Kevin Harvick knew what it would be like to go into the final race in the first round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup needing to win to stay alive in the elimination-style playoffs.
He didn’t want to go through that kind of win-or-go-home pressure again — so he took care of business on Sunday, winning the Bad Boy Off Road 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
That ensures Harvick will advance to the second round of the Chase, with one race still remaining in the opening round. He and Martin Truex Jr., winner of the prevous week’s Chase-opening race at Chicagoland Speedway, are the only drivers in the Chase field now guaranteed to move on.
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The 16-driver Chase field will be trimmed to 12 after next week’s race at Dover, the last one in the first round.
Last year Harvick went into the Dover event needing to win to stay alive in the playoffs. Now he won’t have to worry about it.
"It’s definitely going to be nice," Harvick said. "One of our main goals this year was to not stress ourselves out so bad. I feel like the performance of the car and the things that we’re doing are good enough to be competitive, and we just need to not make mistakes and go from there.”
Truex and Matt Kenseth were the class of the field most of Sunday and waged a spirited battle for the lead for much of the afternoon, especially over the last 50 laps.
Several times, the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota of Truex got to the inside of Kenseth’s No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and appeared to be in position to make the pass for the lead.
Each time, Kenseth was able to hold him off.
Then on the restart after the caution flag flew for Trevor Bayne hitting the outside wall with 16 to go, Kenseth blew away Truex and the rest of the field.
Another caution fell just six laps later when the cars of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Reed Sorenson spun — and this time Harvick started on the front row alongside Kenseth, who took the outside line.
Harvick got the best of Kenseth this time and surged ahead between Turns 1 and 2 to take the lead for good with six laps to go.
"Man, that worked out really good. The car was pretty good on the restarts," said Harvick, who drives the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet. "Once we got clean air there at the end, it wound up being really good up front. I’m just really proud of our team. They did a great job.”
Kenseth acknowledged that he did not do such a great job on the final restart.
"I just didn’t do a good job on that last restart and Kevin did a better job than I did there," Kenseth said. "He was laying back just a little bit, which you should do to try to get a run, and I spun the tires in the restart box a little bit, and once he got alongside of me through 1 and 2 it was pretty much over."
The top eight finishers in the race were all Chasers, with Kenseth finished second behind Harvick. They were followed in the finishing order by Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Truex and Jimmie Johnson.
All in all, 11 of the top 12 finishers were Chasers, with Kyle Larson coming home in 10th and Joey Logano 11th.
The other Chase participants who didn’t fare as well were Denny Hamlin (15th), Austin Dillon (16th), Jamie McMurray (19th), Tony Stewart (23rd) and Chris Buescher (30th).
Some of those, however, chose to search for a silver lining. One of those was Dillon, who wrecked his primary car in practice on Friday and had to go to a backup car.
"Truthfully, that was a heck of a fight and we are only five points out going into Dover after we struggled all weekend long," Dillon said. "We fought hard."
So did Harvick, who spent most of the day — like the rest of the field — watching Kenseth and Truex lead laps. Truex led a race-high 141 before falling back to seventh by the finish. Kenseth led 105.
Harvick led only eight. But he led the last one, and that was all that mattered on a day when even Harvick himself did not think he had the car to win.
"I’m just excited," Harvick said. "I was content with where we were. But once you get up there in the front like that, you’ve got to take a chance to try to win."