By Brian Citino
The most consistent driver through the first 26 races of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series regular season came to Dover International Speedway with his whole season hanging in the balance.
Essentially, 2014 Series champion Kevin Harvick needed to win or his hopes at being a repeat champion would be over. Twenty-three points behind the 12-driver cutoff heading into Sunday’s “AAA 400” Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup elimination race, a win was about all that would guarantee his trip to the Contender Round.
Add to the fact that Harvick was 0 for 29 at the Monster Mile entering Sunday’s race, with a pedestrian four top-five finishes and an average finish of 14.7 at the track, and a win seemed even more unlikely.
It’s fitting that Harvick has carried the nickname of “The Closer” for so many years, though, because not only did he win at the Monster Mile, he dominated.
“It was business as usual for our team today,” Harvick said. “I’m really proud of my group for getting the last little bit out of everything they could today.”
Starting 15th, Harvick proceeded to lead 355 laps total, including the final 43, showing the NASCAR world why he’s been its top driver for almost two years.
Following disappointing finishes in the first two races of the Chase, the pressure was on Harvick and his team to perform. However, he said that didn’t change anything for his guys coming to Dover.
“I don’t really believe that we did anything different,” he said. “The circumstances today were straight forward. It’s just the nature of this team and what they do. The character is deep and they all believe in each other.”
Harvick insisted after the race that he didn’t feel any pressure headed into the weekend, even with the must-win circumstances. Drawing back on his experiences late last season that saw him win to stay alive entering the season finale, and then walk-off win the championship, Sunday’s situation was one he has faced before.
But while he doesn’t like to be in a position such as the one he was in at Dover, Harvick did say these moments are something he rather enjoys.
“The payoff you get in these situations is the rush that you get out of it,” he said. “Those moments are something that are a lot of fun to be a part of.”
Coming into the race, it was the Joe Gibbs Racing cars that had been the class of the field for the past two months. But Harvick served notice that his team is just as strong as any, and the No. 4 Chevrolet squad is again the team to beat.
Rodney Childers, crew chief for Harvick’s team, said in recent weeks the Gibbs teams have had a little something extra, but that didn’t discourage his group.
“I think we’ve been at a little bit of a disadvantage,” Childers said. “I’m not sure what those guys have. We’ve got a good race team though. We’ve been through situations like this before, but we’ve got a good race team and good cars.”
Kyle Busch, also on the outside of the cutoff bubble looking in, finished second to advance to the next round, noting that despite running up front all day, his team just didn’t have enough for the No. 4, even after a late pit stop that saw him take four tires to Harvick’s two.
“It was a pretty good race for us and we finished where I thought we deserved to be,” Busch said. “For as fast as Kevin was today, I don’t know if I could have had eight tires and beaten him.”
In addition to Harvick and Busch, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon advanced to the next round. Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray, Clint Bowyer and Paul Menard were eliminated.