playoffs that those first three spots were already for the most part taken unless they had a natural disaster happen.
“I guess from our standpoint now, I mean, we got one in. There’s one more race left. We got one more opportunity to get one more of those three in. No matter what, it’s been a record breaking year for our company in so many ways. There’s so many different records that have been broken, if Kevin is the only one that ends up in there, it’s still been a great season.”
Of the four drivers essentially needing a victory to break into the top-four in the standings – only Kurt Busch has won at ISM Raceway before. His brother Kyle and Joey Logano each have a victory too. Harvick scored his ninth win at ISM Raceway this spring – most among the field; double that of any driver entered this week (Jimmie Johnson is next best with four wins).
Harvick’s Phoenix mastery includes a massive 1,522 laps led at the track compared to 827 for Kyle Busch – the two largest lap totals among the current eight Playoff drivers. Kurt Busch is next with 757 laps out front.
Among those still looking for that first Phoenix trophy, Truex has led only 104 laps in 25 starts. Elliott – the lone Chevrolet still running for the crown – has led 140 laps in only five ISM Raceway starts. Bowyer has led only 22 laps in 26 Phoenix races and Almirola is still looking for his first lap out front in what will be his 16th start.
Counting Harvick’s victory on Sunday, six of the eight Playoff drivers finished among the top-10 at Texas. Kyle Busch was 17th and Bowyer, who qualified on the outside pole position, was 26th.
“That stinks, first corner of the race,” Bowyer said of contact on the opening lap with Denny Hamlin.
“I’m sick. It wasn’t what we were hoping for today. We were having to turn right to get into the corner and were ploughing in the middle. I think something was going on with the car when it was getting in the corner.
“We’ll go to Phoenix and try to win. This isn’t over yet,” said Bowyer.
Past statistics certainly may not predict the outcome this week either. The track is debuting an incredible $178 million makeover featuring not only new fan amenities, but the one-mile oval itself will present differently. The start-finish line is essentially flip-flopped with it now located where Turn 2 used to be.
Whether Harvick’s previous amazing work at the track can be replicated on the fresh layout remains to be seen. Certainly there is plenty of motivation from the other Playoff drivers realizing this is their last opportunity to “win” their way in to a shot at the sport’s biggest trophy.
The entire slate of championship chasers turned in good showings at Phoenix earlier this year. All four of the drivers essentially needing to win to secure a championship position scored top-10 finishes there this March. Kurt Busch was 10th, Elliott was third, Almirola was seventh and Bowyer was sixth.
Truex, the driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota was fifth in the spring and Joe Gibbs Racing driver Kyle Busch was runner-up – his fifth top-five at Phoenix in the last six races.
“I feel okay about where we are and feel like we’re in decent shape going to Phoenix,” Truex said Sunday. “We’ll go there and race hard again and see what we can do. I think we need a little more speed to run with the Fords – they’re clearly really, really fast right now and if we’re off just a little bit we can’t run with them.
“On the short run, they (Fords) were really fast, but on the long run I thought we were as good as anybody, but just never got to show it. Track position was so hard to get.”
Even needing to overcome a 25-point deficit, Kurt Busch seemed optimistic about his chances to rally into the championship field.
“We are in a good position,” Busch said. “There are a lot of other people I would like to be right here.”
It all comes down to one thing.
“We’ve got to win, simple,” Chase Elliott said.
Carl Edwards inducted into Texas
Motorsports Hall of Fame
When former NASCAR star Carl Edwards strode into the ballroom of the TMS Speedway Club on Saturday, his face registered surprise at the rousing ovation he received from the assembled stakeholders and fans who attended the event.
Then the familiar ear-to-ear grin spread across his face. The occasion was Edwards’ induction, along with IndyCar legend Helio Castroneves, into the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame.
For a variety of personal reasons, Edwards left NASCAR abruptly after the 2016 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, but not before he had accumulated 28 Cup victories—four of them at Texas—and a NASCAR Xfinity Series championship.
Since his departure from racing, Edwards has traveled extensively, twice sailing across the Atlantic Ocean. Though he misses the challenges of the competition, he has no plans to return to racing full-time, if at all.
“The more I’m away from the sport, two things are clear that I miss,” Edwards told reporters after the event. “I definitely miss driving the car. Sliding it around sideways was definitely a blast.
“And I miss the people. This is definitely cool. It means a lot for (TMS president) Eddie (Gossage) to have me back here. I never thought I’d be glad to see (NASCAR Vice Chairman) Mike Helton, but this is cool.”