RIDGEWAY, Va. – Coming to life at the end of the race for the second week in a row, Kevin Harvick was able to move under Dale Earnhardt Jr. with four laps to go to score his second-straight win and become the first repeat winner of the 2011 season.
Struggling at the beginning of the day, Harvick and crew chief Gil Martin continued to work on the car and put themselves in position to be there in the end. Restarting second on the outside with 29 laps to go, Harvick fell back to fourth as Kyle Busch, Earnhardt Jr. and Juan Pablo Montoya shot ahead. Cutting down ahead of Matt Kenseth, Harvick closed on the leaders as Busch and Earnhardt diced it up out front.
When Earnhardt used the bumper to move Busch for the lead on lap 480, Harvick capitalized, was able to get past the No. 18 and set his sights on the lead. Diving under Earnhardt’s No. 88 into turn 1 on lap 497, Harvick was able to hold off the cross-over move and drive away to his second win in two weeks.
“An awesome day I didn’t think we had the car to do that,” Harvick said. “We put those two tires on and all of a sudden we got to the front and the thing just woke up. I had a lot of fun racing Dale Jr. I hate to be the guy that’s the bad guy here, but we’re in it to win it.”
Calling the win a “character-building day,” Harvick said the team was able to calm his nerves after he was nearly ready to “slit his wrist” due to their early-race struggles.
“I know when Richard (Childress, team owner) comes on the radio and says, all right, you need to do this or that, I’ve kind of carried it over the edge and I need to shut up and go about my business,” Harvick said. “Because at that point I need to get back to focusing on my job.
“I’m just the highest-strung person and I don’t know, I turn into a lunatic when I get in the car and I wind up apologizing more than I do anything else.”
Leading the majority of the race, Busch’s car went away following the final restart. That allowed Earnhardt Jr. to get to Busch and put the bumper to the No. 18 Toyota with 20 laps to go. With the fans jumping to their feet, Earnhardt Jr. took the top spot and began to drive away.
With 13 laps to go, Harvick got past Busch and closed the gap on Earnhardt Jr. Approaching two lapped cars, Harvick got to Earnhardt’s back bumper and went to the inside for the lead. Despite an attempted cross-over move, Earnhardt had nothing for Harvick as Busch crept back into the picture.
Diving under Earnhardt Jr. in the final corner, Busch got to the inside of the No. 88 but Earnhardt Jr. got a great run off the corner to nip him at the line.
Gaining four spots in the standings after his runner-up finish, Earnhardt Jr. leaves Martinsville eighth in points. So close to breaking his 99-race winless streak, Earnhardt had mixed emotions with Sunday’s result. Pleased with his first second-place finish since the 2010 Daytona 500, he was upset he did not run up to his standard third to fifth-place for much of the afternoon.
“I was thinking at the end that I was meant to win that damn race,” Earnhardt said. “Hell, I’m not sitting there leading that thing by seven car lengths thinking I’m about to lose. That’s definitely not a good attitude to have at that point.
“I was definitely thinking I need to do what I think’s right every corner and try and win this race. I’ve got a hell of an opportunity right here and if I can put together decent laps, I might be able to keep the distance I had on him which was only about three or four car lengths. But, I just couldn’t do it. I made some mistakes in the corners and the back end of the car was giving up on me a little bit.”
After having one of the strongest cars all race, the back end also went away for Busch in the final laps. Moved out of the lead late in the race for the second day in a row (the same happened in the Camping World Truck Series race), Busch said he had no issue with Earnhardt’s bump-and-run.
“I was holding him up,” Busch said. “I sucked. So it was good for him. I mean, he took the lead. No harm, no foul.”
“We had one of the best runs here we have ever had,” Busch said. “And I probably had the best car here today. Unfortunately just didn’t win with it. Coming down to the last run of the race here, kind of a short run, and we just didn’t quite have the car to do it on a short run.”
Another of the strongest cars on Sunday, Jimmie Johnson, was hit with a pit-road speeding penalty on the final stop of the day. Exiting pit road in second, the No. 48 was forced to the tail end of the longest line when the race restarted on lap 471. Unable to work through the late-race traffic, Johnson ended the day 11th.
“I wasn’t speeding,” Johnson said. “[NASCAR] didn’t like how it looked, the way I manage my timing lines. Had this happen one other time where I do a good job with my timing lines to know exactly where I needed to accelerate and where I needed to stop. There is just no way. People will say whatever, but with the math and the way we know our timing line, there is just no way.”
Trying to win his fourth-straight race at Martinsville, issues on pit road also cost Denny Hamlin a chance at the win. Pitting from the lead under green-flag conditions on lap 315, the front tire changer struggled on the right side and slowed the stop, costing the team valuable track position.
When the team was on pit road for the final time on lap 456, the front tire changer was not from Hamlin’s team, but from teammate Joey Logano’s. Running in fifth at the time of the green-flag stop, a caution soon after caught the team a lap down and forced to take the wave around.
Never able to make it back to the front, Hamlin finished 12th, only his second finish outside the top 10 in his 12 Martinsville starts.
“We need to work on who we’re going to have change tires for us, I guess,” Hamlin said. “Things like that, it’s pretty tough. Especially midseason. You’ve got chemistry and stuff that you’ve got to deal with, but at this point you either work with what you’ve got or try to find someone that maybe can do a better job. You just don’t know right now and we don’t know what to do.”
Sunday’s Goody’s Fast Relief 500 saw a total of 31 lead changes (a new track record) among 12 different drivers. The race was also slowed by 11 caution flags, one of which drew a red flag that lasted nearly 25 minutes.
That incident involved Martin Truex Jr. and Kasey Kahne, both of whom were lucky to walk away from the scary wreck in turn 3. Heading into the corner, the throttle hung on Truex’s No. 56 Toyota. Driving into the left rear of Kahne’s car, Truex hit the wall head on and caught fire as Kahne’s No. 4 hit with the rear before slamming the wall with the driver side.
“It was, ‘oh man, this is going to hurt,’” Truex said. “It didn’t hurt at all. Unbelievable isn’t it? Thanks to NASCAR and all the guys that build the SAFER barriers and these racecars, they’re unbelievable. Ten years ago I wouldn’t be standing here. Thankful for that and thankful for everybody working on my NAPA Toyota. That’s a rough day right there.”
“As unfortunate as it was that Kasey was involved, he really helped slow my car down when I hit him,” he added. “It was a probably a blessing, but hate that we took him out.”
“Usually you get hit and you spin out if somebody’s mad, but that was where I knew the throttle or something had stuck on Martin’s car because he drove me through the wall,” said Kahne. “That was a pretty good wreck.”
Next week the series heads to the Texas Motor Speedway for the first night race of the year.
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