For a guy whose NASCAR Cup Series championship hopes were in danger heading into this weekend’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, Kevin Harvick was the picture of calm.
He spent his Saturday morning doing what a lot of families in the area do. He took the family to the Fort Worth Zoo.
“They have a really nice zoo here, in case you’re wondering,” Harvick said.
He followed that up by winning the pole for the race and then outclassing the field Sunday to secure his spot in the championship four with his third straight playoff win at TMS.
Harvick, who came into the race fifth in points and 14 out of fourth place, won for the fourth time this season and the 49th time in his career. That puts him in a tie for 14th all-time with his team co-owner, Tony Stewart.
“We knew this was a good racetrack for us,” said Harvick, the 2014 series champion. “I felt like it fit our style of racing. Man did it. We had a bad restart one time. Our car was just so fast through [turns] three and four. As long as I could keep momentum, we could keep up with them.”
Harvick’s win capped a great day for Stewart-Haas Racing as teammates Aric Almirola and Daniel Suarez rounded out the top three.
Harvick led for 119 of the 334 laps, while other title contenders struggled. Denny Hamlin, who started the day second in points and 24 ahead of the cutoff, spun out and finished 28th. He’ll likely need a win next week in Phoenix to claim one of the two remaining championship spots. Chase Elliott, who came in needing to win at Texas or Phoenix to make the championship, crashed early and finished 32nd.
The day for the No. 4 Ford wasn’t drama free, but Harvick was able to overcome his issues. He led 42 of the first 43 laps and won the first stage. But his team was penalized for having a tire over the wall, which forced him to restart 22nd at one point in the final stage. On a day when track position was crucial, Harvick was able to get through the traffic and get back to the front.
The last pass he had to make for the lead came on Lap 255, when he passed teammate Almirola. He led the next 52 laps before pitting and giving the lead to Kyle Busch during pit stops. He took the lead back on Lap 314 and led the final 21 circuits.
Harvick has had a lot of success at Phoenix but didn’t want his championship hopes to go down to that race.
“For us, we knew we needed to put all our cards in when we came here,” said Harvick, who will now race at Homestead with a chance at the title for the fifth time in the past six years.
“We feel like this is better for us than Phoenix just because our history. We felt like we needed to push everything all in on this race. We felt like this was our best shot,” he said.
Now the best shot for the rest of the playoff teams comes at Phoenix. Joey Logano had the best finish of the other playoff drivers, finishing fourth. Martin Truex Jr., who is already locked in, was sixth. Busch finished seventh.
Busch is 22 points above the cutline, and Logano is 20 ahead of Hamlin.
“We all know one guy is going to move through on points, and we have to do whatever we have to do in order to be that guy,” said Busch. “If we can obviously go to Phoenix and have a strong run, and be able to go out there and win, that will put ourselves through as well, too. We’re two [points] on the 22 [Logano], so it’s going to be a race between the 18 and the 22. Imagine that.”
There won’t be that kind of drama for the No. 4, which is great news for the Stewart-Haas team.
“It certainly takes a lot of pressure off next week,” Stewart said. “There are a lot of guys that are going to be lumped together for two spots. It gives [crew chief] Rodney [Childers] a little bit of a breather. It gives Kevin a little bit of a breather. We’ve got to keep that momentum going.
“It does take that edge off of worry. It’s big for the organization. It’s the goal of the company every year to take at least one car to Homestead to race for a championship.”