BRISTOL, Tenn. - Kevin Harvick finished 13th and on the lead lap in Sunday’s Food City 500, and that’s about as amazing of a comeback as you’re likely to see at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Making up a lap, perhaps two, is difficult. Harvick, at one point, was four laps in arrears.
Down. Out. Finished. Done.
Thanks to an incredibly fast No. 4 Ford Mustang, the 2014 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion was able to race his way back onto the lead lap and into the picture.
The day certainly didn’t start out well — the team failed pre-race inspection three times and was penalized before the race had even begun.
Because of the inspection issues, Harvick dropped from 13th to the rear of the field at the start of the race; one crew member was ejected, the driver had to do a pass-through penalty under green once the race began and the team will lose 30 minutes of practice time at the next points event.
His first break came when he hit pit road after the green flag — a multi-car incident brought out the caution flag and Harvick only lost one lap in the pits.
But a loose wheel put his No. 4 back on pit road a short time later and Harvick soon found himself multiple laps down.
He joined the lead-lap cars during the final caution of the race when he was in the free pass position.
The finish was his worst since a 26th-place run at Daytona this year. But it may have been one of the team’s most impressive efforts overall.
It was a frustrating day for pole winner Chase Elliott as the Hendrick Motorsports driver lost the power steering in his No. 9 Chevrolet barely 20 laps into the race, then was involved in an incident just shy of the halfway point of the 500-lap race.
Despite the setbacks, he was still contending for a spot in the top 10 when his car hit the wall with less than 70 laps remaining. He led the first 38 laps of the race, finished 11th and on the lead lap, but saw a good day otherwise ruined.
“Definitely not what we started out hoping for,” he said. “We got turned late in the race, that was about it. We fell behind from there.
“I had a great car, even without the power steering.”
Denny Hamlin, the series’ most recent winner heading into the Bristol race weekend, appeared to have made the move of the race when a two-tire call under caution at lap 417 put him out front for the subsequent restart.
The lead was short-lived. Hamlin was penalized for speeding on pit road — something that’s been the Joe Gibbs Racing driver’s Achilles heel — and was forced to give up the valuable track position.
He did manage to rally and finish fifth, however.
“I screwed up our strategy on pit lane,” Hamlin admitted. “We’ll get it cleaned up. Just got to work through all the kinks and clean stuff up.
“We didn’t have a race-winning car. Top-five finish with a car that probably shouldn’t have been there is a good day.”
Hamlin won the season-opening Daytona 500 as well as last weekend’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. The TMS win came after he rallied from a, you guessed it, pit road speeding penalty.
Clint Bowyer led five times for 24 laps and had one of the best long-run cars in the field Sunday. But contact with Joey Logano on lap 432 resulted in a flat tire for the Stewart-Haas driver and put the team in catch-up mode for the remainder of the race.
“He was racing me pretty hard,” Bowyer said of Logano. .”.. We just barely touched, and it must have cut the valve stem out of it or something and hit it just right.”
Bowyer managed a seventh-place finish in spite of the setback.
“My strong suit, just like last week, was long runs,” he said. “We just slowly kept picking them away. You could see that on restarts. I couldn’t take off worth a damn, but I could really come on strong on the big end of a run.”
The cars of Team Penske teammates Logano, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney were among the best for much of the Food City 500 and two of the three — Logano and Blaney — finished third and fourth respectively. Combined, the trio led 344 of the race’s 500 laps.
“The last thing you want is a caution with 15 to 20 (laps) to go at Bristol and you’re the leader because you know everyone is going to make their decision based off what you do,” said Logano, who found himself in exactly that predicament.
“If you stay out, you’ve got to expect half the field is going to pit, maybe more. If you come in, five or six stayed (out), so it’s just part of the game.”
Keselowski appeared to be in line for a shot at the win as well, but confusion when the field was reset for the final restart left the former series champion mired in a three-wide situation coming to the green.
He was eventually issued a pass-through penalty and finished 18th.
“Nobody could figure out the lineup,” Keselowski said. “There wasn’t enough communication and it was just a tough deal.”
—By Kenny Bruce, NASCAR Wire Service. Special to Field Level Media.