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Harvick thrives while Johnson and Kenseth merely survive

7 October 2013

Kevin Harvick led the field to the green flag for the start of the Hollywood Casino 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Kansas Speedway on Sunday afternoon, and three and a half hours later he crossed the finish line over a second clear of Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon to clinch the chequered flag, having led for over half the race and for more than twice as long as anyone else managed in the 267-lap event.

Draw a straight line between those two moments and you might think this was a dull affair, with Harvick dominating throughout and little happening all day. That would not, however, be an entirely accurate picture.

"It was just a crazy day," was Jimmie Johnson's view. "There were weird restarts, wacky restarts, a lot of chaos there. Then caution after caution for who knows what."

The drivers had arrived at Kansas knowing that things might get a little interesting, thanks to a fast, slick track that was repaved just last year, and an innovative new tyre compound design from Goodyear designed to help make racing on the 1.5-mile speedway more interesting. It certainly did that, right from lap 1, when Danica Patrick found that her services were no longer required after she lost control of the #10 in turn 2, collecting the cars of David Reutimann and Cole Whitt in the process.

"All I can say is, I didn't try to do anything. I just found myself sideways in the middle of the corner and that was it," she said. "I just was looking forward to having a good day and it's over with within a matter of feet," she sighed, adding: "I'm really sorry. I'm really bummed."

Also involved in the incident was Kyle Busch, who had been forced to start at the back of the field on Sunday after a practice crash forced him into the backup car. His brother Kurt was in the same position, but the Furniture Row Racing #78 avoided the first lap accident which forced Kyle to dive low onto the apron leaving him concerned about splitter damage which needed to be checked out on pit road.

The race resumed on lap 10 and Harvick continued to lead through to the second caution on lap 43 for a tyre going down on Michael McDowell's car. Harvick won the race off pit road which saw everyone opt for two tyres, and took point once more at the restart on lap 48 followed by a trio of Hendrick cars consisting of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. Eventually they wore down the leader and Harvick was passed first by Johnson and then Earnhardt before the next caution on lap 88 for debris in turn 3.

This was not good news for Harvick who had just made a pit stop under green, or for Johnson who was just inches from pit road when the caution came out and who as a consequence now found himself down in 17th position for the restart which saw Matt Kenseth edge past Earnhardt to take the lead. Harvick meanwhile was mired in in the pack, the dominating pace the #29 had shown while out in front for 80 of the first 82 laps now completely absent, leaving him fearing for the worst.

"In traffic, the car was tight," he said. "[The crew] kept me calm because I was starting to get a little wound up because I knew we had a real fast car out front. It was just a matter of getting there because track position was so important.

"It was like driving two different cars," Harvick, added. "Out front it was not even close, and in traffic you were just another one of the cars and had a lot of trouble."

Kenseth's run at the front came to an end with the next caution on lap 112 for oil from Joe Nemechek's #87 with Landon Cassill also in trouble and heading to the garage with a smoking car. It was fair timing for the next round of pit stops, with Earnhardt winning the race to lead at the green flag ahead of Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Juan Pablo Montoya, but there was an almost immediate return to caution when Dave Blaney spun and hit the wall at turn 2.

The next attempt to get back underway was more successful and Joey Logano was soon past Earnhardt for the lead, but further backHarvick was still stuck in the middle of nowhere and having no joy getting back to the front by the time that Justin Allgaier spun on the backstretch on lap 136, hitting Ryan Newman in the process. Both cars were left with significant damage - race-ending in the case of the #51, but a lengthy spell in the garage for repairs also proving seriously harmful to Newman's already-dwindling Chase hopes.

It was a little early for a new round of pit stops but the majority of cars came in anyway, Kenseth likely wishing he hadn't bothered as a speeding penalty set him all the way back to 31st position. The exceptions to the rule were Harvick and Kyle Busch who lined up on the front row for the restart: the #29's crew chief Gil Martin had listened to his driver's frustration level building and decided it was time to be bold and try something different by going off-sync as long as it meant he could run out in front.

There was a brief interruption for Travis Kvapil spinning in turn 2 on lap 147, and then another caution came out on lap 155: not for anything on the track, but rather because a fire had broken out on the hill above turn 1 which was seeing smoke drift over the circuit. NASCAR declared a competition so that the matter could be taken care of and the fire extinguished, which meant that it was time for Harvick to come in for that deferred pit stop for a welcome quartet of fresh tyres, surrendering the lead back to Logano in the process and dropping down into the midfield once more.

