Finally Happy: Harvick ends slump with dominant Darlington win
In the five races that followed Kevin Harvick’s win at Phoenix International Raceway on March 2, the driver nicknamed "Happy" had been mired in a major slump.
After Saturday night’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, it’s fair to say Harvick’s slump is history. After all, he didn’t just win — he flat-out dominated.
Starting from the pole, Harvick ran roughshod over the competition for much of the night, but when Joey Logano brought out a caution with less than 10 laps remaining and all the leaders hit pit road, a call for four tires left Harvick fifth on a restart with only five of the scheduled 367 laps remaining.
Despite having fresher rubber than the top four drivers, who each took two tires, Harvick looked to be headed for no better than a third-place finish when a caution for debris set up a green-white-checkered restart.
On that restart, Dale Earnhardt Jr. lined up on the inside of the front row beside leader Jimmie Johnson, and jumped out into the lead before the caution flag waved again — this time when Clint Bowyer spun Kurt Busch off Turn 2, setting up a second attempt at a green-white-checkered.
Harvick, who passed Johnson for second before the caution for Busch’s wreck, lined up to Earnhardt Jr.’s outside on the restart and blew by the No. 88 Chevrolet coming to the white flag as he cruised to his first victory at the track "Too Tough to Tame."
"We had a great Budweiser Chevrolet tonight," said Harvick, who had finished 36th or worse in four of the last five races coming into Darlington. "We felt like four tires was the call, and if we don’t have the two green-white checkereds, we probably don’t win the race. Just a great night. This is the Southern 500, so to be in Victory Lane is pretty unbelievable."
Earnhardt Jr. held on to finish second ahead of Johnson, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, who rallied from a slow start to challenge for the win. Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle completed the top five.
Earnhardt Jr.’s finish was his best ever at Darlington, a notoriously challenging 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval that he readily admits is not among his strongest tracks. NASCAR’s most popular driver expected he would have his hands full with Harvick, who had been the class of the field for most of the night.
"Harvick had the best car and the best tires at the end," Earnhardt Jr. said. "It was real hard to hold him off. I should have probably ran the top down there in (turns) 3 and 4 and made him go around the bottom, but I think he was going to get us anyway and we were going to try. A great run, good job by my team. This isn’t one of my best tracks, so my team gave me a great car. I’ve got to give them a lot of credit."
Harvick, who led 238 of 374 laps, became the season’s first repeat winner in eight races and became the first driver to win from the pole at Darlington since 1997. By virtue of winning for the second time this season, Harvick is now even more assured than he already was of a berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
"It feels great," he said. "It’s allowed us with the way the points system is to go for wins and not have to worry about the bad weeks too much. Really proud for these guys, and looking forward to the last 10 (the Chase races)."
Perhaps equally importantly, Harvick could finally leave a track feeling good again, following a dismal stretch of races in which several potentially strong finishes were negated by mechanical failures.
"After the last several weeks, we were nervous every lap," said Harvick, who joined Stewart-Haas Racing this year after 13 seasons with Richard Childress Racing. "It’s one of those deals where we have had a lot of crazy things happen. These guys have just kept their head down and known that we have had really fast race cars over the last several weeks. Tonight we were able to put a whole race together. Great night for us."
Jeff Gordon remained the series points leader over Kenseth, who now sits just a point back in second. Carl Edwards (-19), Earnhardt Jr. (-26), Johnson (-27), Kyle Busch (-28), Brad Keselowski (-51), Logano (-52), Ryan Newman (-61) and Austin Dillon (-62) complete the top 10.