As the sun set Sunday evening on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement party at Texas Motor Speedway, NASCAR’s playoff picture came ever clearer into focus with two more berths secured in the circuit’s final four.
Kevin Harvick was one of them, but he doubtless got an even bigger thrill in what his team owner called a momentum-seizing triumph on a hot and humid day.
Harvick’s No. 4 Ford maneuvered around Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin before slipping past mile-and-a-half overlord and leader Martin Truex Jr. on Lap 326. He never lost Truex in the rearview mirror en route to what year after year was feeling like elusive victory in Texas, which was the source of continual razzing by track president Eddie Gossage.
In winning the AAA Texas 500 over the No. 78, the runner-up Truex, Harvick stamped his ticket to NASCAR’s final four at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 19.
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Truex, who appeared poised to win for a seventh time in 10 races on the circuit’s mile-and-a-half tracks, sewed up a berth through points. He clinched by being 57 points ahead of Brad Keselowski, winless in the playoffs and No. 4 in the series standings.
Harvick, Truex, and Kyle Busch have all clinched spots in the final four.
Five drivers — Keselowski (Ford), No. 5 (in the standings) Denny Hamlin (Toyota), No. 6 Ryan Blaney (Ford), No. 7 Chase Elliott (Chevrolet), and seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (Chevrolet), at No. 8 —will vie for one spot in the final four next week at the Phoenix International Raceway.
“It feels good to be in victory lane in Texas,” said Harvick, the 2014 Cup champion. “The last 50 laps were definitely entertaining from the inside of the car.
“Really lap traffic helped me get to the 78 quicker than I probably should have because he got held up a little bit. That allowed me to start seeing where his weaknesses were, adapted a little bit to the things that he was struggling with, trying to get into Turn 1 and to the center of the corner. I felt like that was his weakness.”
Keselowski had a good day, considering how it started, in essentially saving his championship hopes.
He and Busch had contact on Lap 1 that sent Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford to the pits to fix a flat left rear tire. He slipped to 35th, but navigated his way back to fifth, his fourth top-five at TMS.
In the ax-grinder’s club, Hamlin got the best of Elliott, who started all wrong by missing qualifying on Friday. Hamlin, in the No. 11 Toyota, led 65 laps after starting second, and finished third.
Elliott, who finished eighth, and Johnson, who had had trouble all day in a disappointing finish of 27, will have to win next week to advance. Fan-favorite Earnhardt finished 35th after mechanical problems took him out of contention.
Harvick’s victory also sent messages, including a serious competitive one to Truex, who has dominated the circuit’s mile-and-a-half tracks. Truex entered having won six of the previous nine — and six consecutive at one point — and before Sunday hadn’t lost on a mile-and-a-half during the playoffs.
Homestead is a 1 1/2-mile track.
Steward-Haas co-owner Tony Stewart said “it wasn’t just the fact of winning this race, but it’s just how it was won, how Kevin drove those last 20, 25 laps. I know Kevin, and I can tell watching his driving style, there’s something that field and those other three guys that are going to make it to Homestead here in a couple weeks, they’ve got something to be worried about. I’ve seen this man when he gets locked in like this, and he’s strong right now.”
Truex led a race-high 107 laps.
“People are going to say, ‘Well, I think the balance of power,’ this and that. ‘Did Harvick steal our confidence by beating us at the end?’ All that Voodoo stuff I’m sure will be brought up,” Truex said.
“The bottom line is our last run we weren’t as good as we needed to be. We got beat, but we still did what we needed to do. We’ve had an amazing run on mile‑and‑a‑halfs. To win six in a row was ridiculous. I’m proud of what we did today. Homestead is a completely different animal.”
The victory was career No. 37 for Harvick, who also became the second driver to win races in all three of NASCAR’s national series at TMS. (Kyle Busch was the first.) In his past are five Xfinity wins and a trucks series race title.
Harvick also got relief from the good-natured hazing of Gossage, who never let him forget that he hadn’t won in the Cup series here. Something along the lines of “Victory Lane is open for the Cup races, too.”
“It’s an ongoing joke,” Harvick said. “You pull in the motor-home lot. You see the bag sitting outside the door, handwritten note, surely there’s some wisecrack in there that refers to not being in Victory Lane.
“He’s always been very supportive, but he definitely has held that over my head for about 17 years. It’s nice to get that monkey off our back.