DARLINGTON, S.C. — Kevin Harvick won his first Southern 500 on Saturday, passing Dale Earnhardt Jr. two laps from the end of the longest race in the track's 65-year NASCAR history.
Harvick started from the pole and had the most dominant car. But he had to make it through a restart with 10 laps left and two tries at a green-white-checkered finish — NASCAR's version of overtime.
"I knew I had that high line," Harvick said of the last restart. "I hadn't showed it to them all night, and I wanted to save it until the very end."
Earnhardt finished second followed by Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle. Jeff Gordon took seventh to remain on top of the points standings.
Harvick led 239 of the 374 laps — seven more than planned — and became the first two-time winner this season. He also won at Phoenix. By doing so, he all but clinched a spot in the Chase for the Championship because the 15 drivers with the most wins over the first 26 races earn a spot. (He still must finish among the top 30 in points and attempt to qualify for every race.)
Harvick had just three top-fives and six top-10 finishes among 17 Darlington races before Saturday. He hadn't finished better than fifth in his past 10 tries.
He was cruising with 10 laps left when Joey Logano's car leaked fluids. Johnson and Earnhardt took just two tires in the pits and sneaked out ahead of Harvick, who took four tires and restarted fifth.
Earnhardt quickly moved past Johnson for the lead until Denny Hamlin hit the wall for the 10th caution to set up the overtime finish. Earnhardt was still out front on the restart when Clint Bowyer got too close to Kurt Busch and spun him out — Busch walked up the track to stare down Bowyer — to force a second green-white-checkered finish.
This time, Harvick and his fresher tires easily got past Earnhardt.
Sprint Cup points
After eight of 26 races. Sixteen drivers will make the season-ending Chase for the Championship.
Driver Pts. Back
Jeff Gordon 297—
Matt Kenseth 2961
Carl Edwards 27819
Dale Earnhardt Jr. 271 26
Jimmie Johnson 270 27
Kyle Busch 26928
Brad Keselowski 246 51
Joey Logano 245 52
Ryan Newman 236 61
Austin Dillon 235 62
Toyota Owners 400, 7 p.m. April 26, Richmond (Va.) International Raceway TV: Ch. 13
. Fast facts
Winner's average speed: 131.211 mph
Time of race: 3 hours, 53 minutes, 37 seconds
Margin of victory: 0.558 seconds
Caution flags: 11 for 50 laps
Lead changes: 22 among 12 drivers
Lap leaders: Logano 1-37; Gordon 38-42; Ragan 43; Gordon 44-45; Harvick 46-60; Hamlin 61-63; Kenseth 64-75; Harvick 76-179; Keselowski 180-183; Kahne 184-201; Harvick 202; Kahne 203-207; Harvick 208-223; Vickers 224-247; Gordon 248; Vickers 249-254; Harvick 255-273; Biffle 274-278; Harvick 279-359; Johnson 360-367; Earnhardt Jr. 368-372; Harvick 373-374.