Kevin Harvick started the 2020 NASCAR playoffs in the best way possible.
Harvick won Sunday's Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway in Darlington, South Carolina, which CBS Sports noted was included as a playoff race for the second time in its history and first time since 2004. He held off Austin Dillon on the closing stretch, but only after a shocking turn of events with less than 20 laps remaining.
Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott were way ahead and battling for the lead when they both made contact with the wall while jockeying for position.
Truex was forced to pit, while Elliott fell way behind as his car slowed following the contact.
While there was a full field in the race, the 16 drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs were under the spotlight. That group will be trimmed to 12 following races at Richmond Raceway and Bristol Motor Speedway and eight after races in Las Vegas; Talladega, Alabama; and Concord, North Carolina. From there, Kansas Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway host the Round of 8 before the championship in Phoenix, Arizona.
Harvick was already ahead in the NASCAR Cup Series standings heading into the playoffs, per NASCAR.com:
1. Kevin Harvick, 2,057 points
2. Denny Hamlin, 2,047 points
3. Brad Keselowski, 2,029 points
4. Joey Logano, 2,022 points
5. Chase Elliott, 2,020 points
6. Martin Truex Jr., 2,014 points
7. Ryan Blaney, 2,013 points
8. Alex Bowman, 2,009 points
9. William Byron, 2,007 points
10. Austin Dillon, 2,005 points
11. Cole Custer, 2,005 points
12. Aric Almirola, 2,005 points
13. Clint Bowyer, 2,004 points
14. Kyle Busch, 2,003 points
15. Kurt Busch, 2,001 points
16. Matt DiBenedetto, 2,000 points
There was news even before the drivers started their engines, as Ryan Blaney was penalized when a pre-race inspection found an improperly mounted ballast. Crew chief Todd Gordon was ejected, while Blaney was docked 10 points and forced to start from the rear.
Elliott started in pole position and set the pace in the early going, topping last year's total of laps led:
The biggest development in the opening stage involved Brad Keselowski, who found the wall and fell a lap down.
On the other side of the field, Denny Hamlin took the lead when Elliott made a pit stop before Truex moved to the front and eventually won the first stage and the playoff point that came with it.
Truex maintained his dominance throughout Stage 2, winning it even though Harvick took the lead temporarily when he pitted much earlier than the leaders.
Elliott scraped the wall during the second stage, but he had a better go of it than Blaney. The No. 12 car's struggles continued, as Blaney fell a lap down because of a flat left rear tire. He even pitted right before Bubba Wallace spun out, costing himself a chance at returning to the lead lap.
It was a precursor to the start of Stage 3, which saw John Hunter Nemechek exit the race with a blown tire, Corey LaJoie exit the race with damage and Wallace fall out of the race because of a transmission problem. Blaney and Joey Logano each needed repairs during an early caution as well in a messy situation.
All the attrition didn't stop Elliott from taking the lead and setting up a dramatic race to the finish with Truex.
In fact, they were separated by less than a half-second with 20 laps remaining but more than four seconds ahead of Harvick, who was the closest challenger.
However, that battle for the lead ultimately cost both Truex and Elliott, which opened the door for Harvick.