Kevin Harvick clarified his championship status on Sunday—but not the way he had planned.
After dominating the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway for most of the afternoon, Harvick ran out of fuel while leading on Lap 298 of 300, handing the top spot and the victory to Matt Kenseth, who joined teammate Denny Hamlin as an automatic qualifier for the Contender Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Despite leading 216 laps on Sunday, Harvick, the defending series champion, heads to next Sunday’s Chase race at Dover almost certainly needing a victory at a track where he has never won in order to escape the Challenger Round of the Chase and keep his title hopes alive.
Kenseth, who came to pit road for fuel and tires on Lap 239, triumphed for the fifth time this season (tops in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series), for the second time at the Magic Mile and for the 36th time in his career. He finished 8.941 seconds ahead of Hamlin, who nursed his car to a runner-up finish despite a late-race issue with the right front wheel.
“It feels great to win here--a lot of great race fans here at New Hampshire,” Kenseth said. “We had a great car today – Kevin definitely had the field covered and (Kenseth’s crew chief) Jason (Ratcliff) did a great job on pit strategy there, and those new tires paid off better than we thought to get up through the field.
“And I was able to keep the pressure on enough and he came up a little short.”
The victory was the 13th of the season for Joe Gibbs Racing, which has won 10 of the last 13 Sprint Cup events.
Joey Logano ran third, followed by Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Martin Truex Jr. The only non-Chase driver of that group, Biffle posted his third top-five result of the season.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a consistent top-10 car all afternoon, until he, too, ran short of fuel with two laps left and finished 25th. Earnhardt goes to Dover with no margin for error. He’s 12th in the standings, the final position that will survive elimination next Sunday, and just one point ahead of both Kyle Busch and Paul Menard.
Busch blew a right front tire on Sunday, pounded the Turn 3 wall on Lap 159 and was credited with a 37th-place finish.
Harvick, who finished 21st and declined comment after the race, came to pit road for the last time on Lap 212 and couldn’t squeeze the last 88 laps at the 1.058-mile track out of his fuel cell. Restarting third on Lap 243 after the ninth and final caution (for Justin Allgaier’s wreck in Turn 3), Harvick passed Biffle for the lead on Lap 252.
Twenty laps later, Kenseth got past Hamlin for second and tried to pressure Harvick, who left Loudon in 15th place, 23 points behind Earnhardt in 12th.
“Jason kept saying he (Harvick) was low on fuel, but you never know unless they really run out,” Kenseth said. “I was trying to run hard, but I was trying to save a little bit. I got racing Denny pretty hard, and I wanted to save the tires a little bit, but I also know I needed to get by him to pressure the 4 (Harvick).
“That was as hard as I could run. I was planning on running up there and trying to pass him. I just couldn’t get there. Kind of resigned to finish second with about four or five (laps) to go there. I couldn’t get much closer, and he ran out with a couple to go.”
Second to Kenseth in the standings, six points out of the Chase lead, Hamlin also acknowledged JGR’s good fortune on Sunday.
“Really, I don't feel like we were dominant today by any means,” Hamlin said. “Yeah, our cars finished 1-2, but I'm not sure that we had 1-2 cars most of the day.
“So I think we've been very fortunate with some strategies and things that we've played that's worked out in our favor. You've got to just keep working. That's the only way you can stay on top is to not rest.”
Notes: At 2:19 p.m. ET, Jeff Gordon took the green flag at New Hampshire and started his 789th consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race, breaking the Iron Man record he shared for a week with Ricky Rudd. ... Modified star Ryan Preece finished 32nd in his Sprint Cup debut.