Benefiting from a two-tire pit stop with 36 laps left, Kevin Harvick held off charging Denny Hamlin over the final green-flag run to win for the first time at Pocono Raceway.
Harvick crossed the finish line in Saturday’s Pocono Organics 325 .761 seconds ahead of Hamlin to post his third victory of the season - tying Hamlin for the NASCAR Cup Series lead - and the 52nd of his career, 12th most all-time.
“We weren’t where we needed to be to start the race and lost a bunch of track position, but we came back and made some great strategy calls to get in clean air and get out front and make some good laps,” said Harvick, who led the final 17 laps after pit stops were complete. “It’s great to finally check Pocono off the list.
On Lap 94, Harvick entered the pits behind Aric Almirola, but with a two-tire stop, he swapped positions with his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, who needed four tires on the same stop. After pit stops cycled out, Harvick had the lead, Hamlin was second, and Almirola was far behind in third.
After the flip-flop of positions on pit road, Harvick was confident the two-tire strategy would pay dividends.
“I knew when we came out of the pits, and they told me how big of a lead we had (over Almirola),” Harvick said. “I saw the 11 (Hamlin) come out of the pits, and he was in second… He caught us a little in traffic, but I knew I could be pretty patient with the gap we had.
“As I started to see everything cycle out and see with the track position we had with the fresher tires, you could kind of start to put it together in your mind as we started to run through the last stage and cars started to have to pit. Just a great call by (crew chief) Rodney Childers and all the guys up on the pit box for having the right strategy and getting us to Victory Lane.”
Though he led a race-high 61 laps and won the second stage, Almirola rolled across the stripe in third, 15.224 seconds behind Harvick’s No. 4 Ford.
“We opted to score a lot of points (in the stages), and that probably hurt us on strategy a little bit, but I’m really proud of Buga (crew chief Mike Bugarewicz) and these (crew) guys,” said Almirola, who also finished third last Sunday at Talladega.
“They’ve been bringing some awesome race cars. I felt like we were tit-for-tat there with the 4 (Harvick) when we were on older tires and in clean air… We’re trying to keep the momentum going—three top fives in a row. I’m really proud of my race team.”
Even though his car picked up a severe vibration in the late going, Hamlin whittled Harvick’s lead from more than two seconds to less than .3 seconds, as Harvick worked traffic late in the 130-lap event at the 2.5-mile triangular track.
“With about 15 or 20 (laps) to go, the vibration just got really, really bad,” Hamlin said. “It still would have been tough to pass. Even though we got there, it would have been tough to get around him.”
Sunoco rookie Christopher Bell posted a career-best fourth-place finish, followed by Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. Clint Bowyer, Michael McDowell, Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher completed the top 10.
Cup drivers will race 350 miles at Pocono on Sunday in the same cars they used on Saturday—with the exception of those needing backups because of damage. The Pocono 350 will be the final event in an unprecedented tripleheader, with the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series starting the action in the rain-postponed Pocono Organics 150 at 9:30 a.m. ET.
The Pocono Green 225 NASCAR Xfinity Series race will follow at 12:30 p.m., followed by the Cup event at 4 p.m. Never before have all three of NASCAR’s top touring series raced at the same track on the same day. All three races will be broadcast on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.
With the starting order for Sunday’s Cup race determined by inverting the top 20 finishers from Saturday, Ryan Preece will start on the pole, and Harvick will take the green from 20th.