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Kevin Harvick tames Darlington in dominating fashion

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When it goes good for Kevin Harvick it goes really good. After four finishes outside the top 30 in four races since his win at Phoenix earlier in the season, Harvick staged a dominating performance at Darlington Raceway Saturday night to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Southern 500. Harvick was able to survive two green-white-checkered flag attempts, passing Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the second one, to become NASCAR’s first two-time winner in 2014.

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It was Harvick's first career win at Darlington. He was also the first polesitter to win at Darlington since 1997. Earnhardt Jr. held on for second, Jimmie Johnson was third, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle rounded out the top five.

The key to victory came on the eighth caution came with less than 10 laps to go erasing Harvick’s lead of just over a second and a half over Johnson. On the ensuing stops, Johnson and Earnhardt took only two tires and beat Harvick, who had taken four, out of the pits. Soon after the restart, the first of two green-white-checkered periods came out with Harvick eventually coming out on top.

“You know, honestly, I felt like we did everything right with putting the four tires on,” Harvick said. “I didn't really expect four, five, six of those guys to put on two tires to tell you the truth, but all in all, I think it worked out really good the way the cautions fell, and we were able to just get ‑‑ our car was really good on the launch on restarts tonight and we were able to push the 88 to the lead that one time.”

Joey Logano got a good jump when the green fell and led the first lap Harvick was second Aric Almirola third. By lap five Logano had nearly a 1.5 second lead over Harvick

By lap 15 Logano had caught the back of the field and started lapping cars. By lap 19 Kyle Busch was in third, Jeff Gordon fourth and Almirola fifth. Gordon was able to take over third by lap 30.

Harvick was able to catch Logano on lap 37 but couldn’t pass him; Gordon took advantage and took over second. Soon Gordon was able to take the lead from Logano on lap 38. The first caution came out on lap 40 when Ryan Truex hit the wall. The leaders came in for stops; Gordon won the race off pit road, Harvick was second, Kyle Busch third. The restart came on lap 47. Gordon had a bad restart and Harvick was able to shoot to the lead for the first time. Gordon fell to third behind Kyle Busch but was able to move back up to second by lap 51. Busch continued to fall back and soon was being passed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. for third.

The second caution came out on lap 59 when Travis Kvapil scrapped the wall. The field came in for stops and adjustments. Three drivers took only two drivers and Denny Hamlin led off pit road with his teammate Matt Kenseth second and Kasey Kahne third and Almirola fourth. Harvick, the first car with four tires restarted fifth.

The restart came on lap 64 with Kenseth able to take over the point from Hamlin. By lap 72 Harvick was able to take over second, while Gordon was fighting Hamlin for third; Gordon was able to take over third on lap 75. A lap later, Harvick was able to retake the lead. By lap 91 his lead was just over three seconds. Jimmie Johnson, who was as low as 21st at one point was inside the top 15.

Caution three came out on lap 93 when Michael Annett hit the wall. The leaders hit pit road, Harvick got out first, Kenseth second, Hamlin third. The green came out on lap 99 and Harvick quickly jumped to the lead from the bottom lane. Johnson moved into the top 10 on lap 114, as Gordon went to second. Harvick’s lead was 2.7 seconds.

Cole Whitt met the wall on lap 126 bringing out the fourth caution. The leaders came in for the first stop after the sun had set. Harvick was able to keep the lead over Gordon, Brad Keselowski came out in third. The green came out on lap 130, Harvick was again able to move to the point with Keselowski taking over second, Gordon falling into third.

Green flag stops started on lap 178; Hamlin and Kenseth both missed the entrance to pit road. Leader Harvick came in on lap 180. Keselowski came in from the lead on lap 183 to complete the round of stops. Kasey Kahne who had stopped early took over the lead by over five seconds over Harvick. By lap 195, Johnson had broke into the top. Harvick’s crew meanwhile told him that he was short on fuel and only had about 22 laps of fuel.

Paul Menard lost a right front tire and hit the wall bringing out the fifth caution on lap 201. Kahne led the field to the pits. The caution came at a great time for Harvick who needed fuel. Kahne was out first, Harvick second, Earnhardt third. The green came back out on lap 207. Harvick was able to rocket past Kahne to take over first. Earnhardt started falling back and was soon in fifth reporting a possible loose wheel.

A spin on lap 221 by Almirola brought out the sixth caution. The spin came after contact with Danica Patrick. Brain Vickers who took only two tires led off pit road followed by Ryan Newman who also only two two tires. Keselowski was the first off with four tires followed by Kahne and Gordon.

The green came out on lap 227 and Vickers and Newman pulled away. Harvick, who had dominated earlier was fighting his was from seventh. Caution seven came out on lap 247 for debris after several backmarkers had hit the wall and all the leaders came in for stops. Vickers came out with the lead, Gordon was second, Harvick third. Keselowski was fourth, Earnhardt Jr. fifth.

The restart came on lap 251 with 24 cars on the lead lap. Gordon fell back while Harvick slipped into second. Earnhardt Jr. settled into third, Gordon fourth. Harvick was able to regain the lead on lap 255. Gordon recovered by lap 257 and took over second. By lap 270 Harvick’s lead over Gordon was just over a second.

Menard brought out the seventh caution on lap 271 after hitting the wall again. He had brought out the fifth caution and just returned from the garage after making repairs. Greg Biffle took only two tires and won the race off pit road over Harvick who took four; Kyle Busch also took only two and was third. Earnhardt Jr. and Vickers were fourth and fifth.

On the restart on lap 278 Harvick was able to pull away from Biffle and to the lead. Earnhardt Jr. slipped into second. By lap 288 Johnson had moved into fourth and Harvick had stretched his lead out to just over a second. Gordon was battling Earnhardt for second and reporting he was running hot; a lap later he moved by and took over the spot. Harvick had moved out to just over two seconds ahead.

With 50 laps to go the final stops of the night, under green, got underway. Vickers spun coming into the pits but no caution flew and he was able to continue. Vickers was penalized by NASCAR for a commitment cone violation ending his hopes for a win. Harvick made his stop on lap 320.

Harvick had a nearly three second lead over Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. when the stops cycled through. As the laps wound down though Johnson began to slowly reel in Harvick. By lap 335 Harvick’s lead had been cut to under a second. With 25 to go however Harvick began to let it all hang out and maintained a one and half second lead over Johnson.

Logano running in tenth suffered mechanical issues and brought out the eighth caution with nine laps to go. Johnson took only right side tires, Harvick took four and Earnhardt took two. Johnson restarted first, Earnhardt second, Kenseth was third, Gordon was fourth. All the top four had taken only two tires, Harvick in fifth was the first to have taken four. The restart came with five to go.

Johnson and Earnhardt raced side by side into turn one; Johnson was able to move out to the front by the time they reached the backstretch. Harvick went to third with three to go just as the tenth caution flew for debris. The caution set up the green-white-checkered flag finish.

Johnson restarted in the lead, Earnhardt second, Harvick third. Johnson took the outside putting Earnhardt on the inside with Harvick right behind. Earnhardt was pushed by Harvick to the lead but as the field hit the backstretch, Kurt Busch was spun by Clint Bowyer bringing out the caution and setting up another green-white-checkered flag finish.

“I'm going to hear about it all day tomorrow, man; you almost won it,” Earnhardt said. “They said we had it won with a 15‑car‑length lead coming into that last white flag when the caution come out on the back straightaway”

Earnhardt took the inside on the restart, with Harvick on the outside. Johnson restarted just behind Earnhardt. Earnhardt and Harvick broke free with Earnhardt in the lead, but Harvick was able to take the point as they came to the white flag and stayed there for the win. Earnhardt held on for second.

“I was trying not to look in the mirror, just try to run as hard as I could,” Earnhardt said. “I didn't know how much speed the car had, we were on two tires, and it was late in the night. You want to drive the car as hard as you can without pushing to drive to the fronts, and we just were running some laps a lot different than we'd been running all night, really. But feels good to be close.”

Harvick led a race high 239 of the 367 laps in route to his 25th career win. The win ended the slump for Harvick that saw his only top five finishes of the year coming with Saturday night’s win and his win at Phoenix earlier this season.

“I guess the classic example in today's day and age would be the Indiana Pacers,” Harvick said. “You've seen them go through a slump, and they are imploding within as a team, and as players they're just absolutely destroying each other. I think when you look at this team, you look at all the things that have happened, and the same thing could have happened, but everybody has patted each other on the back and said, look at the speed of our race cars and look at the things that we've been able to accomplish, and everybody just kept supporting each other.”

“Everybody is frustrated and everybody wanted to finish the deal on weekends where we felt like we could do exactly what we did here today and did at Phoenix, but sometimes it just doesn't go your way,” he added. “You have to be able to put that behind you whether you win or lose. Monday morning we have to be able to put this win behind us and say, all right, what do we need to do to get better and how do we do that and where do we go and what do we do and where is the weak link.”

Kyle Busch held on for sixth, Gordon was seventh, rookie Kyle Larson had another impressive run coming home eighth, Tony Stewart who had a miserable night for most of the race rallied to finish ninth and Ryan Newman finished tenth.

Gordon maintains his lead in the Sprint Cup standings over Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson. The series takes a week off before moving to Richmond International Raceway on Saturday April 26.

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