In front of 30,000 fans at Bristol, Kevin Harvick ended the first round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs on a victorious note.
Saturday’s NASCAR Cup Series race featured a dozen winners, as these select names moved on to the second round of the circuit’s postseason. Alas, only one familiar face will have his name etched onto the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Kevin Harvick held of Kyle Busch to win his ninth race of the 2020 season. His win came in front of 30,000 socially distanced fans, the best-attended regular season race since the circuit returned from the COVID-19 induced pause.
Saturday was the final portion of the three-race opening round to the 2020 playoffs consisting of 16 drivers. Harvick had already clinched his spot in the upcoming second-round with a win in the first leg at Darlington Raceway two weekends ago. The bottom four drivers were eliminated from championship contention. Harvick is a healthy 62 points ahead of the cutoff to the next round of eight men.
“I hadn’t been to too many races where I’ve been that jacked up getting in the race car,” Harvick said about seeing fans in the stands. “The fans were so enthusiastic tonight and I don’t know if we’ve just been away from them for that long, but you could feel the enthusiasm in the stadium tonight. I think as I was getting in the car, I was just wound up and just really, really ready to race, and then after the race, just the excitement that you could hear and the cheering from the crowd just made me excited.”
“I haven’t felt that in a while, and when you look at Bristol, it’s always very enthusiastic, but tonight these people were so wound up. I think we’re all tired of sitting at home and not really knowing what to do. But tonight they all let it loose, and that gave me a lot of excitement, as well.”
Harvick and Busch united to lead 385 of 500 laps on Saturday, with the former’s No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford pacing 226 of that tally. The two battled for the lead over the final 82 laps, all but 10 led by Harvick. He eventually held off Busch by a 0.31-second margin to take home another win.
By earning the 58th win of his Cup Series career, Harvick slightly distanced himself from Busch (56 Cup wins) for seventh-place on the all-time wins list.
“I’m just fortunate to be able to still be doing this for 20 years now and be successful, and we got to nine, so that’s one step closer than we were at eight,” Harvick said of the potential of a ten-win campaign. “I don’t know if we’ll make it to ten, but we’re going to keep trying to do the best we can every week, and it’s just been an unbelievable year.”
The win was a team effort all around for the No. 4 unit. Harvick praised spotter Tim Fedewa for helping him navigate through lapped traffic and crew chief Rodney Childers for setting the car up right. He also credited them both for helping avoid a potentially disastrous situation, when Austin Dillon and James Davison wrecked in front of him with 93 laps to go as Harvick was attempting to make his final stop of the night.
“Timmy was on it tonight,” Harvick said of Fedewa. “He was one step ahead of me, and that really helps because you can’t really see all the way out of the corner when you’re entering the corner and headed to the center of the corner, you can’t really tell.”
“The biggest turning point of the night was when we were coming to pit road, cars beside me spun out and we stayed on the racetrack and without clipping the box or anything and put a bunch of them a lap down, so that was definitely a big moment.”
Second place and clinching a second-round spot was no consolation to Busch. The defending Cup Series champion and driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has yet to win a race at the Cup Series level. Saturday saw him work through several issues en route to the runner-up spot.
A failed prerace inspection forced him to start from the rear of the field. When the caution came out on lap 29 to account for Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s accident, a pit road run-in with Daniel Suarez forced him to restart 25th. Busch was able to make it back to second place behind Chase Elliott at the end of the first 125-lap stage. After winning the ensuing race off pit road, Busch led all but two of the next 150 circuits.
Busch briefly took the lead from Harvick, but the No. 4 used its speed and maneuverability around lapped traffic to secure the win. The defending champion was highly displeased with the slower vehicles afterward, namely the underfunded cars of Joey Gase and Garrett Smithley, as well as former fellow champion Joey Logano. The stall only added to his frustration over his fourth runner-up placement of the season.
“You always try to race hard and race clean and get the job done right,” Busch remarked when asked if he considered pulling the Bristol tradition of bumping Harvick out of the lead. “Some of them (expletive) kids don’t know what the hell they’re doing or where they’re at and can’t stay out of the way. Nothing like a Gase and a Smithley.”
Busch’s teammate and non-playoff driver Erik Jones finished third and rookie Tyler Reddick came home fourth. Aric Almirola secured his playoff spot by round out the top five. A Harvick teammate, Clint Bowyer, was the final of only six lead lap cars, securing a second-round spot of his own in the process.
The next three-race stage of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs gets underway in primetime next Sunday night with the South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Other locales in the next round include Talladega Superspeedway and the “roval” at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
- William Byron and his team saw their championship dream ended when the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet’s front end was damaged after reported contact with Christopher Bell on lap 233. The get-together was reportedly brought on in an attempt to avoid Gase’s slow car. Byron referred to Gase as “an idiot” over the radio upon his race retirement. The No. 24 had been running in the top ten prior to the wreck and was three points out of the next round entering the race.
- Other drivers that entered Saturday secure in the next round included Brad Keselowski (win at Richmond last week) and Denny Hamlin (points).
- In addition to Busch, Logano, Dillon, Elliott, Almirola, and Bowyer, three more drivers clinched their second-round spot via points. That group included Martin Truex Jr., Alex Bowman, and Kurt Busch.
- Three more drivers were eliminated, including Ryan Blaney, Matt DiBenedetto, and rookie Cole Custer.
For full results, click here
For full standings, click here
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags