Sunday was a typical day in the Arizona desert: warm, sunny, dry weather and Kevin Harvick winning at Phoenix International Raceway.
Harvick fended off Carl Edwards in one of the closest finishes in NASCAR history – one-hundredth of a second – to take the Good Sam 500 in green-white-checkered overtime. Edwards’ Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and pole-winner Kyle Busch finished third and fourth.
That Edwards couldn’t prevail in a finish that separated their cars by less than 1 foot wasn’t really surprising. It was Harvick’s eighth victory at Phoenix and his sixth in his past eight races.
“I fully expect to come here and beat them,” Harvick said of the 38 other cars in the field. “I know that if you leave here and you don’t win, you’re disappointed.”
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The finish was as dramatic as the season-opening Daytona 500, which Denny Hamlin won over Martin Truex Jr., by the same .01-second margin (tied for seventh closest in NASCAR history since electronic scoring was introduced in 1993).
Sunday’s race didn’t appear it would be that close, however, as Harvick took a comfortable lead into the final laps. That changed when Kasey Kahne blew a tire and hit the wall with five laps left.
During the caution, Harvick and second-place Dale Earnhardt Jr. elected not to pit. Edwards, who was in fourth place, was among those who decided to get two fresh tires, unbeknownst to Harvick.
When the race restarted and went into overtime, Edwards was able to quickly catch Harvick. As they hit the final stretch, their cars banged off each other.
“I ran into him about as hard as I thought I could without wrecking him, and it ended up being a drag race,” Edwards said. “It was kind of fun coming to the line because I thought, ‘Man, I got him,’ and then he ‘doored’ me real hard and then he got a little run and then I tried to ‘door’ him and slow him down, but it just didn’t work.”
Like Daytona, it ended in a photo finish.
“I thought I’d beat him to the start-finish line with where I thought I was,” said Harvick, who added that he didn’t know that Edwards had two fresh tires. “But sometimes our brains don’t work exactly like they should inside the race car and you don’t really realize where you are or what you’re doing.”
Crew chief Rodney Childers was also uncertain.
“It was a while it seemed like, pretty much from the dogleg all the way back to the start-finish line, I don’t think I was breathing at all,” Childers said. “I don’t think my heart was beating, either.
“They crossed the line, and I felt like we won, and then I looked up at the monitor and it said we won, but then they were waiting to look at the camera, and I’m like, you just hold your breath and hope it’s the best.”
Childers said his decision not to pit (which mirrored that of Greg Ives, Earnhardt’s crew chief) was cautiously calculated.
“Yeah, when it’s that situation, you always wonder what the right thing to do is,” Childers said. “And every race we’ve won here, that caution has come out late and we’ve ended up staying out and been able to be OK. I knew (Harvick) had kind of been riding and saving his stuff and thought we’d be OK.”
Childers also didn’t tell Harvick that he and Earnhardt’s pursuers had gone in and taken on two fresh tires.
“I never asked,” said Harvick “I just figured I was going to be on defense regardless … you’re pretty vulnerable. I probably went a little bit too much on defense just for the fact that if I got hit, I wanted to be able to drive out of the slide instead of wind up with the fuel cell into the wall.”
Harvick said the exciting brand of racing – at the end of the race at least – is a product of NASCAR’s new low-downforce aerodynamic package. And although he and Edwards haven’t always gotten along, there’s enough mutual respect that they briefly talked later about the hard – but clean – manner in which they competed at the end.
“I would have done the same thing, and really after the race that’s exactly what we said to each other,” said Harvick. “That’s really what NASCAR racing is all about. You’re coming to the checkered flag and he wants to win for his team and I want to win for my team, and there’s a lot on the line. It’s definitely the way that things should have been done.”
And with a predictable result at Phoenix.
“In the end it’s been a really good race track for us,” Harvick said. “Let’s continue riding the wave.”