Kevin Harvick dominates at Brickyard; Playoff roster set

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INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - SEPTEMBER 08: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Mobil 1 Ford, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on September 08, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

Reid Spencer – NASCAR Wire Service

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA – SEPTEMBER 08: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Mobil 1 Ford, leads during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on September 08, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

SPEEDWAY, Ind. – It was a dominating victory for Kevin Harvick and a statement of superiority for his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford team as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads toward its 10-race Playoff.

It was an ignominious end to Jimmie Johnson’s unique and unprecedented streak of qualifying for every Cup Series postseason.

And it was heartbreak for Daniel Suarez, as he chased Ryan Newman over the final nine laps of the Big Machine Vodka 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with the final Playoff berth in the balance.

Newman came home eighth, as he and fifth-place finisher Clint Bowyer locked up the final two Playoff spots. Suarez ran 11th after getting trapped in traffic on the final restart on Lap 152 of 160 and finished four points behind Newman in the final regular-season standings.

But the story of the race was Harvick, who was in a class by himself. The 2014 series champion won the second stage and during the final nine laps of the race sped to a 6.118-second advantage over runner-up Joey Logano.

Harvick started from the pole, led five times for 119 laps and controlled the event, except for one 19-lap stretch when eventual seventh-place finisher Ryan Blaney grabbed the top spot after a restart on Lap 112.

“I can’t tell you how much coming to Indianapolis means to me,” Harvick said. “As a kid, I watched Rick Mears win the Indy 500 and got to be around him as a kid. He was my hero.

“My team built a great race car. I can’t say enough about everyone on (this team). They built a heck of a race car. It’s the same stuff that we took to Michigan and had a real good weekend there, obviously, and went to Victory Lane.

“I know how much this means to (crew chief) Rodney (Childers) and all the guys who work on this car. We’ve been so close at winning here before.”

True, this was Harvick’s first Brickyard victory with his current SHR contingent, but it was his second overall, the first coming with Richard Childress Racing 16 years ago. Harvick won for the third time this season and the 48th time in his career, tying Herb Thomas for 15th on the all-time list and moving to one win behind his car owner, Tony Stewart.

“I don’t know if we had the best car, but we had the fastest car,” Harvick said. “We gave up the lead there (to Blaney) on one of those restarts, and then we came and pitted, and the caution came out (for Kyle Larson’s crash on Lap 129), and it worked our way.

“We’ve given so many away just because of circumstances here, and the way that the caution flag fell today actually worked in our favor. It gave us control of the race, and we were able to keep control of the race and not make any mistakes, and here we are in Victory Lane at one of the greatest places on earth to race.”

A four-time winner at the Brickyard, Johnson hoped to find magic at the 2.5-mile track. Instead, he found misery. Moments after a restart on Lap 105, his No. 48 Chevrolet broke loose underneath the Camaro of Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron, slid sideways and collided with the No. 1 Chevrolet of Kurt Busch.

An eight-car wreck ensued, and Johnson’s car was too heavily damaged to continue. The seven-time champion finished 35th his streak of 15 straight NASCAR postseasons came to an end.

“Yeah, it’s really disappointing,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately, we had a bad 25 races that led to the position we’re in here today (18 points out of the Playoffs) and we needed a stellar day. I think we were having a strong day. I’m really proud of my team with what’s been going on.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA – SEPTEMBER 08: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M’s Toyota, receives the regular season champion trophy from NASCAR NASCAR President Steve Phelps prior to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on September 08, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“The No. 1 car (Kurt Busch) had a little trouble on the restart. I’m on the inside going into the corner and it was just super tight. It’s unfortunate that happened. Certainly, it’s not what we needed on that restart. I couldn’t go below the white line and kind of got snipped there and turned around—and around and round we go.”

Similarly, bad luck caught up with Suarez, who pitted because of a vibration on Lap 126 and got caught a lap down when Larson’s wreck caused the seventh caution three circuits later. Suarez got the lap back under the yellow, but he had to restart from the rear and never recovered.

Bubba Wallace ran third, Byron was fourth, followed by Bowyer, Denny Hamlin, Blaney, Newman, Chase Elliott and Paul Menard.

Kyle Busch holds off Justin Allgaier to notch 

fourth Brickyard win

SPEEDWAY, Ind. – It was more of the same for Kyle Busch in Saturday’s Indiana 250 NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but “more of the same” was anything but easy.

Busch held off Justin Allgaier by .132 seconds during a five-lap run to the finish at the 2.5-mile track, but only after a hard crash that took out frontrunners Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick with seven laps left.

With a strong short-run car, combined with his unquestioned prowess on restarts, Busch took control after the final restart to win for the fourth time at the Brickyard, the fourth time in seven starts this season and the 96th time in his career, extending his series record.

