Kevin Harvick was in the right place at the right time to take the lead, then put on an impressive show of tenacity to hold off a hard-charging Austin Dillon to earn his second career Cook Out Southern 500 win at Darlington Raceway in Sunday night’s NASCAR Cup Series Playoff opener.
It may have been his series best eighth victory of the season, but the veteran Harvick was emotional on the team radio, letting out a loud congratulatory yell as he crossed the finish line a mere .343-seconds in front of Dillon and the field. Then, instead of taking the checkered flag after parking at the finish line, Harvick allowed an appreciative young fan – dressed in a brightly-colored Harvick t-shirt – to keep the flag himself.
It was that kind of a feel-good night for Harvick, who marked his 57th career victory, ninth best all-time. He took the lead for good on lap 355 of 367 after Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. made contact with the wall racing for the trophy in front of him.
“The first thing I want to say is ‘welcome back fans'," Harvick said after climbing out of his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford and motioning toward the limited number of fans allowed in the grandstands at the iconic track.
“Just wound up fighting all night long, this Busch Beer Ford Mustang wasn’t where we wanted it to be, but the leaders got tangled up there and next thing you know we were racing for the win," Harvick said.
“Anytime you can win the Southern 500 it’s a good day. This is one of the most prestigious races in our sport and one of the most prestigious race tracks in our sport. Any time you can win at Darlington it’s a big deal."
Joey Logano, Erik Jones and William Byron rounded out the Top-5. Alex Bowman, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer completed the Top-10. Jones was the only non-Playoff driver among the Top-10.
And while Harvick was enjoying his feel-good moment of triumph, some of the race’s other contenders were shaking off a hard-knocks Playoff opener.
Martin Truex Jr. swept both stage wins, beating Jimmie Johnson in the first and Denny Hamlin in the second. The 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champ led a race best 196 of the race’s 367 laps – more than twice that of any other driver in the field.
Yet not a single one of NASCAR’s three national series races at Darlington this weekend was won by the car that led the most laps. Truex and Chase Elliott made contact with each other and the infamous Darlington walls while fighting for the lead with 15 laps remaining.
Truex had to pit for tires and despite his work on the evening, ended up 22nd in the results, his only non-Top-5 finish in the last nine races.
“Just not enough room there for the both of us," Truex said of the contact with Elliott in Turns 1 and 2. “I thought I had enough of a run to clear him and I think it was close, obviously. I thought I had enough momentum and distance on him that he was going to let me in there. I didn’t expect him to be on my right rear. I was committed and once I realized he was there, nothing I could do."
“Lot to be proud of. I hate it for the nine team. It was nothing intentional, just two guys there going for the win. If it was my fault, I apologize, I really felt like I had the position to get in there."
Elliott nursed his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet home and finished a disappointing 20th.
“He had a run on me there off of [Turn] four and just kind of cleared himself into one, he was close but not all the way cleared, obviously," said Elliott, who led 114 laps himself.
Denny Hamlin, a pre-race favorite and six-race winner this year, rallied to a 13th place finish after going down a lap and dropping to 19th place with just under 60 laps remaining. The driver fo the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota led 19 laps and ran among the Top-5 for most of the race but had trouble getting to pit road during a green flag run - getting caught up in traffic and getting hit from behind.
Following Sunday’s win, Harvick has an automatic bid into Round 2 of the Playoffs. The Top-12 following the Bristol race in two weeks will advance to the next Round of the Playoffs.
Even before the Playoffs’ first green flag dropped, Penske Racing’s Ryan Blaney found himself in catch-up mode. His No. 12 Ford failed Sunday afternoon's pre-race inspection for an “improperly mounted ballast” and his crew chief Todd Gordon was suspended for Sunday night’s race. Blaney was forced to start at the rear of the 39-car field. And most importantly, Blaney and his team owner both suffered a 10-point penalty.
That points penalty immediately dropped Blaney from seventh place in the standings to 13th place – tied with Kyle Busch. Only Kurt Busch and Matt DiBenedetto were ranked lower to start the opening Playoff race.
The race outcome dropped Blaney to 16th position – tied with DiBenedetto for last among the Playoff drivers heading to Playoff Race No. 2 next Saturday night, the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond (Va.) Raceway (7:30 p.m. E.T., NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).