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Saturday night at Darlington Raceway was very much Kevin Harvick's night, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver starting from pole position and then leading for 238 of the 374 laps to take his second NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory of the season, the first driver to win more than one race so far in 2014.

That said, it almost didn't happen: in the end, only a green-white-chequered restart and crew chief Rodney Childers' call to go for four new tyres beforehand gave Harvick what he needed to overcome a spirited challenge from Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the final charge to the line.

"This is the one race I told Rodney I wanted to win. We were able to put it all together, but this is the Southern 500, this is as big as it gets in NASCAR racing," he said as he celebrated his first career victory on Darlington's unique 'pinched paperclip' oval. "To win the Southern 500 and you look at the names and pictures on that trophy that they have out there is something that's pretty phenomenal to be a part of.

"It's the last crown jewel race," he added. "I told [Rodney] before the year even started, if we're only going to win once this year, let's win at Darlington because this is just the place that you want to race, and I love racing here."

Harvick was the first driver to win from the pole at Darlington Raceway since Dale Jarrett in 1997, but even though Harvick was at the front to take the green flag for the start of the four-hour marathon race, it initially looked as though Penske's Joey Logano had by far the better car. The #22 immediately pushed ahead of Harvick to lead the first 37 laps, until he was passed in turn by seven-time Darlington winner Jeff Gordon just before the first caution of the night came out for damage to Ryan Truex's car after sustaining damage in turn 3 on lap 41. Although Gordon lined up at the front it was then Harvick who was able to make the best of the restart to reclaim the lead at last.

A second caution on lap 59 for Travis Kvapil hitting the wall between turns 3 and 4 allowed Joe Gibbs Racing duo Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth to resume at the front on a two-tyre strategy while Harvick dropped to fifth place by taking on four new tyres; but the difference in performance eventually told and on lap 76 Harvick climbed his way past to resume at the front, and once there he remained out in the lead for over a hundred laps.

That spell saw two cautions (on lap 93 for Michael Annett hitting the wall in turn 2 with a tyre issue, and Cole Whitt scrapping the wall in turn 1 on lap 125) which provided the chance for pit stops, but when it came time for cars to make a stop under green on lap 180 Harvick found himself out of the lead and running six seconds behind the Hendrick Motorsports #5 driven by Kasey Kahne which he maintained through to the fifth caution of the night on lap 201 for Paul Menard hitting the wall in turn 1, the car catching fire in the process.

"I hit the wall like ten laps before and I guess the right-front tyre just went down," explained Menard. "Kind of rode the wall in 3 and 4 and I guess I was just in denial, I guess I didn't realize the right-front tyre was down. It felt fine going down the front stretch and let go it killed Turn 1. A lot of damage."

Harvick used the restart as an opportunity to pass Kahne for the lead which lasted to the next caution on lap 223 for a spin by Richard Petty Motorsport's Aric Almirola in turn 2 after contact with Danica Patrick. Brian Vickers and Ryan Newman were the drivers attempting a two-tyre stop to gain 13 places apiece for the restart, which Harvick took down in ninth place after a lugnut issue cost him extra time on pit lane, and it wasn't until after a debris caution on lap 248 as a consequence of Annett hitting the wall and then clipping Parker Kligerman that Harvick managed to finish picking his way back to the front again, finally prising the lead from Vickers on lap 255.

A new accident for Menard on the backstretch resulted in another caution on lap 273 after Harvick's car twice clipped a piece of brake rotor debris from the wreck. Harvick lost the race off pit road to Roush Fenway's Greg Biffle but quickly put that to rights when the green flag came out; however it was the Hendrick squadron consisting of Earnhardt, Gordon and Jimmie Johnson that were now massing right behind the #4, ready to pounce given half a chance.

Fortunately for Harvick the race would stay green for the next 82 laps, giving him a chance to stretch out a safe margin at the front and keep himself out of danger even through a round of green-flag pit stops and when lapped traffic became a potential factor. A caution nearly materialised on lap 324 when Kasey Kahne - the fourth member of the Hendrick line-up - hit the wall and wrecked the #5 beyond repair, but in the end it was Joey Logano suffering a fiery front wheel hub failure that brought out the yellow on lap 358.

During the latter part of that previous stint, Jimmie Johnson had moved up to second place and started to make serious inroads into Harvick's lead, so the #41 team knew it needed to take a full set of tyres during the ensuing pit stops, and that dropped Harvick to fifth behind Johnson, Earnhardt, Kenseth and Gordon all of whom gambled on two only. Johnson led at the restart but there was a rapid return to yellow for debris from Travis Kvapil's car meaning that the race was heading into a green-white-chequered overtime climax, and when the next green flag came out on lap 368 it was Earnhardt who got the better run of it and swiped the lead to the delight of the legion of Junior Nation fans around the circuit as he pulled out a massive and seemingly unbeatable lead.

But the story wasn't over, and before the white flag could be shown to the leader the yellows were out again instead, this time for Harvick's SHR team mate Kurt Busch getting spun by Michael Waltrip Racing's Clint Bowyer, putting the #41 into the wall on the backstretch. Earnhardt and Harvick were on the front row for the second GWC attempt to finish the race, but by now the two-tyre strategy was starting to take its toll on the #88 and with Harvick having made his way back up to the front thanks to the series of stoppages, the #4 was ready to pounce the moment the green came out.

Earnhardt leapt away but Harvick was quick to give chase, easily dismissing Johnson from the battle which was now a two-horse race. Harvick had previously favoured the inside line for passing all evening, but now on the penultimate lap he wrong-footed Earnhardt and went to the outside through turns 3 and 4, pulling off the pass with his fresher set of tyres to clinch the win by half a second at the line.

"It was just one of those deals where the strategy was going to be hard to overcome with the track position without those green-white-chequers there at the end," Harvick admitted. "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."

That tactical thinking had made Harvick the first repeat winner of the year - and making him the first driver to be virtually certain of being in the Chase come September, provided he finishes the regular season in the top 30 in points and attempts to qualify for every race to maintain his eligibility. It was certainly quite a rebound for Harvick who had been having a wretched run of luck ever since his first win of the year at Phoenix, which included an early engine blow-up at Texas just six days ago.

"We had to overcome a lot in these past several weeks, but we've had really fast cars. We just kept our heads down and did what we had to do," he said as he celebrated his 25th victory in 474 Cup races. "It feels great [to be locked into the Chase.] It's allowed us, with the way the points system is, to go for wins and not have to worry about the bad weeks too much."

The other drivers to have won a race so far in 2014 are Earnhardt, Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Kurt and Kyle Busch, although their Chase places are not guaranteed should more than 15 drivers clinch a race victory in the remaining 18 events between now and Richmond in September. The points standings may yet have an impact, and coming out of Darlington it is Jeff Gordon at the top of the standings, a solitary point ahead of Matt Kenseth who finished in fourth place at Darlington just behind Johnson, who had been left ruing another 'close but no cigar' outing.

"Things were really going our way there when we took two tyres and got the restart under control and had a good lead there," the six-time champion sighed. "Then the caution came out and at that point I knew that us on two tyres we were probably in big trouble and the #4 had worked his way up through there and did a great job - it seemed like the fastest car all night long," he admitted.

Johnson and the rest of the drivers now have a week's holiday to reflect and regroup, as all three of NASCAR's national-level series are taking Easter Weekend off before Cup and Nationwide competition resumes on April 25-26 with the first visit of the year to Richmond International Raceway.

See full race results and Sprint Cup Championship standings.

 

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