What started out as a crazy start to a much-anticipated race ended up being a preview of a championship battle in-the-making, as points leader no. 4 Kevin Harvick pulled off the win Sunday in The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington over no. 88 Alex Bowman.
Harvick entered Sunday as the points leader and led 159 of 293 laps, including the last 78 laps, to earn his second Darlington win.
Bowman finished second to net his second top 5 finish of the season, after leading 41 laps. Bowman led 36 laps early on but fell back as the tires started to wear out during a 51 lap run early in the race. No less, Bowman was able to gain and maintain track position to finish second and jump to second in points behind Harvick.
Bowman was one of two Hendrick Motorsports cars to finish in the top 10, with the other being no. 9 Chase Elliott, who finished fourth.
Bowman and Elliott were be joined in the top 10 by teammates no. 48 Jimmie Johnson and no. 24 William Byron, who led laps early before they found trouble.
Johnson took the lead from Bowman on lap 81 and was leading on lap 90, the final lap of Stage 1, when he made contact with no. 17 Chris Buescher off of turn 2. Johnson spun and hit the wall which knocked him out of the race, leading to a 38th-place finish.
Byron won Stage 1 but would have right-rear tire issues on lap 111 when he spun in turn 1 after hitting the wall hard in turns 3 and 4. Byron finished 35th, 14 laps down.
Before any of the Hendrick drivers found trouble, no. 47 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. brought out the first caution after spinning off of turn 2 on lap 1.
Stenhouse, who entered 17th in points and two points out of the Playoffs, is now outside of the top 20 in points, 18 points out of the Playoffs, after finishing last due to the crash.
The cause of many of the ten cautions in Sunday’s race was in a similar fashion as the caution for Stenhouse’s wreck, but the lap 156 caution was different from even the most typical cautions in a race.
An adhesive wall banner in turns 3 and 4 came apart, leading to a part of it sticking to Denny Hamlin’s no. 11 car before it stuck to Tyler Reddick’s no. 8 car, who lost two spots before the caution fell on lap 156.
The loose parts of the sign were removed under the caution and neither Hamlin nor Reddick suffered long-term consequences from it.
Among the race’s other cautions were for a lap 125 spin by no. 96 Daniel Suarez, a lap 174 spin/wall tap by 95 Christopher Bell and a lap 213 spin by no. 17 Chris Buescher.
The lap 213 caution would set up the final lead change when Harvick was able to take the lead on lap 216 from polesitter no. 2 Brad Keselowski during pit stops.
Harvick took the lead on the restart and held on for one more restart, after no. 6 Ryan Newman spun on lap 254, to win his 50th career Cup Series victory. The 50th win ties him for 12th on the all-time wins list with Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson.
“It’s an honor to have your name next to them,” Harvick said. “It’s a little bit surreal because you don’t really like to hype these things but it would be disrespectful to not give them credit and to not honor what it means to have my name sit next to them.”
The rest of the top ten were as follows: no. 88 Alex Bowman, no. 1 Kurt Busch, no. 9 Chase Elliott, no. 11 Denny Hamlin, no. 19 Martin Truex Jr. (first top 10 of 2020), no. 8 Tyler Reddick (career-best) no. 20 Erik Jones, no. 38 John Hunter Nemechek (career-best) and no. 42 Matt Kenseth who rounded out the top 10 in his first race since the 2018 Ford EcoBoost 400.
The win allowed Harvick to expand his points lead from one point over no. 22 Joey Logano, to 28 points over Alex Bowman.
Brad Keselowski, who started on the pole and led 80 laps, faded to 13th in the final running order.
Ryan Newman, who spun on lap 254, recovered to finish 15th in his return to racing.
There were 10 cautions for 57 laps and 11 lead changes among five drivers, with avg. speed of 115.815 MPH in The Real Heroes 400.
The next race for the NASCAR Cup Series is Wednesday night’s Toyota 500k at Darlington (TV: FS1; 7:30pm EST).
The top 20 finishers in Sunday’s race will be inverted to form the lineup for the Toyota 500k. This means that 20th-place finisher no. 37 Ryan Preece will start on the pole alongside 19th-place finisher no. 13 Ty Dillon.