Though dubbed the Closer, there isn’t a driver in the Sprint Cup Series garage who has had more dominant performances go for naught than Kevin Harvick. For a better part of the last half-decade, Harvick has seemingly dominated races only to wind up second; or further back and out of contention in the last portion of the race. On Saturday night’s rain-filled Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway that was actually raced on Sunday, Kevin Harvick proved his nickname to be true. He dominated the race and captured the checkered flag.
Bristol Win Makes Kevin Harvick a Serious Title Contender
The story of the race was avoiding trouble. Many of the favourites including Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth all got involved in wrecks. This opened the door for some unusual players at the end. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., sporting a special paint scheme in memory of Bryan Clauson needed a win to get into the Chase. He came up a bit short, but his second place finish easily marks his best finish of the season.
Denny Hamlin battled back after being down two laps to finish third. XFINITY Series race winner Austin Dillon finished fourth. Although he is a bubble driver also looking for a win to lock himself into the Chase, a top five will do Dillon just fine. He is first of the drivers without a win. The extra points earned on Sunday will also help pad his lead over 17th place Trevor Bayne. Unless Dillon has several bad races down the stretch, he’ll be a lock to be in championship contention; at least for the first round of the Chase.
Rounding out the top-5 was Chris Buescher. He was looking for a good finish to move into the top-30 in points to become eligible for a Chase spot. Buescher already has a win at Pocono. He avoided all the big wrecks and not only stayed on the lead lap, but was also able to grab his second top-5 of the season. Meanwhile with a 21st place finish, David Ragan, who previously held 30th was passed in points and allowed for a comfortable cushion for the last three races for Buescher before the cut off. But the day belonged to Kevin Harvick and Stewart-Haas Racing.
Kevin Harvick, Title Contender
Kevin Harvick dominated the second half the race. Harvick’s performance and ability to seal the deal at the end showed the rest of the Chase field that this team is a force to be reckoned with. While everyone is focussed on the Chase grid, Harvick has been leading the regular season points for a majority of the season. He reels off consistent finish after consistent finish. With his second win of the season, Harvick improves his Chase starting spot to third. He is the highest in points of drivers with two wins on the season.
The ability to lock down a victory is huge, especially under this updated Chase format with race winners automatically advancing to each subsequent round. Harvick led 128 laps on the day but more importantly led the final 71. During his burnout, Tony Stewart, Harvick’s boss, joined in. This was the final Bristol race for the famed driver-owner. Harvick now has some real momentum he can use to potentially grab another win. He could also experiment with setups to see what might work when the playoffs begin. The confidence he re-gained proving to himself he is still just as good as he always has been at closing out races will definitely help.
Dale Jr. Still Out, Gordon To Miss Next Week
Jeff Gordon has had mixed results filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. while he recovers from a concussion. At one of Gordon’s historically better tracks, he struggled but came away with a hard-fought 11th place finish. Gordon has a prior commitment next weekend so he will not be behind the wheel at Michigan. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has not announced whether he is healthy enough to drive yet but he has been posting his progress online and he appears close. It is likely that if he cannot drive, Alex Bowman will be back behind the wheel. Bowman subbed in at New Hampshire, in the first race that Jr. was sidelined.
The countdown to the Chase is now down to three races. Barring a surprise victory or some serious bad luck, the Chase drivers appear to be set. The gap from 16th to 17th is almost a full race’s difference at 35 points. Kyle Larson continues to get into trouble, costing him valuable points. Trevor Bayne has been reeling off better finishing, though he is still far from contending. There is still time for drivers to grab a win and move up the Chase grid before Chicagoland. Kevin Harvick did that this weekend. It looks that he will be one of the drivers to beat as the season comes to a close.