Logano led to the next caution on lap 170 (for David Ragan spinning out on the backstretch and hitting the wall). Now it was the rest of the field's turn to pit for four tyres, but in Harvick's case - having stopped so recently - two would suffice and he moved up 14 spots on the deal, although the race lead went to Brad Keselowski who opted for some counter-strategy of his own by staying out altogether.

A caution for debris on lap 180 (a bumper cover from Casey Mears' car) packed the field up again for another restart on lap 185, and it didn't take long for the jostling to result in trouble between Kyle Busch and Juan Pablo Montoya which also sent Mark Martin crashing out, although Busch was able to save his car from an even bigger wreck that could have caught up half the field.

"He ran into me," Busch said. "I don't spin out by myself on the front straightaway, do I?" he asked rhetorically, adding that "He won't be missed," referring to Montoya's imminent exit from stock car racing to return to the IndyCar Series in 2014.

Keselowski continued to lead the field through the 12th caution of the day for a backstretch spin by Marcos Ambrose on lap 196, but at the restart there was trouble again for Kyle Busch - and this time it was catastrophic as the #18 was sent into Brian Vickers' #55 and then into the wall at turn 2 as a result of contact from behind by the #99 of Carl Edwards.

"I don't know if he knew I was under him or not but he just turned down. His car bit or he turned and drove across the front of mine. It is just crazy," explained Edwards. "I kept it going straight [but] Kyle and I ended up wrecking over there."

"Just run over the #18 car and get what you need," fumed Busch after being evaluated in the medical centre, his day over and done with. "I have no idea what happened on the last one. All I know is we're in Kansas."

It certainly seems to be that despite his success everywhere else on the NASCAR Sprint Cup calendar, Kansas continues to prove utterly impervious to Busch's charms, every year delivering a mortal blow to his championship hopes. As a result of being classified in 34th position this week, Busch drops from third to fifth in the Chase and is now an alarming 35 points off the leader.

"It certainly hinders it," he said when asked if this put paid to his Cup hopes for 2013. "But, we'll just try to get back in it. Try to work hard and see what falls our way ... Every other track except Kansas seems to be able to bode well for us, so we'll see what happens and if it doesn't happen, then it doesn't happen. It wasn't meant to be."

Busch also didn't hold back about the repaved Kansas superspeedway, or the new Goodyear compounds being used here for the first time.

"The racetrack is the worst racetrack I've ever driven on," Busch asserted. "The tyre is the worst tyre I've ever driven on. Track position is everything. You can't do anything unless you're out front and then you get back in traffic. Kevin Harvick couldn't pass me and he led the first 80 laps of the race, so I would say it was pretty pathetic."

Talking of Harvick, he was able to press ahead over the next green flag stint and cut into Brad Keselowski's race lead, finally taking over control of the race on lap 224 as it suddenly became clear that Keselowski had pushed his fuel too far and was now having to coast back to pit road agonisingly slowly with not even fumes left in the tank. It was a costly mishap that would see him finish the race in 17th place after leading for 52 laps in total.

"Something [broke] in the back of the car with the fuel cell and we didn't get the gas we needed to finish the race. Back to the drawing board I guess," he said. "There were so many wrecks and so many yellows that we could never really get going out there."

Debris in turn 1 brought out a caution on lap 229 that allowed the drivers to make their final visits to pit road, Jeff Burton popping to the front ahead of Harvick and Gordon after deciding not to take any tyres while the others took two apiece. The difference in tyres meant Burton was a sitting duck at the restart on lap 233 and dropped like a stone, Harvick taking back the lead ahead of Gordon while Edwards moved into third ahead of Kurt Busch.

Brian Vickers' crash into the backstretch wall on lap 243 triggered the 15th caution of the afternoon, a new and not entirely welcome record for Kansas, and the green flag came out to initiate a final 19-lap shootout to the green flag, which was ideal for Harvick whose #29 was flying in the open air upfront and allowed him to pull away from any potential threats to claim the win.

