BRISTOL, Tenn.—Kevin Harvick held off Kyle Busch in an intense battle over the final 42 laps in the Bass Pro Night Race to win at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday—his second victory in the first round of the Playoffs.
He led 226 laps en route to a career-best ninth win of the season, his third victory at Thunder Valley and the 58th of his career.
The driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford expressed his excitement with a celebratory burnout in front of the socially-distanced cheering crowd of nearly 30,000.
“Bristol, baby,” exclaimed Harvick. “I was so jacked up when we started this race because of you guys and Bristol Motor Speedway. I’m just really, really proud of everybody on our Busch Light Ford.
“To beat Kyle Busch at Bristol, I kind of got myself in a little bit of a ringer there. I hit a lapped car and got a hole in the right-front nose, but just kept fighting. We don’t have anything else to lose. We were here to try to win a race. I know how much Rodney really enjoys coming here and, hell, how can you not enjoy coming here with all this enthusiasm. Everybody is tired of being at home.”
A dejected Kyle Busch came close to ending his 29-race winless streak but inevitably rolled .31-seconds behind Harvick admitted, “Just didn’t have enough there at the end.”
“The guys did a great job and gave me a really great piece tonight to contend and at least be up there and be close,” Busch added. “Unfortunately, just didn’t have enough. Lapped cars were definitely a problem. It’s part of racing. You have to try to get around them where you can and there was just no room for me to do what I needed to do with a couple of those opportunities to get past them.”
Erik Jones, Tyler Reddick, Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer were the only other cars to finish on the lead after Harvick set a torrid pace in the second half of the race. Chase Elliott finished seventh, one lap down.
William Byron, Cole Custer, Ryan Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto were eliminated from the Playoffs.
In the final race of the Round of 16, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin entered the event at a disadvantage after three of the four Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas started from the rear after failing inspection. The Nos. 11, 18 and 20 cars failed body inspection on the first run through then experienced a rear wheel alignment issue after the initial repairs were made. Corey LaJoie and Bubba Wallace were also moved to the rear of the field for unapproved adjustments. The No. 15 Chevrolet dropped back due to a driver change with J.J. Yeley replacing Brennan Poole.
Busch and Hamlin quickly recovered during the first stage. Busch finished second to stage winner Elliott. Following the first caution, after Jimmie Johnson tagged Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on the backstretch on Lap 29, Hamlin’s team opted for a two-tire stop which vaulted the No. 11 Toyota from 29th to 14th for the start of Stage 2.
Kyle Busch gained the lead out of the pits with Elliott, Harvick, Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch in tow. Hamlin was on a roll and moved up to fifth. While battling for 20th, Matt DiBenedetto made contact with Ryan Blaney and was forced to pit on Lap 187. The hits kept coming for the Playoff contenders with Martin Truex Jr. pitting on Lap 212 with a tire issue. After he returned to the track, he slid straight into the corner on Lap 220 and Hamlin plowed into the back of the No. 19 Toyota—bowing the nose of his car in the process. While Hamlin was able to maintain his position, he reported to the team that he couldn’t see over his hood.
Ten laps later, Byron became the first Playoff casualty after running in the back of Christopher Bell trying to avoid Joey Gase, who had slowed on the frontstretch. Byron destroyed his radiator from the impact and overheated while triggering the third caution. He finished 38th.
“You can’t stop in the middle of the straightaway when everybody is so committed to the top like that,” said a dejected Byron. “Just ridiculous that that’s what takes us out. I thought honestly we had a shot to run top-five or seven. The car was really, really good. We just needed a couple good pitstops. We were running probably ninth or tenth there. Just super disappointing – I’ve got to go back and watch that because that was kind of ridiculous.”
Kyle Busch retained the lead after the Byron caution—and through the fourth yellow after Daniel Suarez plowed into the back of Ryan Newman—to win Stage 2. Harvick, Elliott, Logano and Kurt Busch rounded out the top five.
Once Harvick passed Busch on Lap 281, the lead lap cars continued to dwindle—as did the Playoff contenders. On Lap 293, Brad Keselowski, who led 82 laps in the first stage, developed a power steering issue and was forced to the garage for repairs. Although Keselowski was able to return to the track, he was scored 34th.
Kurt Busch was the next Playoff driver with an issue. He was running in the top 10 most of the night but was forced to pit with a vibration on Lap 325. He dropped to 26th and worked his way back to 15th.
Joey Logano pitted on Lap 369 after his tires went away. He dropped to 24th, initially three laps down and recovered to finish 11th.
With just six cars remaining on the lead lap, Harvick elected to pit on Lap 407. When he slowed in Turn 1, Austin Dillon checked up and collected James Davison and Reed Sorenson in the process for the fifth and final caution. The lack of yellows over the final 82 laps set up an epic contest between Harvick and Busch. Harvick had led 46 laps when he encountered traffic on Lap 458 allowing Busch to go low and take the lead on the next lap.
Traffic came into play again as Busch was blocked by Joey Logano. That enabled Harvick to retake the lead and sail off to the win. Busch made a final attempt to go high out of Turn 4 but Harvick checked out.
With his ninth win of the season, Harvick beat his career-high record of eight wins set with the No. 4 Ford in 2018.
“It’s just been a weird a year, but it’s been an unbelievable year on the racetrack,” Harvick said. I can’t thank everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing enough.”
Harvick continues to lead the standings by 19 points over Hamlin.