Kevin Harvick stamped his name into the Contender Round during Sunday’s 400-mile event at Dover. The Stewart-Haas Racing team was concerned about one thing on Sunday and that was to win the 400-mile event. After having poor finishes in each of the first two races in the Challenger Round, Harvick bounced back to lead a career-high 355 laps in a "must win" situation.
After qualifying was rained out on Friday, Harvick began the afternoon in the 15th position. He didn’t stay there for long.
It took just 24 laps for the No. 4 team to race their way to the lead after passing polesitter Matt Kenseth. From Lap 24 on, Harvick led 355 of the remaining 376 laps. The car was freaky fast. This was Harvick’s first win since Phoenix in March and his first win at the Monster Mile.
“It was business as usual,” Harvick said describing his first win at Dover. “When you look at the first three Dover races that we’ve had here, it was definitely right in line with the things that we had done here before.”
There was a bunch of strategy late in the race that Harvick had to overcome in order to secure his third win of 2015. On Lap 352, crew chief Rodney Childress called his driver to pit road so that they knew they were good on fuel to the end of the event. One of the downfalls to the poor finishes in the last two weeks was Harvick running out of gas at New Hampshire with just three laps to go after leading 216 laps.
“We didn’t have any crazy endings,” Harvick said after things that have happened to him in recent weeks. “I think as you look at last week, we led a bunch of laps, and didn’t think it was close, and because it just didn’t get enough fuel in it. We did everything the same last week. We’ve been in these situations a lot this year and haven’t pulled it off, but there’s no way to get frustrated. If you’re going to frustrated over running like we’ve run this year, you’re probably going to be a detriment to your team.”
The rest of the Chase competitors missed a huge opportunity in knocking one of the biggest threats for the championship out.
Joe Gibbs Racing was fast again in Dover. Kyle Busch led the way with a second-place finish after running in second for the majority of the race. Heading into Dover, the No. 18 team was sitting one point behind the Chase cutoff in order to advance into the Contender Round.
Busch finished one spot ahead of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and advanced to the next round by a mere one point. Though he advanced, he knows that he and the team will need to improve to make progress going forward into the Chase.
“For as fast as Kevin was today I don’t know that if I had eight tires I could of beat him,” Busch said of finishing second. “With the way he ran today, hell yeah he (Harvick) is a threat. He’s a guy that we wanted to knock out. He can win all of these races. That’s a guy everyone wants out.”
Earnhardt came into Dover one point to the good, and although he finished third he needed every position to advance in the Chase.
With Harvick winning, it moved every team down a spot. Even if they had more points than Harvick he overtakes them because he won a race. That is exactly what happened and endangered the No. 88 team in the final laps.
Just after the lap 375 restart, Earnhardt made a bold move to the outside of Jamie McMurray. At the time he was one point behind McMurray for the 12th position. However, after Earnhardt made that pass he set sailed to the checkered flag.
“I just went to the outside because it was about the only shot I had to pinch anybody down,” Earnhardt said. “If I could get to his quarterpannel and that’s how it worked out.”
“We had a pretty good car. I thought we were about the third to fifth best car, and we fought all day for track position, and passed a lot of cars.”
McMurray had one of his best finishes of 2015 when finishing fourth at Dover. It was the No. 1 team’s third top-five finish of the season and though this was his first time making the Chase he needed better finishes at both Chicago and Loudon.
“I never expected the No. 88 to get by me on the outside,” McMurray said. “He did a really good job once he got in front of me. We just didn’t have good enough cars in the first two races. Today we ran great.”
The first non-Chaser at Dover was Aric Almirola in fifth. After picking up just one top-five finish in the first 25 races, Almirola has scored top 10’s in the last three races including two top-fives.
“That was a good run for us,” Almirola said. “That’s two top-fives in a row here at Dover. We just struggled with getting the car in the race track most of the day and right there at the end four tires paid off for us.”
Other Chase drivers who finished in the top 10 were Kenseth and Joey Logano. Martin Truex, Jr. and Jeff Gordon finished just outside of the top 10. Teams that advanced into the Contender Round that did not run well were Brad Keselowski who ran outside of the top-15 for the majority of the race. Kurt Busch wound up 17th after running well for the majority of the 400 mile race.
Denny Hamlin finished in 18th on Sunday after receiving a pit road speeding penalty on Lap 40. Soon there after he was lapped by race leader Harvick, as were many other drivers. Once he was a lap off the pace the No. 11 team was never able to recover and get back the lost track position.
Ryan Newman ended the first round ninth in the points. After pointing his way into the championship race last year, Newman had a solid first two races of the Chase. After starting sixth on Sunday, the No. 31 fell well outside of the top 10 and ended up in 19th. Newman was disappointed with the end result.
Four drivers failed to make it into the Contender Round of the Chase before heading to Charlotte. They included six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson who had a broken real axle seal that caused them to go behind the garage for 36 laps. The aforementioned McMurray lost the tiebreaker to Earnhardt. Paul Menard had a disappointing start to the Chase as he had just one top-15 in the opening three races. Clint Bowyer could never overcome the 25 point penalty that he received after Chicago. He finished 50 points behind the cutoff.
The Challenger Round to the Chase will begin next Saturday in the backyard of NASCAR, Charlotte.