The driver they call “The Closer” simply did it at Dover International Speedway.
Needing a win to advance to the Contender Round of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chase, Kevin Harvick grabbed the top spot on lap 24 and led an outstanding 355 laps – a career high for Harvick in a single race – to score the victory in the AAA 400 at the Monster Mile.
“Really proud of my group for getting the last little bit out of everything that they could,” Harvick said. “Everybody was flawless on pit road and up top. Everything just went well.”
Ending a nearly seven-month winless string, Harvick denied that pressure had any anything to do with the return to Victory Lane.
“I don’t think there was really any pressure,” he said. “For us, we all knew what we had to do. It was really no different preparation than what we would do on a weekly basis.
“All-in-all, it was business as usual. I think when you look at the first three Dover races we’ve [Stewart-Haas Racing] it was definitely right in line with thing that we have done here before, just didn’t have any problems.
“We’ve led a lot of laps at a lot of different races. These things go in cycles. The circumstances today were pretty straightforward. We didn’t have any crazy endings.”
Kyle Busch came home second, advancing to Round 2 by a mere single point.
“We finished where I thought we deserved to be,” Busch said. “The first 300 laps it seemed like it was going to be pretty simple to finish there. Then things got a little complicated there in the last 100 [laps] with pit strategies and pit stops.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. – although in the shadow of Harvick’s clutch victory – charged to finish third, breaking a tie for the final transfer spot (12th) with Jamie McMurray, who finished one spot behind in fourth.
“We weren’t really going to advance,” Earnhardt said. “Jamie [McMurray], he took off on that run before last with about 50 to go. I hadn’t seen that kind of speed in his car all day so it kind of surprised me. I thought we were going to get to him and get around him, but he took off.”
Earnhardt had a scare in the closing stages of Sunday’s 400-lap event, as the No. 88 driver experienced a major vibration with 50 to go, believing the culprit was a loose wheel.
A caution for Brett Moffitt a few laps later could very have saved Earnhardt’s Chase season.
“It was shaking real bad in the corners,” Earnhardt said. “I knew it was a matter of time before it was coming off. We had 50 to go at that point, and I wasn’t going to bash my head against the concrete wall somewhere for a damn loose wheel. We were coming in sooner or later.”
McMurray, despite ending his first Chase appearance, has his head held high.
“I’m not disappointed,” said McMurray. “Our goal from the beginning was to make the Chase. Our team did a tremendous job today, but we just didn’t run well in the first two races.
“It was a great battle. My car wasn’t that good on the outside and I didn’t expect anyone else’s to be that good. I knew I was better than [Earnhardt] the run before, so I didn’t expect it.”
Ryan Newman ended on the other side of the line, advancing by one point with a 19th-place finish.
“We got some homework to do before Charlotte,” Newman said.
The race lived up to its standards, having three green-flag runs of 65 laps or more which tested both driver and car.
Pole-winner Matt Kenseth led the opening 23 laps, while Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Busch five times for 19 laps.
Aric Almirola grabbed his second straight top-five finish at Dover and third of 2015, surpassing his career-high top-five finishes mark in his four-year Sprint Cup Series career.
“That was some really good adjustments by Trent [Owens, crew chief] and the guys. Just a really solid day for us.”