BRISTOL, Tenn. – Kevin Harvick passed Denny Hamlin for the lead with 71 laps remaining in the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race and pulled away for a victory in the rain-delayed event at Bristol Motor Speedway.
The race started under the lights on Saturday but was suspended after 38 laps because of inclement weather. When it resumed late Sunday afternoon, Harvick charged from 16th to the front of the field in the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet.
He led four times for a total of 128 laps in his second career Sprint Cup Series victory on the high-banked .533-mile track. The win also represented the first by a Chevrolet driver in the Bristol night race in a dozen years.
“From the drop of the green flag, the car was really fast,” Harvick said. “Our strong point was the top groove in turns 3 and 4. Our weak point was being a little bit too free on restarts. But I think as the runs would go, our car would just keep turning. That was really our advantage.”
Ahead of the race weekend, and again after Friday’s XFINITY Series race, the track worked to improve the grip in the bottom groove. The work focused on the corners and involved polishing the concrete, applying resin to the surface and working the area with a tire machine.
Harvick and many of his fellow competitors approved of the results.
“I was excited that you were able to use a lot of the racetrack,” he said. “The lapped cars had an option. You didn’t just get pinned up high. I really just want to applaud the racetrack for the effort that they made this weekend to get that bottom groove working so we had multiple grooves of racing. Today, as a driver, you had a lot of options to make your car work and maneuver through traffic and make up positions. We started 24th (on Saturday) and pretty much drove through the field because of that.”
The finishing order behind Harvick included some surprises.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the No. 17 carrying a paint scheme honoring the late Bryan Clauson finished 1.933 seconds behind Harvick. It tied a career best finish and stands as the best finish by a Roush Fenway Racing driver this season.
“I really wanted to park it in victory lane for Bryan and his family,” Stenhouse said. “We just came up one spot short.”
Hamlin rebounded from pit road penalty and an unscheduled pit stop to address a loose right rear wheel that put him two laps down early Sunday to finish third in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing machine. Austin Dillon followed up his victory in Friday’s XFINITY Series race with a fourth place finish in the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet.
Chris Buescher took a necessary step to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. On the heels of his first career victory earlier this month at Pocono Raceway, the rookie driver of the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports chariot earned his second career top-five finish and broke into the top 30 in the regular season points standings.
“For the most part, a mistake-free day that led to a really good run,” said Buescher, who finished one spot ahead of pole winner Carl Edwards. But we had the speed to be able to pull it off and we were able to move forward every restart and that was a lot of fun.”
A stray rain shower fittingly stopped the race with 55 laps remaining, but it only delayed the inevitable. Harvick accelerated away from Stenhouse on the restart for his second victory this season and the 33rd of his career.
The 2014 Sprint Cup champion and series points leader led the second-most laps behind Kyle Busch, who was out front for 256 laps but finished 39th after triggering the first of two multi-car wrecks Sunday that took several cars out of contention.
Busch made his third early exit in the past four Sprint Cup races at Bristol where he is a 17-time winner in NASCAR national series competition.
Busch had been reporting a problem with his car for several laps and was still running second when he spun in Turn 2 on Lap 358. The No. 46 Chevrolet driven by Justin Allgaier, who was filling in with Michael Annett out sick, plowed into the front of Busch’s damaged car.
Also caught up in the accident were Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson.
“It’s a shame,” Busch said. “The last few times we’ve been here we’ve had really fast (cars) and we haven’t been able to finish. We’ve been having parts failures here. It’s something we’ve got to address and fix. I’m really tired of losing races here with parts falling apart.”
Within 15 laps, his older brother wrecked out of the race. Kurt Busch, a five-time Bristol winner like his brother, and defending race winner Joey Logano were racing for the lead when Kurt Busch spun as he raced out of Turn 2. That triggered an 11-car crash that played out down the backstretch and into Turn 3.
Brad Keselowski, who was running third at the time, had nowhere to go but into Kurt Busch’s car. Drivers behind them were in the same position. Also involved were Dillon, Matt Kenseth, rookies Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott, Paul Menard, Larson, Brian Scott and Jimmie Johnson.
“I just got loose and missed the bottom groove and missed it by a few inches,” Kurt Busch said. “I drove the car at 101 percent, got loose and it was away from me. I should have had it at that 99 percent level. That resin on the bottom, if you don’t hit it exactly right, you lose a lot of speed. I hate it for my guys. We had completed every lap this year. I put it up on the edge to try to win the Bristol night race and I overstepped the line.”
Logano’s car suffered damage in the incident but was able to continue. However, his bid to win the night race for a third consecutive season ended with a 10th place finish, which wasn’t bad considering all that he overcame. At one point early in the race, the driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford was in danger of going a lap down.
“There was a point during the race at about Lap 400 where we got to the lead…and we were fast,” said Logano, who led twice for 38 laps. “The race track was where we thought it would be and everything was kind of working as planned, and the next thing you know the 41 (Kurt Busch’s car) spun and we got some damage from that. We pitted for that and had a lug nut off the left-rear, so we came in to fix that and then it rained and the track just changed. After it rained, everything changed and the car wasn’t as fast.”
Harvick’s car remained fast. After crossing the finish, he drafted his team owner, Tony Stewart, to join in the on-track celebration. The three-time Sprint Cup champion is retiring at the end of this season, and finished 30th, and obliged Harvick’s invitation to celebrate with a burnout on the frontstretch. It was, after all, Stewart-Haas Racing’s first victory at Bristol.
“I’m happy for these guys,” Stewart said. “This is a hard place to win at. There’s so many things that can go wrong.”
True. But over the course of two water-logged days, Harvick managed to steer clear of it all.