Kyle Busch simply crashed—at a track that continues to bedevil him.
And with a bizarre power failure in the last two laps, Johnson failed to cash in decisively on Matt Kenseth’s skittishness with the new tire combination Goodyear brought to Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.
The fourth race in the Chase ended as it began, with Harvick out front. The driver of the No. 29 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet crossed the finish line more than a football field ahead of runner-up Kurt Busch, with Jeff Gordon trailing Busch in third.
Joey Logano, Carl Edwards and Johnson ran third through sixth, respectively, allowing Johnson to trim Kenseth’s advantage in the championship standings from eight to three points.
The victory was Harvick’s third of the season, his first at Kansas and the 22nd of his career. With the win, Harvick moved into third place in the standings, 25 points behind Kenseth. Kyle Busch, who entered the race third in the Chase and 12 points behind Kenseth, scored his third straight DNF at Kansas after crashing out in 34th place and dropping to fifth in points, 35 out of the lead.
“To sit on the pole and win the race, obviously, is a great weekend,” Harvick said. “Controlling our own destiny by doing that, putting ourselves closer to where we need to be with the championship race… so we’ll just keep having fun and doing what we’re doing.
Harvick’s car out front in clean air was radically different than the same car in traffic.
“It was like driving two different cars,” said Harvick, who will leave RCR at the end of the year to driver for Stewart-Haas Racing. “Out front, it was not even close, and in traffic, you were just another one of the cars and had a lot of trouble.”
After Harvick got shuffled back in traffic by an inopportune debris caution on Lap 87, crew chief Gil Martin opted to keep him out on old tires under caution for a wreck involving Justin Allgaier and Ryan Newman on Lap 146.
The move paid off, and Harvick was able to stay in position near the front of the field for the balance of the race.
Johnson likewise had a strong car but couldn’t get the track position he need to make a run at the win. He felt a strong vibration in his car with two laps left, but the car regained power on the backstretch of the final lap and Johnson held sixth at the finish.
“All in all, it was just a crazy day,” said the five-time champion, who lost fifth place to Edwards on the final lap. “There were weird restarts, wacky restarts, a lot of chaos there. Then caution after caution for who knows what…
“We rebounded from all that, passed a lot of race cars, and then with two to go, we came down the back and started shaking real bad. I thought it was over, but I limped it around and got to the finish line. It started running down the back coming to the checkered (flag), so I was at least able to maintain over whoever was in seventh there (Paul Menard).”
Kyle Busch’s championship hopes suffered most, but no driver seemed immune from adversity. Gordon, Johnson, Busch and Harvick all lost positions—and in some cases, laps—when cautions interrupted cycles of green-flag pit stops.
But the record 15 cautions for a record 71 laps—one because of a grass fire on the bank outside Turn 1 that shrouded the track in smoke–provided ample opportunity for wave-arounds and restarts that allowed drivers to make up lost ground.
With a loose handling condition that plagued him throughout the race, Kenseth salvaged an 11th-place run that kept him at the top of the standings—barely.
Throughout the weekend, Kenseth expressed uneasiness with a lack of grip he felt with the dual-tread right-side tire Goodyear provided for the race. Nevertheless, with a manic drive through traffic during the final 19-lap green-flag run, Kenseth gained four positions after the final restart to retain his points lead.