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Kevin Harvick scores second straight come-from-behind win
by Matt Taliaferro
Kevin Harvick’s new nickname, “The Closer,” is a well-earned moniker. Harvick rallied late in the afternoon at Martinsville Speedway to overtake Dale Earnhardt Jr. and win the Goody’s Fast Relief 500 on Sunday.
The victory was Harvick’s second straight, having taken checkers the week prior at Auto Club Speedway in similar fashion. The Bakersfield, Calif., native has led a total of seven laps — the final one at ACS and six in Martinsville — en route to career triumphs No. 15 and 16.
“I’m just glad we led more than one lap this week,” Harvick joked afterward.
A caution with 35 laps remaining on the historic half-mile track brought the lead-lap cars — led by Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson — in for a splash of fuel and fresh tires. Johnson, who had knifed his way through the field to challenge Busch, was nabbed for speeding on pit road, relegating his strong No. 48 Chevy to the rear of the pack on the restart.
That left Busch to settle the race with Harvick alongside and Earnhardt in arrears when the green waved with 30 laps to go. Earnhardt slid by Harvick with ease and then used the bump ’n’ run on Busch to take the lead with 21 circuits remaining.
“I was holding him up,” Busch said of the move. “I sucked, so it was good for him. I mean, he took the lead. No harm, no foul.”
Harvick’s hard charging No. 29 slid by Busch seven laps later and set its sights on Earnhardt. When Earnhardt wiggled coming off Turn 4 with four laps to go, Harvick squeezed by on the inside, taking the lead for good despite a bump from the No. 88.
“We slipped off into (Turn) 1 and he got under me — or we slipped into 3 and he got under me and I thought the only chance I had was a little bit of a crossover in (Turns) 1 and 2,” Earnhardt explained. “I tried to make it work but I couldn’t get really up under him enough. He crowded me the way he was supposed to do (in the) next corner down here in 3 and 4 and went on. And that was that.”
Busch challenged Earnhardt for the runner-up spot on the final lap but settled for third. Juan Pablo Montoya and Jeff Gordon rounded out the top 5.
It was the second race in a row that Busch led a race-high 151 laps only to be denied during a late-race, short green-flag run.
“We had one of the best runs here we have ever had,” Busch said. “And I probably had the best car here today. Unfortunately, just didn’t win with it. Coming down to the last run of the race here, kind of a short run, and we just didn’t quite have the car to do it on a short run. Every time we had the lead off pit road, we lost it and took about 28 laps to get going again.”
Busch’s teammate, Denny Hamlin, recorded three straight wins at Martinsville entering Sunday’s event. He led 89 laps through the first half of the race but a pit-road miscue cost his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team valuable track position.
“We need to work on who we’re going to have change tires for us,” a dejected Hamlin said. “At this point you either work with what you’ve got or try to find someone that maybe can do a better job. You just don’t know right now and we don’t know what to do.”
Poor fuel mileage also required Hamlin make a stop with 43 laps remaining — much earlier than other cars on the lead lap.
“Our mileage just sucks real bad,” he said. “It sucked at Phoenix (last year) and it sucks here. We just have to figure it out. All of the things we need to do to be a championship team, we don’t have all those parts together right now.”