NASCAR Sprint Cup: Kevin Harvick dominates Southern 500 at Darlington

Kevin Harvick’s first year with Stewart-Haas Racing got off to a thunderous start with a victory in the second race of the season.

What came next was unexpected – a series of problems, some self-inflicted, that beset his No. 4 Chevrolet team and provided a test of the driver and new team’s fortitude.

Saturday night, Harvick responded with all the right answers, holding off Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a second two-lap overtime to win the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway and become the first driver with two Sprint Cup Series victories this season.

Issues might remain for the team, but consider the test passed with flying colors.

“I’m just proud of all my guys for everything that they’ve gone through over the last five or six weeks,” said Harvick, who earned the 25th Cup victory of his career. “We’ve had cars this fast, and we just have had some things go wrong.

“I think it says a lot about the character of the people and the things that happen within Stewart-Haas Racing, to have everybody keep their head down and stay focused on what they need to be focused on.

“It’s been kind of like a big test to see if we would implode from inside out, and everybody just kept doing what they’re supposed to do.”

Even with issues during recent races such as a broken wheel hub and dislodged oil pump belt, the one constant for the team was speed.

Eventually, being fast pays off if you can make it to the end of the race.

“We’re sitting here now, and without mechanical issues we could have won two or three races, maybe four races, maybe five races,” said Rodney Childers, Harvick’s crew chief. “We’ve had good cars every week.

“But that’s part of the learning process, and like Kevin said, we’ve had each other’s backs through all of it.”

Although Harvick dominated Saturday night’s race by leading a race-high 238 laps, two late cautions provided unexpected hurdles.

Harvick had a comfortable lead when a caution was displayed on Lap 359 of the scheduled 367 for fluid on the track dropped by Joey Logano’s No. 22 Ford.

During the round of pit stops, Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon took changed only new tires and restarted first through fourth, respectively, while Harvick lined up fifth, the first car on four new tires.

Just as it appeared Harvick was ready to track down Johnson for the lead, another caution came out on Lap 366, this time for debris. That sent the race into the first two-lap overtime.

Earnhardt quickly moved into the lead on the restart, followed closely by Harvick, but just before the white flag was waved, Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer wrecked on Lap 369, sending the race to a second two-lap overtime.

Earnhardt and Harvick lined up first and second on the restart on Lap 373 and Harvick took little time in getting around Earnhardt for the lead and his first Darlington win.

“Most all of us know the history of this particular race track and what it means to our sport,” Harvick said.

“To come here each year and know that now you only have one shot, but to win the Southern 500 and you look at the names and pictures on that trophy is something that’s pretty phenomenal to be a part of.”

Johnson finished third, Kenseth was fourth and Greg Biffle ended up fifth. Gordon finished seventh and continues to lead the series standings, holding a one-point advantage over Kenseth as the circuit enters a week off.

Earnhardt said he has not been surprised at how well Harvick has meshed with his new team.

“The performance of the No. 4 car, I saw that coming because I know how good Rodney is and I know how good Kevin is,” he said, “and pairing them together – that’s one of the best pairings in the garage.

“That’s going to really be a tough combination to battle all year. They’re going to win more races.”