Kevin Harvick has thrived as NASCAR’s version of a Game 7 master, steeling his nerves and flourishing in those win-or-else races that kept a championship push alive.
His Chase off to a rocky start, Harvick injected the Chase again with a rousing finish that eliminated a must-win race for him and parked him in the next playoff round.
Harvick won Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway to earn a spot in the second round of the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs, pulling away off a restart a year after a late loss at the track.
“It’s kind of like an addiction,” Harvick said. “You just love the rush of being able to be behind and be able to perform and make that happen.”
Harvick finished 20th in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship opener which stuck him 15th in the standings. With another weak finish at New Hampshire, Harvick would have faced yet another race at Dover he may have had to win to advance.
His lap times in the No. 4 Chevrolet only got faster deeper into the race and he was soon nipping at Martin Truex Jr. and Matt Kenseth at the front of the field. Kenseth dominated the second half of the race and seemed poised to win the New Hampshire race for the third straight time.
Harvick, the 2014 Sprint Cup champion, had enough juice in the Chevy to zip past Kenseth with five laps left and join Truex as the drivers locked in the next round. Truex won the Chase opener at Chicagoland and he led a race-high 141 laps at New Hampshire.
Harvick ran out of fuel late last year at New Hampshire to lose and faced a win-or-elimination race the next week at Dover. Harvick, who won for the third time this season, rallied for one of the biggest wins of his career to survive another round.
He won in a similar situation in 2014 at Phoenix when he needed a victory to advance to the championship race. Harvick won the finale and the championship at Homestead.
“The last two years we’ve kind of just worn ourselves out and really stressed out over trying to perform at this level,” he said.
At Dover, it’s up to 14 other drivers to worry about a win.
Chase drivers took the top eight spots. The 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field will be cut to 12 after Dover.
Kenseth led 105 of 300 laps and would have clinched with the win, just as he did last season at New Hampshire when he was in perfect position to take advantage of Harvick’s fuel foul up. Kenseth appeared to slow down just a bit off the last restart with five laps left, allowing Harvick to race side-by-side before he took off for his 11th win in 100 career starts at Stewart-Haas Racing.
“It was just a smooth restart. I just didn’t want to spin the tires,” Harvick said. “I don’t know what happened to him, or if I just timed it right.”
“I let Kevin lay back on me, which we’re supposed to be side-by-side. I should have known better,” Kenseth said. “I should have just went really late in the zone and wait until he had to get up to my nose because he anticipated it just right and laid back. Plus, I spun the tires and I got beat through one and two and then it was over.”
Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kenseth and Kyle Busch were second and third. They were followed by Chase drivers Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Truex and Jimmie Johnson.
Other Chase results: Kyle Larson was 10th, Joey Logano 11th, Chase Elliott 13th, Denny Hamlin 15th, Austin Dillon 16th, Jamie McMurray 19th, Tony Stewart 23rd, and Chris Buescher 30th.
McMurray, Dillon, Stewart and Buescher are the bottom four drivers in the standings.
WARNING: Good news for the NASCAR PR machine — no Chase driver failed post-race inspection.
NASCAR issued a stern warning to the Sprint Cup garage before the race not to “circumvent what happens with postrace inspection.”
NASCAR spent the week talking lasers — after spending a chunk of the season on lug nuts — instead of celebrating the playoffs.
“We ask all of you not to put it in our hands because we will react if we have to,” NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell said. “I think everybody knows what that means. We want to concentrate on the race.”
All remaining Chase cars will go through laser inspection after only nine were picked after the Chase opener.
BELIEVE IT: Danica Patrick finished 18th and actually led nine laps. Her 30 laps led this season are three more than her combined total the last three seasons.
The first Chase elimination race takes place at Dover International Speedway. Harvick is the defending race winner.