"Today is more positive for us than any other race we've been to all year," he said, after clinching a victory that puts him right back into contention for the 2013 Chase - up into third place, 25 points behind the championship leader with six races remaining in the 2013 calendar.

"The fact that we were at a mile‑and‑a‑half racetrack that had a lot of circumstances, and being comfortable, more comfortable than everybody else I guess you could say, driving the car and having the speed that it had I think shows the gains that we've been able to make," Harvick said.

"You know, I think the confidence in the team and the car and the mile‑and‑a‑half stuff is good," he said, comparing the victory to his last Cup win in May in the Coca Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "The bottom line is you can have fast cars, but it's going to come down just like it did at the 600. You're going to have to have the right strategy to go along with everything as the day unfolds."

His win certainly puts paid to any suggestion that he and the #29 might be 'lame ducks' in the Chase given that Harvick is leaving Richard Childress Racing at the end of the season to take up a new seat at Stewart-Haas Racing.

"Everybody wrote us off at the beginning of the year especially from a media standpoint," Harvick acknowledged. "We are just going to go do our thing and hopefully keep doing it quietly and have fun at it."

Harvick will be joined at SHR next year by Kurt Busch, and it was Busch who proved to be the man of the momentum in the closing laps as he surged past first Carl Edwards and then Jeff Gordon in the closing laps. Things got rather testy between Busch and Gordon, who had also clashed earlier in the race, and afterwards the two had words on pit lane about the bumping and banging had transpired during the day.

"I just went to have a civil conversation with Kurt," said Gordon. "It's not a NASCAR race if we don't have a discussion with another driver about an incident on the track.

"We had a restart that we kind of swapped it around a little bit, no big deal, it was just racing," Gordon said. "But then he drove into the right side of my door down the back straightaway, and I told him if he's going to run into my door, he better have a better reason than just racing hard.

"He about put me in the wall the lap before that, and I had to check up," he added. "But I didn't run into him."

Busch had some counter-complaints to make: "There was a restart where he was on our outside through 1 and 2, and just didn't quite give us an inch and dumped so much air under the rear of our car where I was on banana peels sliding up onto the exit of 2, and he thought I was trying to pinch him.

"I was like, 'Man, I needed an inch instead of you taking that inch.' So I returned the favor by putting my nose close to his rear bumper and took away that inch instead of giving an inch and got back by him. It was a battle.

"Could it have been cleaner? Yeah," admitted Busch. "Restarts were treacherous [and] there was some rough play."

In the end, the two seemed to part on good terms having cleared the air over the afternoon's events.

"I wasn't trying to get in a fight or anything," said Gordon. "We kind of agreed to disagree, and Kurt and I get along fine, and I just wanted him to know to have a better reason than that to run into the side of my car."

"It was just good racing," added Busch. "It don't need to be the media blowing it out of proportion and saying two guys were fighting. We need to put on a better show."

The final laps also saw strong runs to the front for Joey Logano (who finished) in fourth) and Jimmie Johnson, who also successfully passed Carl Edwards for sixth but then suffered near-disastrous vibration and power failure near the very end of the race that nearly put him out of contention.

"With two to go, we came down the back and started shaking real bad," said Johnson. "I thought it was over, but I limped it around and got to the finish line. It started running down the back coming to the chequered, so I was at least able to maintain over whoever was in seventh there."

It was lucky he did, because with championship leader Matt Kenseth struggling for much of the second half of the race, Johnson's sixth place allows him to close up to within three points heading on to Charlotte for the bank of America 500 next weekend that will marks the end of the first half of the Chase play-offs.

"It was a struggle all day - even when we were in front, it was a struggle," said Kenseth. "I've been so incredibly spoiled this year I haven't had to drive a car like that in a long time. Everybody was on the same tires - you can't really blame that but it was just incredibly treacherous and I was just so loose I was ready to crash pretty much at all times of the race."

"Good adjustments at the end. We drove back to 11th, which definitely isn't what we wanted or what we need to contend for this thing, but it was a good save for as bad as we were," he added. "I feel lucky for not being wrecked. And I feel really fortunate to still be leading the points.

"It could have been worse, we could have been backed into the fence. Proud of this team - they didn't give up on me today. They worked really hard on it. We'll go racing next week."

Full race results, an interview with the race winner and Sprint Cup Championship standings are available.


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