Two weeks ago, Kevin Harvick was out of the playoffs. He had run a strong season, in the top ten throughout the year, but 14 race winners and his position as third in points among winless drivers left him effectively eliminated without a win in the closing races anyway. He changed that with a win at Michigan last weekend, but he wants to fight for a championship, and more wins bring more playoff points. This week, he helped his cause.
In a race decided by tire strategy, Harvick was the control group. He stopped from the lead on lap 341, with 59 laps to go and relatively early in the pit window. Chris Buescher stopped a lap earlier, which put him in position to gain time on track and left him half a second behind Harvick off pit road. Joe Gibbs Racing, meanwhile, stopped Denny Hamlin and Christopher Bell on lap 352. While Briscoe struggled to hold onto Harvick's bumper on tires one lap older and eventually fell a couple seconds back, Bell and Hamlin pushed through the field with a relative tire advantage. With 15 to go, it seemed like Harvick had the race tied up.
With 10 to go, Bell caught Buescher. It took a little bit longer to get past than he'd like, but Bell was chasing Harvick with 4 to go. On the final lap, he reached Harvick's bumper.
The race ended before he could make a move. Harvick took his second win of the season, robbing Bell of the opportunity to do the same, but JGR's strategy was the winning choice and put him in a better position than any other. Behind him, Denny Hamlin climbed to fourth on the same strategy despite a slow stop. Had he completed an optimal pit cycle, he also could have given Harvick a run for his money.
With another repeat winner, NASCAR is still successfully avoiding a chaos scenario where more than 16 drivers win a race in the regular season and a race winner is eliminated from postseason contention. A new winner at Watkins Glen would change that, instantly eliminating all chances for a driver to make the playoffs on points and putting the injured Kurt Busch at risk of losing his playoff spot with a 17th new winner at Daytona.
As with every race since July, both the final two regular season races and the entire NASCAR playoffs will run over successive weekends without a single week off. That continues at Watkins Glen next week.
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