By the end of the Sylvania 300, the die was cast. Reigning Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick was out of options and fuel. The driver who dominated the New Hampshire Motor Speedway race gambled that he could make it 88 laps, and couldn't.
Matt Kenseth, who had pressured him, won the second race of the Chase.
The Stewart-Haas Racing team that painted itself into a corner will move on to Dover, Delaware, with only one option left. Harvick must win at Dover, where he has never won before. Tweeted Harvick:
"With four or five [laps] to go, I didn't think I could quite get to him and get by him," Kenseth said in the winner's media conference. "Getting to him and getting by him were going to be two different things, too, but I didn't think I was quite going to get there.
"Honestly, [crew chief] Jason [Ratcliff] told me [Harvick] was going to be close and he was probably going to run out, but I didn't 100 percent believe him, so I was a little surprised when I saw him pull down with [three laps] to go."
The tactics might have worked had there been more than one remaining caution period after Harvick last pitted on lap 212 (of 300). The wonder was that the driver who led 216 laps had to resort to a futile gamble in order to win it.
Harvick declined to discuss the matter after the race.
Arithmetic doesn't favor Harvick. Twelve drivers advance to the second of four rounds. Dale Earnhardt Jr., another Chevy driver who ran out of gas near the end, is now 12th. Harvick, ranked 15th of 16, is 23 points behind Earnhardt. Winners of all three races advance. Denny Hamlin, who won a week ago at Chicagoland Speedway, is in. So is Kenseth.
|Assessing the Prospect of Chase Advancement|
|Driver||Points||Wins||Present Position||Points +/-|
|Martin Truex Jr.||2,071||1||In||+15|
|Dale Earnhardt Jr.||2,057||2||In||+1|
The only way Harvick can plausibly advance is to win at Dover, where he has failed to win all 29 of his career starts. He did, however, finish second to Jimmie Johnson at the mile track on May 31.
As the laps wound down, Harvick held off a double-play combination from Joe Gibbs Racing, first Hamlin, who couldn't catch him, and then Kenseth, who took up the chase. The dogged pursuit kept Harvick from saving enough fuel to nail down his first victory since March 15.
Harvick wound up leaving with his title hopes caught in a 21st-place trap. Once he and crew chief Rodney Childers settled on trying to make it to the end, they had no other option. Had Harvick stopped for fuel under the green flag, he might have finished worse and certainly only a few positions better.
Kenseth thus became the season's first five-race winner and gave Joe Gibbs Racing, and Toyota, their ninth victory in the last 11 races. Joey Logano won the other two in a Ford. Earnhardt gave Chevrolet its most recent win at Daytona on July 5.
For the moment, Toyota is dominating the sport, sort of like Chevrolet for most of the past four decades.
"When you have fast race cars, and I've been asked a number of times this year what's different, and the answer is everything is different," Ratcliff said. "Every department has been working really hard.
"The race cars are fast. The engine program is phenomenal. The pit crews are...it's just all of it. And when you have that, you open lots of doors for lots of opportunity, and I think that's why you're seeing success in a lot of different ways."
Gibbs has four teams. Two have clinched an advance into the next round. Carl Edwards, who won the pole in New Hampshire and finished fifth, is almost a cinch. Kyle Busch crashed, but he goes to Dover just a point behind Earnhardt at the cutoff.
For what was surely the ninth time in 11 races—and, quite possibly, all 11, at least to someone—Gibbs said "This is a thrill for us."
At the moment, Joe Gibbs Racing has thrills galore. It's a thrill a minute. Thrills and, for most of those not currently driving Gibbs Toyotas, chills.
"Hey, it's great to be a part of something like this," the longtime Washington Redskins coach, NFL Hall of Fame member and three-time NASCAR Cup champion as an owner also said.
Gibbs is one predictably enthusiastic guy.
Kenseth expressed the view that Harvick running out of fuel was his own doing.
"Do I take responsibility for him running out of gas? No. Absolutely not," Kenseth said. "I was out there trying to win the race, and trying to catch him and pass him, so I don't know what his situation is.
"Obviously, I ran as hard as I could to get as close as I could to him because i wanted to beat him, and the faster he has to go, obviously, he burns more gas."
Dover marks the end of what NASCAR refers to as the Challenger Round. Twelve drivers advance to the Contender Round, which will be contested in Charlotte, Kansas City and Talladega. Eight will remain for the Elimination Round in Martinsville, Fort Worth and Phoenix. Then the championship will be settled between four finalists in Homestead, Florida, on November 22.
Big names—Harvick, Earnhardt and Kyle Busch, in particular—must excel at Dover in order to advance. Said Earnhardt:
Busch figures to be next line to give Coach Gibbs a thrill.
Adam Stevens, his crew chief, said, "Sure, Dover is a strong track for us.
"There's no reason we can't go there and have a good day. Things like this [crashing due to tire failure in New Hampshire] happen. They happen to us and they can happen to anybody else. It's not a win-at-all-costs situation at all, which is comforting."
The Chase format guarantees uncertainty, rewards victory and deals harshly with misfortune. Someone prominent is going to fall by the wayside next Sunday, and more will follow. It's just the way it works.
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All quotes are taken from NASCAR media, team and manufacturer sources unless otherwise noted.