Two years ago, Kevin Harvick was practically automatic when he and his team came to the racetrack, winning a total of nine times in 2020. Then, the winning stopped for 65 straight races and almost two full years -- until today, when the 46-year-old from Bakersfield, Calif. took advantage of a timely late-race caution to bring him from the brink of playoff elimination to another chance to race for a championship.
After a late-race caution during a round of green flag pit stops gave him the lead, Harvick drove away over the final green flag run to win the FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan by four seconds. The win was his first of the 2022 season and ended a 65-race winless streak.
Harvick's win is the 59th of his Cup Series career -- but more importantly, it puts him on the playoff grid with three races remaining after he entered Sunday as the first car below the playoff cutoff line.
FireKeepers Casino 400 results
- #4 - Kevin Harvick
- #23 - Bubba Wallace
- #11 - Denny Hamlin
- #22 - Joey Logano
- #12 - Ryan Blaney
- #19 - Martin Truex Jr.
- #5 - Kyle Larson
- #43 - Erik Jones
- #48 - Alex Bowman
- #45 - Ty Gibbs
In a race rife with pit strategy, a combination of happenings on pit road and the racetrack ended up swinging the race in Harvick's favor. Shortly after Harvick made his final stop under green, the caution came out for a crash by Christopher Bell on the front straightaway. Harvick was able to stay out having already made his stop, while the rest of the leaders came to pit road.
Denny Hamlin won the race off pit road, but he saw his chances of winning dashed when his crew was assessed a penalty for too many men over the wall. Harvick was able to hold the lead on the ensuing restart, and he then drove away after Bubba Wallace was held up behind Joey Logano for too long to try and run Harvick down.
After Bell's win at New Hampshire knocked Harvick below the cutoff line, crashes at Pocono and Indianapolis forced Harvick into a must-win situation. A must-win situation that played out over the final 35 laps at one of Harvick's best racetracks.
"Everybody who doubted us," Harvick told NBC Sports, "doesn't know us."
Playoff Bubble Pops
On the other side of Harvick's trip to Victory Lane was a disastrous outcome for Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. If there hadn't been any new winners in August, both could have felt relatively comfortable with their points position relative to the cutoff line. Now, neither driver is safe.
Harvick's win now pits Blaney and Truex in a dogfight for the final spot in the playoffs on points, a spot Blaney currently holds by 19 points over Truex. There's plenty that can change that scant margin over the next three weeks, and Sunday's results showed the potential for a nightmare scenario for both drivers: Wallace scored his second runner-up finish of the season, while Erik Jones was a factor throughout the day and ran in the top five late before fading to eighth.
If anyone has a greater sense of urgency between the two, it's likely Blaney. Next weekend at Richmond Raceway presents a golden opportunity for Truex to score a victory, as he has won the second race at Richmond two out of the last three years and led 80 laps in the spring race earlier this year.
Missed Opportunity for Bubba
Bubba Wallace had one of the fastest cars in Michigan, if not the fastest car outright. After winning his first career pole, Wallace was in a position to upset the playoff grid himself and earn a win that would have erased his rough first half of the regular season.
Although it ended up being a great day that continued Wallace's recent hot streak, the greatest possible outcome was not to be. A sequence of events on the restart caused Wallace to lose too much ground to Harvick, and he beat himself up for the moves he could have made in his post-race interview.
"I'll wear this one on my heart for awhile. I failed everybody," Wallace told NBC Sports. "(If) I got clear of the No. 5 sooner. He was doing his part, putting it on my quarter (panel) there, keeping me tight. And just the side-by-side here allows the No. 4 to get away. I could have taken the top, pushed the No. 4, and then I could have been the No. 5 in that scenario, right? Just hate it, hate it for our team. It sucks."
While Wallace will have to lament what might have been -- a rough first half of his regular season has left him with too big a points gap to try and make the playoffs on points -- it still continues a remarkable turnaround for the driver of the No. 23. Wallace has now set career highs for top-five and top-10 finishes in a single season, and his 22 laps led was just one off of the most he has ever led in a single race (23 at Martinsville in the spring of 2021).
While Sunday's race featured many long green flag runs, several accidents ended up playing a factor in the race's outcome. The most significant came on a Lap 25 restart, when J.J. Yeley got turned sideways in the middle of traffic to create a nine-car pileup that saw Austin Cindric take a vicious head-on hit into the outside wall and also eliminated Kyle Busch from the race, continuing a string of poor finishes for the driver of the No. 18.
Another dramatic sight occurred on Lap 98, when a series of left front tire failures for Cole Custer resulted in his No. 41 Ford going up in flames. The fire interrupted a cycle of green flag pit stops, but Custer was able to quickly climb out of his burning car after driving it back to the pits.
Race Results Rundown
- Erik Jones continues to show why he's been signed to a long-term contract extension by Petty GMS, as his stat line continues to grow. Jones is the first driver of Richard Petty's No. 43 to score eight or more top-10 finishes in a season since AJ Allmendinger in 2011. If Jones can score three more top 10s, he'll be the first driver of the No. 43 to score more than 10 top 10s since Bobby Hamilton collected 11 in 1996.
- No one was happier to see the month of July end than Alex Bowman, and it showed on Sunday. With a ninth-place finish, Bowman earned his first top-10 finish since the Coca-Cola 600 in May, finally taking the bad taste out of his mouth after four DNFs due to crashes in the last six races.
- Ty Gibbs once again showed he's a quick study, and he overcame adversity in order to do so. After a pit road speeding penalty on his final stop, Gibbs drove all the way up to 10th at the checkered flag, scoring his first top-10 finish in just his third career start as the substitute driver for Kurt Busch.
- A nice day for the Dillon household, as Ty Dillon joined his brother Austin inside the top 15. A 14th-place finish for Ty made for his best finish since a 13th-place run in the Coca-Cola 600.
- NASCAR Xfinity Series star Austin Hill's first Cup start had its share of ups and downs, as he ran into the back of Cody Ware in a tight squeeze on pit road while also getting a pit road penalty for too many men over the wall. Despite that, Hill was able to finish a respectable 18th in his first action behind the wheel of a Cup car.
- Go Spartans! Michigan State football coach Mel Tucker and basketball coach Tom Izzo gave the command to start engines on Sunday, and Josh Bilicki rewarded them by taking his Michigan State Chevrolet to a 21st-place finish -- Bilicki's second-best finish of the entire season.
- In addition to Bilicki, two other drivers -- Cody Ware and B.J. McLeod -- both had nice runs inside the top 25, finishing 22nd and 23rd, respectively.
The NASCAR Cup Series returns to Richmond Raceway next weekend for the Federated Auto Parts 400, the first short track race of the second half of the season, next Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on USA Network.