DARLINGTON, S.C. — The 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season has been one of feast or famine for Kevin Harvick—and on Saturday night at Darlington Raceway, Harvick enjoyed the delectable taste of victory.
Passing Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the next-to-last lap of the second attempt at a green-white-checkered-flag finish, Harvick won Sunday's Bojangles' Southern 500 and all but locked himself into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup as the first two-time winner in the series this year (he still needs to finish in the top 30 in points after race No. 26 and attempt to qualify for every race).
In the second race of the season, Harvick dominated in winning at Phoenix, before a spate of mechanical issues waylaid him in four of five subsequent events.
On Saturday at Darlington, he was the class of the field again, leading 238 of 374 laps in a race that went seven circuits past its scheduled distance. Nevertheless, it took a four-tire call in the pits and a late caution to give Harvick a final chance to beat Earnhardt, who had streaked to a 15-car-length lead on two fresh tires in the first attempt at a green-white-checker.
But Kurt Busch's wreck on the backstretch brought out the 11th caution on Lap 369 and snatched the victory from Earnhardt's grasp. Restarting on the outside of the front row after powering past Jimmie Johnson on the first attempt at overtime, Harvick prevailed with a superior car on superior tires.
The victory was Harvick's first at Darlington and the 25th of his career. It was the series-best third win of the season for Stewart-Haas Racing.
After the race, Harvick, the pole winner, revealed he had been keeping a tactic in reserve for just the sort of moment that arose Saturday night at the 1.366-mile speedway.
"We were able to hang on there at the end, and I knew I had that high line I hadn't showed it to them all night on the restarts, and I wanted to save it until the very end," Harvick said. "I kind of learned that last night as we were in the Nationwide race. It was a good tool in your tool bag to have there at the end."
In fact, Harvick passed Earnhardt to the outside through Turns 3 and 4 on the penultimate lap.
Earnhardt finished second, .558 seconds back. Johnson ran third, followed by Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle. Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, rookie Kyle Larson, Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman completed the top 10.
"Everybody was telling me that I had a 15 car length lead, and I don't want to hear about that," Earnhardt said. "I'm going to hear about it all day tomorrow; 'Man; you almost won it.' They said we had it won with a 15 car length lead coming into that last white flag when the caution come out on the back straightaway (for Kurt Busch's wreck off the nose of Clint Bowyer's Toyota).
"But (Kevin) was pretty fast. I think he was going to run the (heck) out of it and try to get there. I was trying not to look in the mirror, just try to run as hard as I could. I didn't know how much speed the car had. We were on two tires ... But feels good to be close."
Nothing could thwart Harvick's domination of the first two-thirds of the race. A dropped lug nut on a pit stop on Lap 222 relegated him to ninth for a restart on Lap 227. But by the time NASCAR threw the seventh caution on Lap 247, Harvick was running fourth.
Four laps after a restart on Lap 252, Harvick was back in the lead, passing Brian Vickers for the top spot.
After Paul Menard hit the outside wall for the second time on Lap 271, Harvick ran over a piece of Menard's brake rotor—twice—but his No. 4 Chevrolet was unaffected. Biffle took the lead on pit road with a two-tire stop, but Harvick regained the point on the restart lap (279) and quickly pulled away to a two-second advantage over Gordon and Earnhardt in second and third.
On longer runs, Gordon's Chevy was the equal of Harvick's, but Gordon had a miserable time on restarts and repeatedly dropped back so far on the initial green-flag laps that he couldn't make up the ground during the course of a fuel run.
But it was Johnson who chased Harvick lap after lap after a cycle of green-flag pit stops ended on Lap 323. Johnson got as close as .601 seconds back before Harvick began to pull away. But caution for fluid from Joey Logano's Ford scrambled the field on divergent pit strategies and set up the wild finish.
Harvick restarted fifth on Lap 363 as the first driver on four new tires and gained the third position before NASCAR called a debris caution on Lap 365 to necessitate the first attempt at overtime.
Notes: Gordon retained the series lead by one point over Kenseth, but neither has a victory this season. ... Rookie Kyle Larson scored his fourth top 10 in eight races this season. ... Harvick is the first polesitter to win at Darlington since Dale Jarrett accomplished the feat in 1997.