In a battle of two of stock-car racing’s titans, Kevin Harvick swapped the lead with Kyle Busch and held off the defending NASCAR Cup Series champion over an intense string of closing laps to win Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Harvick picked up his ninth victory of the season, his second of the Round of 16 in the 2020 NASCAR Playoffs and his third at Bristol. The driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford finished .310 seconds ahead of Busch, who remained frustrated in a winless season.
RELATED: Official race results
Harvick won for the 58th time in his Cup career, ninth most all time. Busch has been stuck on 56 wins since his title-winning triumph in the last year’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Bristol sold tickets to a limited number fans who were socially distanced throughout the grandstand. But there were enough voices there to make a significant din, and Harvick noticed.
“Man, I just want to say thank you to all the fans,” Harvick said after taking the checkered flag. “I was so jacked up when we started this race because of you guys and Bristol Motor Speedway.”
It took all of Harvick’s consummate skill to hold off Busch during the final 82-lap green-flag run. Busch is the leader among active drivers with eight wins at Bristol.
“To beat Kyle Busch at Bristol, I kind of got myself in a little bit of a ringer there,” said Harvick, who already had secured a berth in the Round of 12 with his win at Darlington Raceway in the playoff opener. “I hit a lapped car and got a hole in the right-front nose, but just kept fighting. We don’t have anything else to lose.
“We were here to try to win a race. I know how much (crew chief) Rodney (Childers) really enjoys coming here and, hell, how can you not enjoy coming here with all this enthusiasm? Everybody is tired of being at home.”
The Bristol Night Race was the cutoff event for the Round of 16, and the four drivers who began the event below the cutline — William Byron, Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Cole Custer, Ryan Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto — remained there and were eliminated from the playoffs.
Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones started in the rear of the field after multiple pre-race inspection failures, but Busch charged through the field to finish second in the first stage and won the second.
In the final run, Busch passed Harvick for the lead in traffic on Lap 459. Ten laps later, Harvick returned the favor when Busch was slowed behind the lapped car of Joey Logano. Harvick led the rest of the way, though Busch tried every racing line available to try to catch the race winner.
“I just didn’t have enough there at the end,” said Busch who advanced to the Round of 12 on points, joining Richmond Raceway winner Brad Keselowski, Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Logano, Kurt Busch, Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Alex Bowman, Chase Elliott and Austin Dillon. “The lapped cars were definitely a problem.
“There was just no room for me to do what I need to do to get around him. Came up short — what can I say?”
Two drivers who didn’t make the playoffs — Jones and Tyler Reddick — ran third and fourth followed by Almirola, Bowyer and Elliott. Non-playoff drivers Chris Buescher, Ryan Preece and Michael McDowell completed the top 10 in order.
Byron’s race and playoff run ended suddenly and unexpectedly on Lap 232. The No. 51 Ford of Joey Gase slowed on the backstretch, starting a chain-reaction wreck in which Byron’s No. 24 Chevrolet slammed into the rear of Christopher Bell’s No. 95 Toyota.
Unable to continue, Byron exited the race, his playoff run finished.
“I think the No. 51 car checked up in the middle of the straightaway,” a frustrated Byron said after exiting his car. “As fast as we were running the top, I was right behind the No. 95, and I had literally nowhere to go. You can’t stop in the middle of the straightaway when everybody is so committed to the top like that.
“Just ridiculous that that’s what takes us out. I thought, honestly, we had a shot to run top five or seven. The car was really, really good. We just needed a couple good pit stops. We were running probably ninth or 10th there. Just super disappointing — I’ve got to go back and watch that, because that was kind of ridiculous.”
Blaney and DiBenedetto, who needed to win the race to advance to the Round of 12, finished 13th and 19th, respectively. Custer was eliminated after a 23rd-place run.
NOTE: The No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford of Kevin Harvick passed NASCAR’s post-race inspection. There were no issues.