Kevin Harvick took his NASCAR Cup Series-leading eighth win of the 2020 season and his second of the year at Darlington Raceway on Sunday night in the Cook Out Southern 500, the first race of the 10-race playoffs. The regular-season champion entered the playoffs with enough bonus points to likely advance to round two, but with his latest win, Harvick cemented his playoff advancement.
“Anytime you can win the Southern 500 is a good day,” Harvick said. ”This is one of the most prestigious races in our sport, and this is one the most prestigious race tracks in our sport, so anytime you can win at Darlington it’s a big deal, but, man, Southern 500.”
Sunday’s win was Harvick’s second in the Southern 500, one of NASCAR’s four crown jewel races.
Austin Dillon challenged Harvick for the lead in the closing laps. Harvick slowed on the final lap, but he still managed to get to the checkered flag before Dillon. Flames began shooting out Harvick’s header pipes as he took the win.
“Man, it would have been nice to get that win and lock ourselves into the next round of the NASCAR playoffs, but it was a heck of a finish for our #3 American Ethanol Chevrolet team,” Dillon said. “I’m proud of our second-place finish, especially after dropping to the rear of the field at the start of the race and having to recover from that setback. We battled really hard all night for every single spot we could get. We had a really good long run car, and towards the end of the race, I knew Kevin Harvick was getting tighter each lap. I caught him earlier in the closing run, but he took my low line in turns one and two, which was where I was running the best, and stopped the momentum that I had going. I gave it everything I had, though, and I’m really happy that we had a great run for Junior Johnson during NASCAR Throwback Weekend. He’s one of my heroes, so it was an honor to run a tribute paint scheme for him this weekend.”
Dillon finished second after starting the race in the back because of unapproved adjustments, and Joey Logano third.
“We fought hard. You’ve got to do it for Bobby Allison,” Logano said, referring to his Bobby Allison tribute paint scheme. “You’ve got the coolest paint scheme on the race track, you’ve got to do the best you can to try to get a victory. Man, hard fought. We kind of were decent; it’s just so hard to pass with these big spoilers on the car at this race track. That makes it challenging. We had a right-front go down the last lap of the second stage, hit the wall, and we did a good job fixing the car, and then, strategy worked well, so Paul [Wolfe, crew chief] did great, there, and then, they had an amazing pit stop the last stop, had a good restart, and all of a sudden, I was like, ‘Shoot, we could win this thing.’ To see what the left-rear looks like after that, I was pretty impressed to get whatever we got. It’s funny how the team always tells you, ‘How does the damage look?’ ‘It looks great. It looks great.’ You get out and you’re like, ‘Whoa!’ Overall, that’s what we needed to do. We need to come out of these playoffs running hard and having a solid top-three finish to start the playoffs with a couple stage points is a good way to start.”
Erik Jones was the highest-finishing driver not in the playoffs with a fourth-place finish.
“It was good. It was really tough to pass,” Jones, the 2019 Southern 500 winner, said. “Once you got up inside the top-seven or eight, those guys were all pretty equal, and it was hard to make ground from there. We started deep, 30th, today and drove up and finished fourth. We got a couple of extra spots at the end, but this Sport Clips Camry was quick. We just never got up front. We just needed to get up front and get some clean air. That’s what we did last year. I thought we had just as good of a car as what we did last year. We just never got to the lead. That’s what held us back, I think. It’s tough. The cars are finicky. They are on edge, and it’s really hard to make ground, but decent day.”
William Byron rounded out the top-five.
Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. were in the first and second positions and racing for the lead inside the final 20 laps of the 367-lap race, but after the two frontrunners got into the wall with about 15 laps remaining, Truex made an unscheduled pit stop for a tire problem and Elliott faded to 20th by the checkered flag. Harvick, then, took the lead and Dillon the second position.
“Obviously, those guys had trouble,” Harvick said of Truex and Elliott. ”I didn’t see what happened. I just heard my spotter tell me that something had happened. I’ve just got to thank everybody on our Busch Beer Ford Mustang. They did a heck of a job tonight just keeping us in the game. Our car wasn’t very good, but we just kept fighting and kept ourselves up in the front with some great pit strategy and were able to stay up there and fight and wound up in the right spot.”
Truex dominated, leading nearly 200 laps and winning both 115-lap stages at lap 115 and lap 230 after taking his initial lead on lap 86. He wound up with a 22nd-place finish.
“We did almost everything that we went there to do and, obviously, proud of the guys for bringing a strong Bass Pro Toyota and the execution that we had all night long,” Truex said. “Everything was rolling along, there, and we were in position to have a shot at winning it. Just two guys going for the same spot, and that stuff happens in racing. Really proud of the effort and look forward to carrying that speed forward.”
Elliott led the first 71 laps of the race before a green-flag cycle of pit stops. He cycled back to the lead on lap 75 and led 80 points by the time Truex and Denny Hamlin beat him off pit road during a lap 81 caution for an incident between Team Penske drivers Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney.
Kurt Busch stayed out during the caution to inherit the lead that he would lose to Truex a few laps later.
Truex still was leading when Harvick was among drivers who pitted early in another cycle of green-flag stops on lap 156. Truex gave up the lead to made his stop after lap 170. After running several laps on newer tires before Truex made his stop, Harvick had an eight-second lead when the cycle completed.
Truex retook the lead by beating Harvick and everyone else off pit road during a lap-180 caution for a Darrell Wallace Jr. spin.
Harvick pitted early under green, again, on lap 286. Elliott also was among the drivers who pitted early, and he was second to Harvick after Truex gave up his lead to pit on lap 307.
“We kept having a lot of trouble with the right-rear tire cording,” Harvick said. ”The car was really loose all night long for whatever reason and would cord the right-rear tire, so I think that was probably about as far as they felt like we were comfortable of going and wound up being the right strategy in the end.”
The yellow flag waved just after Elliott took the lead from Harvick inside the final 50 laps. He maintained his lead through yellow-flag pit stops, and on the restart that followed, Truex took second.
Alex Bowman finished sixth, Kyle Busch seventh and Kurt Busch eighth. Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer rounded out the top-10.
“I, certainly, was hoping for more. Frustrated, to be honest with you,” Bowyer said. “I have to go back and look at the race to see what happened with the debris. By the time that they picked it up, I’d say it was way off the race track, so that kind of set us up to not have a not very good day. That put us in a hole. We were gonna be in the single digits for sure, there, looking pretty good, but just had a lot of trouble. Right-rear — threw the rubber off the right-rear and had to pit, there. It could have been catastrophic. At the end, the left-rear was about to fall off of it, so we’ve got to clean some things up. I told you, going into this, we’ve got to put 10 races together. We’ve got to put whole races together. We can’t make these mistakes. If we can clean those up, we’re going to some good tracks for us, for us all — Aric, Kevin and all of us; we enjoy these short tracks. We’ve got a good short track program, so looking forward to what’s to come.”
The next two races on the schedule are the short tracks of Richmond Raceway and Bristol Motor Speedway.