DARLINGTON, S.C. – For the second time in as many days, the driver running third in the closing laps at Darlington Raceway ended up celebrating in victory lane, with Kevin Harvick topping a dramatic Cook Out Southern 500 Sunday night.
Harvick took his second win in NASCAR’s most-grueling race after Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott tangled in a battle for the lead with 15 to go, both slapping the wall hard and sustaining damage.
The contact with the outside wall eventually led to a flat right-rear tire on Truex’s Toyota, while Elliott’s wounded Chevrolet fell back rapidly as the son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott tried to hang on.
All the chaos allowed Harvick to capitalize, as he wheeled the No. 4 Busch Ford Mustang past Elliott on lap 355 and led the final 13 laps over Austin Dillon to capture his eighth NASCAR Cup Series win in 2020.
Harvick’s surprise victory came one day after Denny Hamlin and Ross Chastain crashed coming to the white flag in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Brandon Jones won that event.
For Harvick, who previously won the Southern 500 in 2014, it was his 57th career victory at NASCAR’s top level. That elevated him past Kyle Busch into sole possession of ninth on the all-time list.
After celebrating on the frontstretch with a smoky burnout, a jubilant Harvick played to the limited fans in attendance Sunday night – something he couldn’t do when he won at Darlington in May during NASCAR’s return to racing from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“First thing I want to say is welcome back, fans. This interview is a hell of a lot more fun with fans up there,” Harvick noted. “We just wound up fighting all night long. This Busch Beer Ford Mustang wasn’t where we wanted it to be, but the leaders got tangled up there and the next thing you know we were racing for the win.
“Anytime you can win the Southern 500 is a good day,” Harvick continued. “This is one of the most prestigious races in our sport and this is one of the most prestigious race tracks in our sport, so anytime you can win at Darlington it’s a big deal. Man, this is the Southern 500! What a great night.”
Truex swept the first two stages Sunday night, leading five times for a race-high 196 laps, and appeared to be hunting down Elliott in the waning moments Sunday night as he chased his second Southern 500 crown.
Elliott had cycled through to the point on lap 320, in the midst of a long green-flag run that had opened up the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas of Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Truex to make the race on one pit stop to the finish, while many of the other frontrunners short-pitted and had to make two stops.
But a caution flag with 47 to go for metal debris on the backstretch snapped the strategy card and gave Elliott the track position and potential to win that he needed, while it buried Hamlin out of contention.
Racing resumed for good with 41 laps left and saw Elliott escape with the lead over Harvick, but Truex quickly took second with an inside sweep in turn one and began his pursuit of Elliott from there.
The gap fluctuated from three tenths to eight tenths during the next 20 laps, but inside of 20 to go Truex began bearing down on the rear bumper of Elliott’s Chevrolet. With 17 laps left, Truex was all over Elliott and looking inside, before trying to power low and slip past Elliott two circuits later.
But Truex wasn’t quite clear, clipping Elliott’s front bumper and sending both cars up into the outside wall hard as they tried to navigate the corner, eventually putting the pair out of contention altogether.
As Harvick came through to take the lead, Austin Dillon followed suit and eventually came home second, lurking behind Harvick in the final laps and nearly making a Hail Mary run off the top of turn four pay off.
Dillon crossed the start/finish line .343 seconds adrift, followed by Joey Logano, 2019 Southern 500 winner Erik Jones and William Byron.
Alex Bowman, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer filled out the top 10.
Hamlin, who led just 19 laps but was in the mix inside the top five for most of the night, ended up a disappointing 13th.
For Harvick, who noted that crew chief Rodney Childers “kept us in the race all night,” he circled one of the team’s earliest pit stops in Sunday night’s race as a key turning point to their eventual success.
“We put a (wheel) packer in the left front, and the car definitely responded to that,” Harvick noted. “It hadn’t responded to much that we had done before that (stop), so they definitely had to take a little time and make sure the change was done … but it put us a lot closer to where we needed to be.
“We still never got to where we needed to be (with the car), but we got into the ballpark and that was enough to eventually get us into victory lane.”
The NASCAR Cup Series season continues with the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond (Va.) Raceway on Sept. 12.
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