The win wasn’t Kevin Harvick’s first this season but it may be the most important.
Harvick held off Jeff Gordon on a restart with two of 334 laps remaining to win Saturday night’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The win is Harvick’s third Sprint Cup Series victory this season and automatically advances him to the third round of the Chase, where he joins Joey Logano as the only drivers locked in so far.
Harvick’s No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team has led more laps than any other team this season but struggled to turn it into victories. His most recent win came in April at Darlington, S.C.
“Everybody on our team has just continued to build better race cars and we know that we’ve had the cars to run up front and lead laps and do the things that we need to do,” Harvick said from Victory Lane.
“Things just haven’t gone right and we’ve made some mistakes; things haven’t gone right more than not.
“This was the night that we needed to win. I don’t want to go to Talladega next week.”
The intensity of NASCAR’s new Chase format – which eliminates four drivers with the least points after every three races – spilled over onto pit road at the end of the race.
Brad Keselowski, in danger of being eliminated after next week’s race at Talladega, Ala., said he was hit under caution by Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin and slammed into their cars on pit road after the race.
Kenseth, who had already unbuckled himself from his seat, was incensed at Keselowski’s actions and followed him into the garage, where they got into a brief physical altercation before being separated.
“Kenseth must have been pretty mad,” said Gordon. “He’s never tried to put a headlock on me.”
Jamie McMurray finished third, Logano was fourth and Kyle Busch was fifth.
The four Chase drivers lowest in points heading to Talladega are Kenseth, Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson.
Busch, the pole-winner, took early control of the race and led 20 of the first 36 laps.
Earnhardt took two tires on a pit stop during a competition caution on Lap 28 and moved into the lead on the restart on Lap 31. He couldn’t hold the lead and gave it back to Busch within one lap.
Gordon moved into the lead on Lap 37 and remained out front until teams began a round of green-flag pit stops on Lap 71.
Once the cycle of stops were completed on Lap 80, Gordon led the way, followed by Harvick and Kurt Busch.
Clint Bowyer blew an engine, which brought out a caution on Lap 97. On the restart on Lap 101, Earnhardt once again took over the lead thanks to a two-tire pit stop.
Again, Earnhardt quickly gave up the lead as McMurray moved into the lead for the first time.
Four laps later, Harvick moved into the lead for the first time.
Paul Menard blew an engine, which brought out the third caution of the race on Lap 136.
“Something with the motor. I had a really good car,” Menard said. “It’s too bad, awesome car; we had a pit stop problem and went to the back, but drove our way back up into the top 15 or so.”
During the caution, Earnhardt reported that his shifter broke off in his hand and that required he make multiple stops during the caution to make repairs.
On the restart on Lap 144, Harvick led the way followed by Gordon and Keselowski.
Another round of green-flag stops began on Lap 186. Once the cycle was completed on Lap 192, Harvick continued to lead, followed by McMurray and Kurt Busch.
Oil on the track brought out the fourth caution of the race on Lap 222. On the restart on Lap 227, Harvick remained in the lead.
Brian Vickers spun to bring out a caution on Lap 238. Austin Dillon elected not to pit and took over the lead on the restart on Lap 243, followed by Kyle Busch and McMurray.
Busch quickly took over the lead within a lap.
Logano hit Danica Patrick in an incident that also collected Ryan Newman to bring out the sixth caution of the race on Lap 247. On the restart on Lap 253, Kyle Busch led the way followed by Harvick, McMurray and Kyle Larson.
On Lap 264, Larson took over the race lead for the first time.
Michael Annett blew an engine on Lap 267 to bring out a caution. Keselowski elected not pit and took over the race lead on the restart on Lap 272. Hamlin was first off pit road and started second, followed by Johnson.
As Keselowski and Kenseth made contact on the restart, Hamlin moved into the lead.
Harvick got around Hamlin for the lead with 40 of 334 laps remaining in the race.
A final round of green-flag stops began around Lap 310. Once the cycle was completed on Lap 319, Harvick remained the leader followed by Gordon and Hamlin.
Brian Vickers’ engine blew on Lap 328 to bring out the eighth caution of the race. Four drivers – Harvick, Gordon, Hamlin and McMurray – elected not to pit and restarted first through fourth, respectively, on the restart on Lap 333. Keselowski restarted fifth, the first car with new tires.