By DONNA BETH WEILENMAN
Bakersfield native and current NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick gambled Sunday that he had enough fuel for the last three miles of the Sylvania 300 in Loudon, New Hampshire.
He lost both the gamble and the race. Matt Kenseth sailed past Harvick’s sputtering car, winning both the race and a slot in the next level of the Chase for the Championship elimination contest.
Harvick coasted onto pit road for a splash of fuel, but could salvage only a 21st place finish, costing him a point for every spot behind Kenseth.
“This is unbelievable!” Kenseth shouted after the race. He said he knew he couldn’t beat Harvick on speed, but knew Harvick was close to running out of fuel.
Few could touch Harvick, the reigning champ, who took the lead 20 laps into the race. He kept that lead for much of the contest.
Kenseth said when he emerged from a pit stop with 40 laps to go, he suspected Harvick’s car might run dry the last lap of the race. When Denny Hamlin didn’t have the speed to challenge Harvick, Kenseth’s crew chief, Jason Ratcliff urged his driver to pass him and put pressure on Harvick.
“From there on I pretty much ran as hard as I could every lap and just did everything I could to wrestle the spot away from Denny and run the 4 (Harvick) down,” Kenseth said.
“I was a little surprised when I saw him pull down with a couple to go,” Kenseth said. “Do I take responsibility for him running out of gas? No. That is, absolutely not. I was out there trying to win the race and trying to catch him and pass him.”
Hamlin who finished second, said knowing he had enough fuel in the tank let him drive aggressively. He may have been able to outduel the rest, but couldn’t beat his teammate.
“We had something going on with the right front. I’m not sure what it was,” Hamlin said. But he suspected it was “something major,” so he chose to keep his car together for the runner-up spot.
Like Kenseth, he also has a Chase win and will progress to the next level of the contest. And both drive for Joe Gibbs Racing.
“It’s a thrill for us to be here,” team owner and former NFL coach Joe Gibbs said. “We all know that there’s a lot of excitement because you’re going in little three-race playoffs, and all it takes is one mistake.”
Rounding out the top 10 are Joey Logano, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, El Cajon driver Jimmie Johnson, Vallejo native Jeff Gordon, Martin Truex Jr. Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman. Crossing the line after Tony Stewart, Brad Keselowski managed a 12th place finish after a disastrous drive-through penalty assessed after NASCAR officials reviewed the restart after the ninth caution flag.
Even if Gordon didn’t win, the 44-year-old achieved a milestone, having the most consecutive starts in NASCAR Sprint Cup history at 789. That broke Ricky Rudd’s record of 788, set in 2005. Gordon’s Sprint Cup career began Nov. 20, 1992, and this is his final year of full-time Sprint Cup racing.
Of the other Chase entries in Sunday’s race, Kurt Busch finished 19th, Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 25th, Clint Bowyer was 26th and Kyle Busch was 37th.
Among other California drivers’ finishes, Elk Grove native Kyle Larson, was 17th; Casey Mears of Bakersfield was 18th; another Bay Area driver, A.J. Allmendinger of Los Gatos was 23rd; and of the two drivers from Riverside, David Gilliland was 28th and Josh Wise was 31st.
Danica Patrick, the only woman in the field, was in the top 10 much of the day until Lap 205, when she was tapped and spun. The race was halted six minutes for debris clean-up, and Patrick ended 40th.
The final race in this first round of the Chase for the Championship eliminations takes drivers to Dover (Del.) International Speedway for the AAA 400. Broadcast starts at 11:30 a.m. Pacific time Sunday on NBC Sports.