There was no drama in Kevin Harvick’s victory in the Drydene 311 at Dover International Speedway, an old-fashioned thrashing in the back end of a Saturday/Sunday NASCAR Cup Series doubleheader.
There was more than enough suspense, however, in the battle between Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and William Byron for the final position in the Cup Playoffs.
After winning the first stage at the high-banked concrete Monster Mile, Harvick had already clinched the regular-season Cup championship and the 15-Playoff-point bonus that goes with it, with next Saturday’s race at Daytona International Speedway still to be run.
Harvick went on to sweep the second stage and the race, crossing the finish line 3.525 seconds ahead of runner-up Martin Truex Jr., who finished second in both legs of the doubleheader after running third in each of the previous five races.
The victory was Harvick’s series-leading seventh of the season, his third at Dover and the 56th of his career, tying him with Kyle Busch for ninth all-time. The win was the 700th in the series for Ford.
“I love the grit of our race team,” said Harvick, who was disappointed with his fourth-place result in Saturday’s opener at Dover, which he accomplished with a broken track bar. “I think that’s what (team owners) Gene Haas and Tony Stewart have built at Stewart-Haas Racing, a team with a lot of grit.
“Sometimes we don't have the fastest car, but we have guys willing to suck it up, and when we have a weak link that day, someone else will carry the team. I’m really proud of that, and that’s what it’s all about. You’re only as good as the people around you, and we have great people.”
Harvick once again took the upper hand in his battle with Denny Hamlin, who won his sixth race of the season on Saturday.
“With Denny winning yesterday, we needed to win today, and we need all the points we can get,” Harvick said. “I think, as you look at these Playoffs, you never know what to expect. But I know that, as we go week to week, we’ll give it all we have, and I’m just really proud.”
Johnson ran third after gambling on two tires and taking a short-lived lead off pit road under the seventh and final caution for Corey LaJoie’s spin on Lap 289 of 311. The seven-time champion had rallied from a pit road speeding penalty on Lap 102 that sent him to the rear of the field for a restart on Lap 107.
Johnson lost positions to Harvick and Truex during the final 17-lap run but managed to keep Byron behind him. Byron came home fourth, gained seven points on his veteran teammate—thanks to better results in the stages—and takes a four-point lead over Johnson into Saturday’s regular-season finale at Daytona.
“I’m going to do my best to forget about it,” Johnson said of the race that will decide whether he can compete for a record eighth championship in his final full-time Cup season. “There really isn’t any worrying I can do this week that will help me on a plate track.
“Studying, worrying — any of that — is not going to make a difference, so go down there, say a few prayers, say a prayer per lap and see how it plays out, I guess. We’ll race hard, and if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.”
Alex Bowman ran fifth, giving Hendrick three of the top five positions. Joey Logano, Aric Almirola, Brad Keselowski, Austin Dillon and Cole Custer completed the top 10.
Kyle Busch finished 11th, extending his winless streak to 25 races, the longest to start a season in his career. Busch, however, clinched a Playoff berth on points, as did Almirola and Kurt Busch, who came home 13th.
Matt DiBenedetto finished 17th and fell into the danger zone where the Playoffs are concerned. DiBenedetto is five points ahead of Byron and nine in front of Johnson heading to the unpredictable cutoff race at Daytona. Those three drivers will vie for the final two berths in the postseason.
Clint Bowyer, on the other hand, all but locked up a Playoff spot with a 16th-place run that followed his sixth-place effort on Saturday. Bowyer takes a 53-point lead over Byron into the regular-season finale.