In more ways than one, Busch benefited from the wreck that took out Bell and Reddick as they were battling for the lead. For one thing, it eliminated two of the strongest cars in the race. For another, it put Busch out front in clean air, greatly improving the handling of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Supra.

“It was really tough to pass, even when you had a run on a guy,” Busch said in Victory Lane. “You could pass the guys who were set up for long-runs on the straightaways but some of those other guys, like (Bell, Brandon Jones) and the JGR guys, they were stupid fast.

“We got back in traffic and just really fought the handling of this thing and got stuck around fourth place. I’m real proud of this team. This Toyota Supra was awesome today, and glad we got to take it to Victory Lane.”

Allgaier, the defending race winner, led a trio of JR Motorsports cars to top-five finishes, with Noah Gragson charging to third in the closing laps and Jeb Burton matching his career-best finish in his fifth start of the season. Justin Haley ran fifth and scored 35 points, enough to become the ninth driver to clinch a spot in the Xfinity Series Playoffs.

Three cautions in the final 14 laps doomed the chances of Allgaier, whose No. 7 Chevrolet was set up for long green-flag runs.

“Kyle’s great, especially on restarts,” said Allgaier, who led three times for 24 laps, half the total recorded by the race winner. “That’s what sets him apart in the Cup Series and here in the Xfinity Series. Our Suave Men Camaro was on rails, especially on the long runs…

“You don’t realize what it means to you until you come that close to tasting those bricks again. We’ll go to Vegas (for the regular-season finale) next week, finish out the regular season strong and take this momentum into the Playoffs.”

Bell and Reddick were running up front after a restart on Lap 93 of 100, but Bell’s Toyota broke loose under Reddick’s Chevrolet in Turn 2, sending both cars hard into the outside wall and eliminating them from the race.

Bell finished 29th, one spot ahead of Reddick.

“Of all my NASCAR crashes, this one takes the cake,” Bell said after visiting the infield care center. The wreck deprived him of a chance to win for the seventh time this season.

Brandon Jones recovered from a spin after contact with Austin Cindric’s Ford on Lap 87 to finish sixth, one position ahead of six-time winner Cole Custer. Chase Briscoe, Austin Hill and Ryan Sieg completed the top 10.

Reddick retained the series lead by 50 points over Bell and can clinch the regular-season title next Saturday by scoring 11 points.

Field of 16 drivers poised to kick off NASCAR’s 

Playoffs in Las Vegas

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA – SEPTEMBER 08: Ryan Newman, driver of the #6 Acorns Ford, Kyle Larson, driver of the #42 McDonald’s Chevrolet, Erik Jones, driver of the #20 STANLEY Wish For Our Heros Toyota, William Byron, driver of the #24 Liberty University Chevrolet, Martin Truex Jr, driver of the #19 AOI Toyota, Clint Bowyer, driver of the #14 Rush/Cummins Ford, Ryan Blaney, driver of the #12 Wabash National Ford, Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA AUTO PARTS Chevrolet, Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, Alex Bowman, driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, Kurt Busch, driver of the #1 Monster Energy Chevrolet, Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M’s Toyota, Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Discount Tire Ford, Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Mobil 1 Ford, Aric Almirola, driver of the #10 Smithfield/Meijer Ford, during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on September 08, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The 16-driver Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff field was set Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with the same kind of drama and storyline fans can expect of the highly-anticipated 10-race Playoff that begins this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick won his second Brickyard 400 trophy at Indy – his third win in the last seven races – to take some good momentum into the Playoff opener, Sunday’s South Point Casino 400 (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

“This is a constant progression,’’ the 2014 Monster Energy Series champion Harvick said of his Playoff expectations. “Last year we got off and had the best cars from a downforce standing and were able to capitalize with eight wins and All-Star Race (win). .. but they [seasons] never go the same.

“But winning this close to the Playoffs on really different styles of race tracks is definitely a good thing. Definitely would rather have the wins than not, that’s for sure, and it’s good timing.’’

The season’s fellow high achievers include Joe Gibbs Racing’s four-time winners Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., and Denny Hamlin. They will mix it up with Harvick, who appears to be peaking at just the right time in the schedule. Busch clinched his second consecutive regular season championship a week ago and that turned out to be fortuitous considering his regular season finale ended early Sunday on Indianapolis’ pit road – a 37th place finish – because of a mechanical issue.

Third-year driver Erik Jones gives Joe Gibbs Racing a perfect Playoff four-for-four with the 23-year-old joining JGR teammates Busch, Truex and Hamlin. He won the prestigious Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway two weeks ago to punch his automatic ticket into the postseason.

