BROOKLYN, Mich. – Kevin Harvick continued to flex his muscle at Michigan Int’l Speedway on Saturday by earning his third victory at the track in his last four attempts.
Harvick was the class of the field all day, leading a race-high 92 laps during the FireKeepers Casino 400. However, he had to survive what seemed like countless late-race restarts before he could make his way to victory lane.
“Anytime we come to Michigan since I’ve been at Stewart-Haas Racing these cars have been just lightning fast,” Harvick said. “It’s definitely a place that we feel like we should come up here and contend for the win. Today our Busch Light Apple Ford Mustang was just on rails.”
The 2014 NASCAR Cup Series champion actually lost the lead on a few of those restarts. The first such restart came with 18 laps left, when Harvick lost the lead to Chase Elliott. Elliott had utilized the choose rule to start to Harvick’s inside and then powered into the lead from the bottom of the track.
Elliott was able to hold Harvick off until the next caution flag waved with 14 laps left when Ryan Preece hit the wall coming out of turn two. Harvick, utilizing the choose rule, chose to restart behind Elliott while Kyle Busch moved to Elliott’s inside for the restart.
The green flag waved with nine laps left and Busch was able to get the lead from the bottom while Harvick sailed around the outside of Elliott to move into second.
Entering turn three Harvick looked low under Busch and it appeared Busch got loose due to the air from Harvick’s car. The result was Busch sliding up the track, allowing Harvick to take command as Busch fell through the field.
“I didn’t know if I hit him or not but I saw the video and didn’t touch him,” Harvick said after the race. “I must have packed a bunch of air on his left rear. I knew I needed to be right there. You have to take the chance when you have it and I needed that side draft down the front straightaway.”
Shortly thereafter the caution waved again, this time for Cole Custer crashing his Ford in turn four. After a brief red flag to clean up oil from Custer’s damaged machine, Harvick led the field back to the green flag.
Harvick was able to use a push from Elliott to pull clear into the lead on the restart as Denny Hamlin, Elliott and Bubba Wallace raced three-wide for second. Moments later the caution flag waved one more time as Austin Dillon and Ryan Newman crashed coming out of turn four, setting up an overtime restart.
This restart proved to be a bit more difficult for Harvick, as he had Brad Keselowski to his inside after Keselowski chose the bottom via the choose rule. Keselowski kept Harvick honest, staying alongside Harvick as they raced into turn three on the restart lap.
That proved to be all Keselowski had as Harvick pulled clear out of turn four and led the final two laps to claim the victory, the 54th of his career. He is now tied with Lee Petty for 11th on the all-time NASCAR Cup Series victory list.
“When you start talking about Junior Johnson and Lee Petty and Rusty Wallace and Ned Jarrett, all those guys who are on that list around my name on the win list, there is a lot of responsibility that comes with that for our sport,” Harvick said. “I think as you look at that number, I’ve been fortunate to drive a lot of really fast race cars and we’ve been fortunate to be successful throughout the years.
“But when you start getting up there with those names and those icons in our sport, they’ve been a part of a lot of big moments and helping change the sport in a positive direction. That’s the way I look at it and the responsibility that I think I have.”
Keselowski, a Michigan native, came up one position short of winning at his home track. While the choose rule allowed Keselowski to move up to second for the final restart, the 2012 Cup Series champion admitted he wasn’t sure what to think of it just yet.
“There were parts I liked and parts I didn’t like,” Keselowski admitted. “I’m kind of agnostic to be honest. I thought at the front it seemed to be a little fun. Something kind of different. It’s one of those things where I think it was just when you eat chocolate you want vanilla sometimes. It felt different and different was kind of fun. There were other parts where I was a little questioning about it.”
Martin Truex Jr. overcame a flat tire early in the race to finish third, followed by Ryan Blaney. Busch managed to make his way back to fifth at the checkered flag.
The top-20 finishers from Saturday’s race will be inverted to set the starting field for Sunday’s race, with Chris Buescher and Clint Bowyer slated to share the front row after finishing 20th and 19th on Saturday.
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