Kevin Harvick dominated a race he had to win to advance to the second round of NASCAR’s playoffs, while six-time champion Jimmie Johnson was eliminated from the field.
Harvick led 354 laps Sunday at Dover International Speedway and earned the third automatic berth in the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field. Harvick was mired in 15th in the standings and had to win to keep his title defense alive.
“Never quit. That’s why right here, guys,” Harvick said over the radio as he took the checkered flag.
Johnson entered fifth in the standings and, with 10 career wins at Dover, seemed a lock to advance. His No. 48 Chevrolet was forced off the track for 36 laps with a torn rear axle seal and he plummeted in the standings.
Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer also were eliminated as the Chase field was sliced from 16 to 12. Dale Earnhardt Jr. tied with McMurray in points and earned the final spot on a tiebreaker.
Four more drivers will be eliminated in the next three-race segment that starts Saturday at Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina.
Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth had already earned berths in the next round with wins in the first two Chase races. Carl Edwards also advanced along with Joey Logano, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch.
Truex survived despite being sent to the rear of the field after his team made an unapproved adjustment to the right rear after inspection. Gordon’s drive for a fifth championship is still alive in his final season.
Harvick, in the No. 4 Chevrolet, pulled off another victory in a must-win Chase race. Last season, he was eighth out of eight teams and had to win at Phoenix International Raceway to advance into the championship finale. He won the race, then won it all the next week when his second straight checkered flag gave him the highest finish among four championship drivers to earn the crown.
The other Chase contenders know they blew their shot at eliminating what should be their toughest competitor in the final seven races.
Only three weeks ago, a confident Harvick said of the Joe Gibbs drivers: “We’re going to pound them into the ground.”
He instead finished 42nd in the Chase opener at Chicagoland and 21st last week at New Hampshire.
Harvick would love to win another championship, not just for himself, but for his friend and team owner Tony Stewart. Stewart announced this week he will retire from Sprint Cup racing after the 2016 season.
Stewart and Harvick grabbed hands in a window-to-window celebration with their Chevrolets parked on the track.
“We weren’t in a good situation coming into today, but that’s what this team is made of,” Harvick said. “This is what it’s all about, those big-time moments.”
Harvick’s team celebrated in victory lane chanting “I believe that we will win!”
They can believe it.
But no one can believe Johnson is out of the playoff picture. In his 500th career start, he again seemed poised to be in the hunt to win at one of his favorite tracks.
But the No. 48 Chevy instead spent a nice of chunk of the race in the garage as his crew furiously worked on repairs.
Johnson won championships in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2013, putting him one shy of matching Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most on the career list.
“I’ve lost championships this way. I’ve won championships this way,” Johnson said. “It’s not the way we want to end the season, but it’s racing. Not much we can do about it.”