Team Penske will again put all three of its cars into championship contention. That title-contending team includes three-time 2019 race winner Brad Keselowski, popular young driver Ryan Blaney and their teammate, defending series champion Joey Logano, who is looking to become the first back-to-back season champ since Jimmie Johnson won five consecutively from 2006-2010. They bring a fine Vegas resume into the Playoff opener, Keselowski winning last year’s September Playoff race and Logano earning the race victory this March at the track.

“It is the best part of the year,’’ said of starting the Playoff stretch. “This to me is maybe the most stressful, yes, but I always say that the pressure is what brings the best out of you. You are able to find things in yourself that you didn’t know were there. This is the time of year as a driver and a person that I grow more than any other time of the year.’’

Three of the four Hendrick Motorsports drivers will be among the championship mix, including two-time 2019 race winner and perennial fan favorite Chase Elliott, first-time Cup race winner (Chicago) Alex Bowman and Playoff newcomer, 21-year old William Byron.

For the first time since the Playoffs were introduced in 2004, their veteran teammate Johnson will not be a part of the postseason drama as an accident midway through the Indy race derailed his late season push for a title chance.

Harvick will have a pair of Stewart-Haas Racing teammates vying for the title down the stretch, including Aric Almirola, who finished a career-best fifth in the 2018 standings. And Clint Bowyer – the 2012 championship runner-up – raced his way into the Playoffs at Indy.

Chip Ganassi Racing will have both drivers, Bristol Speedway race winner veteran Kurt Busch and talented young driver Kyle Larson, in the championship hunt.

The Playoff field will be rounded out by veteran Ryan Newman, who like Bowyer secured his Playoff position at Indianapolis. He will be making his title run in his first season driving for the iconic Roush Fenway Racing team.

Jimmie Johnson maintains optimism despite missing Playoffs

SPEEDWAY, Ind. – Jimmie Johnson emerged from a required check-up in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s infield care center fine physically but obviously disappointed to have his amazing run of NASCAR Playoff contention end with an accident on lap 105 of Sunday’s 160-lap Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard – the regular season finale and his last shot at championship eligibility.

It was clearly not the meeting with the press Johnson had hoped to be having.

“Yeah, it’s really disappointing,’’ Johnson said. “Unfortunately, we had a bad 25 races that led to the position we’re in here today and we needed a stellar day.

“I think we were having a strong day. I’m really proud of my team with what’s been going on. The No. 1 car (Kurt Busch) had a little trouble on the restart. I’m in on the inside going into the corner and it was just super tight. It’s unfortunate that happened. Certainly, it’s not what we needed on that restart. I couldn’t go below the white line and kind of got snipped there and turned around; and around and round we go.’’

Johnson’s 35th-place finish was his worst showing since a 39th-place result in 2007 at the historic Indianapolis track, where his four race-winning trophies remain most among the current field of competitors.

The result landed him 18th in the standings after the race – last among a foursome that came to Indy to settle the two final positions in the 16-driver Playoff field. Clint Bowyer’s fifth-place effort and Ryan Newman’s eighth-place work were good enough to propel the veterans into the crucial 15th and 16th positions in the Playoff lineup. Third-year Cup driver Daniel Suarez finished 11th and missed the Playoffs by a mere four points to Newman.

This is the first time since NASCAR introduced the Playoff system in 2004 that Johnson failed to make the postseason.

Even in the frustration and disappointment, however, the seven-time Cup champion and 83-race winner offered a hefty dose of perspective that only someone like he could provide.

“I’m not stoked by the situation at all, but I am impressed that we’ve been in 16 consecutive Playoffs in a row and I’m not sure anyone else has done that.  I wish we could have kept it going, but life goes on.’’

Even in his disappointment, Johnson was able to look forward and upward.

“Well, first of all, I think it’s pretty impressive the run we’ve been on to be in the Playoffs for this many consecutive years,’’ Johnson said. “I’m not sure who is close, but I don’t think they’re very close. So, we have that to be proud of.

“Sure, we wanted to continue on, but the goal is to win a race. This team is getting stronger each and every week and [crew chief] Cliff Daniels is doing an amazing job of leading this group and we’re ready to roll. There’s still 10 races to go win and we can still climb higher in points,’’ Johnson added. “More importantly, this team has so much momentum right now and we need to cultivate that and get us set up for 2020.”

As Johnson was driving his badly damaged No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet off the track and into the garage, his crew chief Daniels – who is only four races into that position – reminded the team, “Our team is too strong,’’ Daniels reminded. “Keep your head up.’’

After speaking with reporters, he climbed onto a waiting golf cart and rode off to cheers from fans who had gathered nearby.

As Johnson had assured reporters only moments earlier, “The fire’s there. This team inspires and motivates me. These guys really want to perform and it’s a great thing.’’

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