Kevin Harvick insisted all last week that he didn’t feel any pressure to win Sunday’s AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway.
Yes, Harvick knew he needed to win the race to ensure himself a spot in the 12-driver second round of NASCAR’s Chase. Disappointing finishes in the first two Chase races – despite having the fastest car in the field each time – had left him outside the top 12 with only the Dover race remaining in the first round.
No pressure, right? Apparently not.
Harvick dominated on a Dover track at which he had never won in 29 previous tries. He led 355 of 400 laps, outdistancing runner-up Kyle Busch by 2.6 seconds.
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“Yeah, I don’t think there was really any pressure,” a nonchalant Harvick reiterated after the race. “I think for us, we all knew what we had to do, and it was really no different preparation than what we would do on a weekly basis. All in all, it was business as usual.”
There might not have been any self-imposed pressure felt by Harvick, but Sunday’s race was filled with drama most everywhere else.
Busch’s runner-up finish moved him from 13th in the standings and into the second round. Earnhardt was 12th entering the race and, by virtue of a third-place finish, edged Jamie McMurray for the final spot in a tiebreaker.
Most notable, however, was six-time champion Jimmie Johnson’s 41st-place finish, which prevented him from advancing. A broken rear-axle sent Johnson’s No. 48 Chevy to the garage for 36 laps, a deficit he couldn’t come close to overcoming.
Harvick will be on even terms with the field as the second round of the Chase begins Saturday in the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The speed Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing Chevy has displayed for much of the season – Sunday was his third victory, to go along with 10 second-place finishes – was there again at Dover. He was faster than all four Joe Gibbs Racing cars, as well as anything Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske had. But those teams had cars – especially JGR’s Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski – that were already likely safely into the second round and might not have shown everything they had.
Harvick had to go as hard as he could Sunday. Will he have anything left for the second round?
“I think we’re at a little bit of a disadvantage,” said Rodney Childers, Harvick’s crew chief. “I’m not really sure what those guys have. You know, that’s their deal. We’ve had to pull out stuff, cars that we really didn’t want to.”
One driver who had to use everything he had was Earnhardt, who got past McMurray late in the race to squeeze into the second round. He did just well enough to maintain his 12th-place spot – and to break a tie with McMurray, who finished fourth. Both drivers have 2,098 points, but Earnhardt advances because his third-place finish Sunday was the best of the round between the two of them.
Another difference for Earnhardt are the six bonus points in his total from his two victories this season. McMurray has gone winless.
“We weren’t going to advance,” Earnhardt said. “But we had a late caution and got around him.”
Said McMurray: “It was a great move that Dale Jr. made on the outside. It’s frustrating that we weren’t able to make it to the next round. We just needed one more point.”