Whenever he's been running in a Nationwide Series race in 2012, Kevin Harvick has been a forced to be reckoned with and at times utterly dominant. And yet frustratingly for the Sprint Cup regular, something has always ended up denying him the race win - famously, last week at Atlanta it was a late race debris caution that undid all his good efforts in the final laps, meaning it's been 30 starts since his last win almost exactly two years ago right here at Richmond International Raceway.
There would be no such injustices on Friday night in the Virginia 529 College Savings 250 race at the three-quarter mile track, however. Harvick would once again dominant the race and lead for 141 of the 250 laps of the race, but this time nothing would get in the way of claiming the chequered flag for the first time this year in the series. And it was long overdue in Harvick's eyes.
"Sometimes you go through slumps like that, and when you break 'em, it just makes it that much sweeter," he said on victory lane. "I know we haven't won the races that we needed to, but, man, we've led a ton of laps and been in contention to win just about every race I've been in this car this year."
Polesitter Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had been quickly dispatched by fellow front row man Austin Dillon at the green flag, but he held on to the back of the #3 and a dozen laps later was in position to benefit when Dillon had to check up for slow traffic ahead and Stenhouse took the lead on lap 15 and proceeded to pull out a lead of almost a second before the first caution came out on lap 35.
That was for Tanner Berryhill crashing in turns 1 and 2, and the ten laps under caution for the clean-up allowed the leaders to come onto pit lane for their first stop of the night. Stenhouse still led at the restart, but by lap 70 Harvick had moved up to second place and was too strong to hold back any longer, so the #33 claimed the lead for the first time of the evening and proceeded to hold it for an unbroken stint lasting over a hundred laps.
That period spanned four different cautions, which started on lap 110 when Johanna Long had a tyre go down which sent her up into the wall and led to a wild multi-wide restart that somehow didn't result in an instant major wreck. The next caution was on lap 143 and was for Danica Patrick hitting the wall, after misjudging her clearance over Brad Sweet as she moved up the race track in front of him.
The third caution was on lap 156 when Sam Hornish Jr. spun in turn 1 after taking an accidental hit from his Penske stable mate Ryan Blaney while the two were trying to get past Ty Dillon; as Hornish slid back down the Richmond banking he made contact with the right hand side of Timmy Hill's car, destroying the rear deck of Hornish's car and sheering off much of the side bodywork off the #41. That spread so much debris over the circuit that a four minute red flag stoppage was required to allow the track workers to get out and clean up the mess.
It had been too soon after the Danica caution - and still too far from the finish - for the leaders to need another visit to pit lane at this point, so at the restart it was Kevin Harvick still in charge but now with Kurt Busch in second ahead of Stenhouse, Denny Hamlin and Elliott Sadler. However, Busch was suffering from brake issues and was quickly mugged for position by first Stenhouse and then Sadler, who then set their mutual sites on charging down Harvick who'd got an initial jump on them both.
Harvick had too much speed on them both, however, and gradually started to ease away. His work was made easier when Stenhouse and Sadler started to fight among themselves over second, and the spat ended in disaster for Sadler when he tried a move under the #6 through turns 3 and 4, made contact and crashed into the wall. Fortunately the damage to Sadler's car was relatively light and he would be able to continue the race and finish in 12th place despite dropping a lap off the lead at one point, but it was still a major blow to his championship battle over Stenhouse for the 2012 Nationwide title.
Stenhouse insisted that there had been no hostile action involved in the incident. "It looks like we were just racing side by side for 10 laps or 5 laps or whatever it was," he explained. "When you get up under there you get a little loose on the brakes and I guess it just got loose on him and he tried to save it from getting into us and I have to thank him for that. It was a fun night.”
Harvick lost the lead at the restart to James Buescher who alone had opted not to pit, but Buescher was already out of the way by the time Brian Scott crashed on lap 194 in turn 4 after contact with Ryan Truex, meaning that at the next restart with 50 laps to go to the finish it was now Stenhouse and Busch back at the front ahead of Harvick who lined up on the second row alongside Michael Annett, with Denny Hamlin still lurking nearby in fifth.
Busch took the lead at the restart leaving Stenhouse and Harvick to a fierce battle for second that Harvick finally won a dozen laps in, which allowed Busch to break away by over a car length in the meantime. That gap was wiped out by the seventh caution of the night on lap 227, but it was Busch's own doing when he bumped the back of backmarker Dexter Stacey and sent the #39 spinning at turn 4. In the seconds before the yellow came out, Busch had to check up to avoid the spinning car and Harvick slipped through for the lead that would carry through to the restart.
Busch explained that his ongoing brake and car handling issues had played a part: "We had a brake vibration that wouldn't allow me to get to the bottom of the corner easily," he said. "When you have that, it's tough to race guys exactly clean, and you're right on the ragged edge the whole moment.
"When I had Harvick behind us, when we were leading, if I could hit it perfect, we were going to hold him off," he continued. "If I was off just a fraction, he was right there. When I drove down into three and the lapped car chose inside, I chose inside, and I was like, 'This isn't going to be good.'"
Handed the lead of the race, Harvick didn't squander it come the restart and went on to run the final 16 laps of the race to claim the chequered flag, which was incident free and saw Harvick pull out a lead of nearly two seconds over Stenhouse before the end. Busch held on to third place in the Kyle Busch Motorsports #54, and Hamlin managed to move up to fourth place by the time the race concluded.
Despite the second place, Stenhouse was disappointed with how he'd gone during the evening: "We weren't as good as we thought we were going to be or thought we needed to be," he admitted. "We kept working on it all night and I felt like Mike and the guys did some good adjustments and got it better throughout the race but not enough to go contend for the win.
"I gave it all I had on the outside with Kevin there and that was a lot of fun racing him, last week and this week, we gave each other a lot of room and had a lot of fun doing it," he added. "We were just too loose in and too loose off and not exactly what we wanted. It is a good top-two finish though and that is three good races in a row. We just have to keep doing that."
Stenhouse's second place boosts him to within just 1pt of Elliott Sadler in the Nationwide Series standings; they both pull away from Sam Hornish Jr. whose mid-race wreck leaves him 50pts of the championship leader, and who drops down to fourth place in the championship behind Austin Dillon who finished Friday night at Richmond in six place just ahead of his brother Ty Dillon.
There was also an impressive race day for X-Games star Travis Pastrana, who had been the unexpected name on top of the Friday practice timesheets and then parleyed that into his first top ten start in the series since he started competing in NASCAR. Although he slipped back to 17th by the end of the race, he was still on the lead lap by the end and had avoided any major incidents or crashes along the way.
"We were quickest in practice and qualified fifth, it felt great," he said. "We just couldn't really put it together for the race. It definitely felt good on the long runs and we were pretty good there but I was afraid to let the guys loosen it up as much as we needed to probably to make it better on the short runs.
"It was a good learning experience and we got all the laps in and there were some dicey battles there," he summed up. "I was hoping for more out of myself for sure," he said, proving that no racer is ever truly satisfied until he's safely in victory lane at the end of the night.
Full race results, plus qualifying and practice
speeds and full Nationwide Series championship standings