Monster Mile no match for Harvick

Kevin Harvick’s win at Dover Sunday was Ford’s 700th all-time in NASCAR. Special to the State News/Chuck Snyder

DOVER — If things had gone just a little differently, Kevin Harvick might have left Dover with a pair of wins under his belt.

But he’ll happily settle for one after leaving the field behind on Sunday evening.

Harvick led a commanding 233 laps and won both stages before capturing the victory in the Drydene 311 NASCAR Cup race at Dover International Speedway.

On Saturday, Harvick placed fourth in the first half of the unusual Dover doubleheader.

“Every time we come to Dover we feel like we should win the race,” he said. “Having the issues that we had (on Saturday) and getting all those fixed overnight — and seeing what we could have had yesterday — I think everybody was like, ‘Oh, OK, that’s what we were expecting yesterday.’ We just had a number of things go wrong.”

Like all six races that were hosted by Dover over the last three days, Sunday’s finale was held in front of only empty bleachers and TV cameras at the track. Spectators weren’t allowed because of state regulations due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Harvick’s third all-time Cup win on the Monster Mile clinched the first regular-season title for him. Harvick heads into next weekend’s regular-season finale with a 134-point lead over second-place Denny Hamlin.

Harvick also moved into a tie with Kyle Busch for ninth all-time in Cup victories (56). It was also his seventh win in a remarkable season in which Harvick has finished no worse than fifth in 12 of the last 13 races.

“For us, it’s one week at a time,” he said. “We go about our business and try to be very focused on the things that we do week in and week out. We try to prepare the best that we can to do the things that we think we need to do on that particular weekend.

“And when that particular weekend is over, we debrief about the things we thought we could do better and worry about the next one. You have to have that narrow-minded thought process that works best for us.”

The other impressive streak that continued on Sunday was Martin Truex, Jr.’s run of near-victories.

He placed second for the second straight day. That gives him a run of seven top-three finishes in a row and eight in the last 10 races.

Just like Saturday, when Hamlin dominated, Truex, Jr. just felt like he got beat by a faster car on Sunday. Unlike Saturday, when Truex, Jr. led for 88 laps, he didn’t lead at all on Sunday.

“That’s where you need to be running to make your way through the playoffs,” Truex, Jr. said about being near the front.  “Obviously I wish we could have won a few more. Our bonus point situation is not the greatest, and that’s something that we’ve really been working hard on trying to get some more here lately.

“It just seems like we’re always just right there second or third. Overall it was good. It’s good momentum. It’s good to be consistent. We’ve just got to keep working to find a little bit more.”

One of the other big storylines of the weekend is whether Jimmie Johnson can make the playoffs in his last full season as a Cup driver.

Johnson moved inside the top-16 on Saturday by finishing seventh but dropped back to No. 17 in the points standings despite a third-place finish on Sunday.

The 11-time Dover winner’s team actually made a pretty bold decision to take only two new tires before a restart with 17 laps remaining. But it paid off with Johnson leading for three laps before settling for third.

“I was so excited and so happy to have the view I did sitting there up front and have control of the restart,” said Johnson. “I knew when we hit the gas and the 4 car (Harvick) was able to stay with me I was going to be in trouble. 

“We had a really good car and I really credit (crew chief) Cliff (Daniels) for making that brave call for two tires. I think we were one of the fastest cars if not the fastest car over the last two runs. We clawed our way back in from losing track position, and we didn’t have the best stop two from the end, so we really just had to gamble.”

Johnson had to go to the back of the field earlier in the race when he was penalized for speeding on pit road.

Going into Daytona, Johnson now finds himself dueling with teammate William Byron and Matt DiBenedetto for the final two playoff spots.

As for leaving Dover in his rearview mirror, Johnson couldn’t say with 100-percent certainty that he’d run his last lap around the Monster Mile.

“This place is a blast to drive,” said Johnson. “I’ve always enjoyed coming here and making laps. And if the phone ever rings and I can pick the Cup race to come back and run, I would choose this track. We’ll see what happens out there in years to come.”