BROOKLYN, Mich. — He already had horsepower, handling and the points lead. Now Kevin Harvick has a win this season at a track other than Talladega or Daytona.
Harvick passed Denny Hamlin with 11 laps to go Sunday, then held on to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup series race at Michigan International Speedway.
It’s yet another sign that Richard Childress Racing is back after a disappointing 2009, and Harvick is the championship favorite with only three more races left before the Chase.
“Everybody was embarrassed last year, and we’ve really been running pretty well since probably the last six or eight weeks of last year,” said Harvick, who formally clinched a spot in the Chase. “It didn’t just happen today.”
Harvick’s No. 29 team gambled by staying on the track instead of making a pit stop during a late caution. It paid off with Harvick’s third win of the season and his first this year on a non-restrictor plate track.
The victory was another significant step in the resurgence of Richard Childress Racing — and it came at a track where RCR typically hasn’t been very strong.
“Somebody’s got to beat Jimmie (Johnson) this year, and it might as well be RCR,” Childress said.
Hamlin finished second, followed by Roush Fenway Racing drivers Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth.
Team owner Jack Roush was back at the track this weekend, days after his release from a hospital following serious injuries in a plane crash.
“It’s great,” Edwards said. “We really wanted to get a win for him today, but that’s a strong performance for us.”
Edwards has finished seventh or better in six straight races and he likes his chances going into the Chase. But nobody has been as consistent as Harvick this season.
“I really don’t see how he can’t be, really, the favorite going into it,” Hamlin said.
With the Chase looming, Hamlin acknowledged that his Joe Gibbs Racing team is lagging behind Harvick and RCR.
“Those guys, they’re tough,” Hamlin said. “They’ve really got everything working right now. Their cars are handling really well, and they’ve got horsepower. Those are two things that are tough to beat.”
Harvick isn’t embracing the role of championship favorite, saying Johnson is the driver to beat until somebody actually beats him.
“Until you beat that guy, there’s no reason to put that pressure on yourselves,” Harvick said.
It was a rough day for several Chase contenders. Kurt Busch blew an engine, Mark Martin damaged his car early and spent most of the afternoon running outside the top 30, and Jeff Gordon was in the top 10 when he had a flat tire with 47 laps to go.
Gordon finished 27th, Martin finished 28th and Busch finished 40th.
Ryan Newman and Joey Logano tangled on the track, then had to be separated by NASCAR officials after the race.
“He races me way too hard, he races everybody too hard,” Logano said. “I’m not the only one that complains about it every week.”
Newman was not available for comment.
Leaders Tony Stewart and Harvick stayed on the track instead of making pit stops when a caution came out with 32 laps left — leaving them at the front of the field with most other drivers on fresher tires and 28 laps to go on the restart.
Hamlin took the lead from Stewart with 23 laps until the end, but Harvick stayed on his tail and finally got past him with 11 left. Stewart slipped to sixth at the finish.
Busch sustained a “catastrophic” engine failure, slipping from fourth to 10th in the points.
“We didn’t get it done,” Busch said. “We’ll bounce back and be back next week. We should be OK in points.”
Things didn’t go much better for Martin, who had to spend extra time in the pits after scraping his car’s nose early in the race. Martin slipped to 13th in the points, now one spot behind Clint Bowyer for the final Chase-eligible spot in the standings.
Gordon appeared headed for a good finish, then a tire went flat in the middle of heavy traffic. He avoided heavy contact with other cars or the wall but fell far back in the field.
It was a much better day for Harvick, who won’t be under much pressure the next three weeks.
“Do you think it’d go over well if we went on vacation?” Harvick joked.