Kevin Harvick sped away on fresh tires to win Saturday night's Toyota Owners 400 in a green-white-checkered finish at Richmond International Raceway, leaving a group of drivers with widely divergent emotions in his wake.
Harvick beat Clint Bowyer to the finish line by .343 seconds to win his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race of the season, his third at Richmond and the 20th of his career.
Joey Logano ran third, Juan Pablo Montoya came home fourth after leading until the final caution and Jeff Burton finished fifth after staying out on old tires for the final two-lap run that took the event six laps beyond its posted distance.
Though Montoya lost the chance to break a 94-race drought since his Cup victory at Watkins Glen in August 2010, Montoya was elated just to get a top-five finish after struggling mightily for more than a year.
Not so elated were Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart, who repeatedly swapped shots with their Chevrolets on the cool-down lap. Stewart was fifth on the final restart but dropped to 18th at the finish after Busch rubbed him out of the racing groove during a two-lap free-for-all that saw prolific contact throughout the field.
Harvick, however, was all smiles when he climbed out of his car in Victory Lane.
"My car launched, and I was able to drive it in the first corner and hope for the best down there," said Harvick, who surged into the lead through Turns 3 and 4 after establishing his position in the first corner on the final restart. “I figured four, eight, 12 ... (however) many tires that were on the outside of me would be better than none. It all worked out, and here we are."
The decision to come to pit road for tires under the final caution was a no-brainer, as Harvick and crew chief Gil Martin saw it.
“When the tires fall off almost two seconds, you've got to come in and get tires,” he said. “There's not very many guys that stayed out. It all worked out tonight. We've been on the other side of it this year, so to be in Victory Lane is great."
Bowyer led 113 laps but didn’t have a car that could stay with Harvick at the end.
“We had a good car -- we just didn’t have a great car,” Bowyer said. “It seemed like we were just too tight on the throttle. … It really got wild there at the end. I was just lucky enough to be on the bottom (for the final restart).
“They started making holes up there in front of me, and the seas parted, and I just followed suit behind Harvick. It was a good run.”
What was a two-man battle for more than half the race evolved into an unpredictable nexus of varying strategy and unexpected attrition.
When Kyle Busch passed Matt Kenseth for the top spot on Lap 254, that was the first time all evening that a driver other than Kenseth or Bowyer had led a lap. Busch made it stick, leading 39 straight laps under green until Travis Kvapil smacked the wall on Lap 292 to cause the sixth caution of the night.
Kurt Busch beat brother Kyle in the race off pit road under the yellow and led the field to a restart on Lap 299. Busch held the point during an intense battle against Carl Edwards until NASCAR called the seventh caution on Lap 308 when Kvapil’s car dropped fluid on the track.
Kurt Busch, Edwards, Kenseth and Ryan Newman stayed out under the yellow on 16-lap-old tires. Jimmie Johnson paced the rest of the lead-lap cars to pit road and took two tires. Six laps after a restart on Lap 321, the entire tenor of the race changed dramatically.
After contact with Martin Truex Jr.’s Toyota on the restart, Johnson faded on the restart. Running to the inside of Johnson on entering Turn 1 on Lap 327, Stewart slid sideways into Johnson’s Chevrolet. As Johnson slid to the inside of the track in Turn 2, Kyle Busch’s Toyota nosed into him.
That was just the start of frenetic action at the .75-mile high-speed short track. Montoya led a pack of six cars who stayed out under the caution to a restart on Lap 334, but on Lap 338, a brutal wreck off Turn 2 involving Mark Martin, Kasey Kahne and Vickers slowed the field again.
One lap after a restart on Lap 344, Truex spun in Turn 3 while battling Kurt Busch in close quarters for the second position. Montoya retained the lead until Vickers’ wreck on Lap 395 set up the overtime.
Notes: Despite Johnson’s troubles, the five-time champion gained ground on his closest pursuers in the standings with a 12th-place finish at RIR. He now leads second-place Carl Edwards (sixth Saturday) by 43 points and Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (10th at Richmond) by 46… Reigning Cup champion Brad Keselowski finished 33rd on the bottom end of a roller-coaster day that saw him recover from a scrape with the Turn 2 wall only to drop a cylinder in the late going.
Toyota Owners 400 results
1. (17) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 406
2. (5) Clint Bowyer, Toyota, 406,
3. (7) Joey Logano, Ford, 406,
4. (6) Juan Pablo Montoya, Chevrolet, 406,
5. (16) Jeff Burton, Chevrolet, 406,
6. (28) Carl Edwards, Ford, 406,
7. (1) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 406,
8. (34) Aric Almirola, Ford, 406,
9. (14) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 406,
10. (19) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 406,
11. (3) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 406,
12. (26) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 406,
13. (29) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 406,
14. (24) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 406,
15. (15) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 406,
16. (12) Ricky Stenhouse Jr. #, Ford, 406,
17. (9) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 406,
18. (21) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 406,
19. (32) Bobby Labonte, Toyota, 406,
20. (20) David Ragan, Ford, 406,
21. (4) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 406,
22. (22) David Reutimann, Toyota, 406,
23. (18) Dave Blaney, Chevrolet, 406,
24. (8) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 406,
25. (31) Landon Cassill, Chevrolet, 406,
26. (13) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 406,
27. (37) David Gilliland, Ford, 405,
28. (27) Josh Wise(i), Ford, 404,
29. (30) Danica Patrick #, Chevrolet, 402,
30. (40) Casey Mears, Ford, 402,
31. (25) David Stremme, Toyota, 402,
32. (39) JJ Yeley, Chevrolet, 401,
33. (23) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 398,
34. (42) Timmy Hill #, Ford, 397,
35. (2) Brian Vickers(i), Toyota, Accident, 392,
36. (33) Greg Biffle, Ford, 391,
37. (36) Travis Kvapil, Toyota, 368,
38. (10) Mark Martin, Toyota, 349,
39. (41) Joe Nemechek(i), Toyota, Vibration, 245,
40. (43) Brian Keselowski, Toyota, Brakes, 186,
41. (35) Michael McDowell, Ford, Brakes, 121,
42. (11) Marcos Ambrose, Ford, Engine, 109,
43. (38) Mike Bliss(i), Toyota, Brakes, 17,