AVONDALE, Ariz. – Kevin Harvick had the hottest car in the Arizona desert today – in more ways than one.
With sunny skies and temperatures in the 80s, Harvick battled a battery problem that required turning off his cooling fans in the cockpit for much of the race. Nevertheless, he was dominant throughout the afternoon, winning the Checker Auto Parts 500 and moving up two spots in the championship points standings to third.
Bolstered by strong pit stops, Harvick lead 252 of 312 laps for his second win of the season at PIR and fifth overall in 2006. He finished second in yesterday’s Phoenix Busch Series race and has already claimed the title in that series.
While most of the Chase competitors had strong runs, Harvick needed to finish ahead of points leader Jimmie Johnson if he was to gain any ground in the standings. Johnson finished second from a 29th-place qualifying spot – his fourth second-place finish in the past five weeks.
“This Reese’s Cookie Chevrolet was just awesome,” said Harvick. “Jimmie [Johnson] got a run on me, but I wasn’t going to give up the lead at that point. We led the most laps and won the race and he was still right there behind us. We will just keep doing what we need to do, our car was really good today.”
Johnson narrowed the gap on Harvick in the closing laps, but wasn’t able to execute the pass.
“I had a great run on Kevin going into the dogleg on the back straightaway, but he wasn’t willing to give up that piece of real estate. There was a moment there that I needed to get out of the gas and be smart, and I did that – we’ll see if it pays off,” Johnson said, referencing his title hopes.
Johnson improved his points lead over second-place contender Matt Kenseth, who finished 13th in Phoenix. What was a 17-point lead for Johnson heading into Phoenix has grown to a 63-point margin en route to the season finale at Homestead.
The No. 48 team needs to finish 12th or better next week to secure the championship no matter what anyone else does.
With 51 laps to go at PIR, all 10 Chase drivers were running in the top 12 on the track. Ultimately, the top-four finishers – Harvick, Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Jeff Gordon – were Chase contenders, while Mark Martin, Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Burton also finished in the top 10.
Harvick and Hamlin are each 90 points behind Johnson heading to Homestead, while Earnhardt Jr. fell two spots in the standings to fifth, 115 points back. The remaining five Chase drivers are now mathematically eliminated from title contention.
Tony Stewart, winner of the two previous Cup races, struggled with his car’s handling throughout the day and finished 14th.
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