Perhaps it was appropriate, on the first weekend of college football this year, that solid team fundamentals and deft blocking should play such an integral part in Kevin Harvick’s NASCAR Nationwide Series victory over Kyle Busch.
In a battle of Sprint Cup regulars, Harvick edged Busch for the win in Saturday night’s Great Clips/Grit Chips 300 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, after the drivers waged a scintillating battle over the final seven laps of the 195-lap race.
Harvick beat Busch to the finish line by .579 seconds after clearing his rival’s No. 54 Toyota with five laps left. The narrow loss kept Busch winless in the Nationwide Series at the 1.54-mile speedway and broke a streak of wins from the pole by the Joe Gibbs Racing driver.
Busch had been six-for-six this season in converting poles into victories before Saturday’s race.
And though the drivers have had issues in the past, they respect each other’s tenacity on the track.
Harvick summed it up after the race: “Kyle Busch isn’t my favorite person, but I enjoy racing with him.”
Series leader Sam Hornish Jr. ran third, extending his advantage over eighth-place finisher Austin Dillon to 10 points. Kasey Kahne rallied from an early spin to come home fourth, and rookie Kyle Larson placed fifth–his seventh top five in 24 starts this season.
The win was Harvick’s first of the season in seven starts, his second at Atlanta and the 40th of his career, but it took a flawless pit stop on lap 182–which got Harvick out first with lane choice for the lap 189 restart–and all of Harvick’s consummate driving skill to achieve it.
After Harvick cleared Busch on lap 190, Busch mustered two promising runs before succumbing.
On lap 192, Busch had huge momentum in the outside lane off Turn 2, but Harvick left his customary line on the bottom of the track to block. Busch slowed to avoid contact with the outside wall.
“I was just tight, and at that point, I wasn’t going to let off the throttle unless (the spotter) said ‘Outside,’” Harvick explained. “He said ‘Clear,’ and I kept coming up, and at that point in the race, you’ve just got to do what you have to do to maintain it, especially when you feel like you might be at a small disadvantage like we were for a few laps.”
Harvick’s tactics had the desired effect of keeping Busch behind him.
“I had a run on him one time, and he blocked my air and put me in the fence,” Busch said. “I had to stop and check up before I got to the fence. But that’s part of it. It is what it is…
“I could have driven through him and knocked him out of the way, but I try not to do those things, although my reputation doesn’t really get perceived that way.”
On the final circuit, Busch slipped slightly through Turns 1 and 2 as Harvick open the winning margin.
“Aero-loose,” Busch said simply. “You get in behind somebody, and you get aero-loose.”
A caution on lap 104 for debris on the backstretch erased a seven-second lead Harvick had built through a cycle of green-flag pit stops around the race’s midpoint. Undeterred, Harvick pulled away after the ensuing restart on lap 109 and owned a lead of more than five seconds when the next cycle of green-flag stops began on lap 143.
Harvick was the last of the top three to come to pit road (lap 148), and by the time the field cycled through, his advantage over Joey Logano, then running second, had dwindled to .9 seconds.
Stretching his margin to as much as 1.9 seconds, Harvick was comfortably ahead when Jeff Green’s hard crash into the outside wall in the tri-oval on Lap 182 caused the fourth caution of the night.
That set up the final seven-lap green-flag run, after four-tire pit stops for the leaders, with Busch surging into second moments after the restart and battling side-by-side with Harvick before the driver of the No. 33 Chevrolet finally pulled ahead.