For Kevin Harvick, Texas is the new Phoenix.
Overcoming a pit road penalty for a tire placed in his pit box too early, Harvick took control of the AAA Texas 500 as the sun set on Texas Motor Speedway and won his third straight Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff race at the 1.5-mile track in Cowtown.
Locked into the Championship 4 race two weeks hence at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Harvick can now breathe easy heading into the final Round of 8 race at ISM Raceway in Phoenix, a track where Harvick has nine wins and a current streak of 12 top-10 finishes—but where Harvick struggled uncharacteristically in the spring while running ninth under the new 2019 rules package.
After leading a race-high 119 laps and finishing 1.594 seconds ahead of Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Aric Almirola, Harvick, the pole winner, won’t have to worry about the one-mile flat track in Arizona’s Sonoran desert.
“Texas has always been so great to us, and what a race track the last few years,” said Harvick, who won for the fourth time this season and the 49th time in his career, tying him with SHR co-owner Tony Stewart for 14th all-time. “It's just been a lot of work put into this race. We knew this was a good race track for us. Felt like it fit the styles of our cars, and, man, did it.”
Harvick led an impressive contingent of SHR drivers, all of whom took turns at the front of the field before Harvick took control. Runner-up Almirola led 62 laps, Clint Bowyer led 36 and Daniel Suarez 25.
“That was a very solid night, and I’m very happy with the performance and speed that we brought from the shop,” said Suarez, who matched the third-place finish he posted at Texas in the spring. “Everyone back at the shop did a great job. We knew we would be fast here.
“We had a solid performance here last time. We did a good job. We had good execution and a good clean day. I’m very happy for Stewart-Haas Racing and the 41 Ford Mustang was pretty sporty. I am very happy for Kevin getting his ticket for Homestead.”
Harvick’s path wasn’t easy. On a Lap 186 pit stop under caution, a tire dropped from the top of the pit wall into Harvick’s stall before the No. 4 Ford arrived, forcing Harvick to restart from the rear. But Harvick charged forward and on Lap 255, he passed Almirola for the lead.
Suarez completed the 1-2-3 podium sweep for SHR, followed by Joey Logano, who held the fourth position in the standings and extended his margin above the current Championship cut line to 20 points. Alex Bowman ran fifth, and Martin Truex Jr., already locked into the season finale by virtue of last week’s Martinsville win, finished sixth.
Playoff drivers Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney were seventh and eighth, with Busch standing 22 points above the cut line and Blaney 23 points below, tied with 12th-place finisher Kyle Larson.
Chase Elliott’s dire Playoff situation crystallized on Lap 9 when he tried to run the high lane and slid into the outside wall in Turn 2. Elliott barely beat the repair clock on pit road and returned to the race, albeit it seven laps down.
The driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet leaves the Lone Star State with a 32nd-place finish and one path to the Championship 4 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway—he must win next Sunday’s race at Phoenix to advance.
Like Elliott, Denny Hamlin failed to score points in either of the first two stages. On Lap 80, five short of the completion of Stage 1, Hamlin got sideways in Turn 44 and spun through the infield grass. He lost two laps under repairs and two more on the track and came home 28th.
As a consequence, the five-time Cup winner this season fell 20 points below the cut line for the Championship 4.
Jimmie Johnson’s prospects of ending a 92-race drought looked promising early on but came to a disappointing finish early in the final stage. Johnson passed Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman for the lead on Lap 99 and held the top spot for 40 laps—the most laps the seven-time champion has led in a single race since his 60 at Texas in the spring.
But Johnson spun in Turns 1 and 2 while battling for third on Lap 185 and slapped the Turn 2 wall. Johnson couldn’t make minimum speed after repairs and retired to the garage after completing 199 laps.
Note: John Hunter Nemechek finished 21st, one lap down in his Cup debut—substituting for Front Row Motorsports driver Matt Tifft, who suffered a seizure last Saturday at Martinsville.