Harvick, Busch out front at NASCAR’s halfway point

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 29, 2018

By Pete Iacobelli

AP Sports Writer

CONCORD (AP) — At NASCAR’s halfway point, it sure looks like a two-man race to the title between past champions Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch.

They have combined to win nine of 13 races — 10 of 14 counting this month’s All-Star race — and neither expects to slow down during the second half of NASCAR’s 26-race regular season.

Busch and Harvick were the headliners again Sunday night. Busch led 377 of 400 laps to win the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Harvick, who had won the past two points races and the All-Star race, was not around at the end. But he did make a charge from 39th to fourth over the first 70 laps before an accident took him to the garage.

While the rest of NASCAR is scrambling to make a summer playoff run, Harvick and Busch are preparing for bigger things.

“Our goal is to playoff race every week,” said Harvick, the 2014 series champion. “I think as we’re doing that right now as an organization that’s still the goal going forward.”

Busch, like Harvick in March, won three straight races earlier this year and both teams look capable of running off several more victories before the playoffs begin in Las Vegas in September.

After 13 races last season, there were 10 drivers with a victory, securing them a spot in the 16-man playoffs. The dominance of Harvick and Busch this year means only six drivers have won races, perhaps making points racing to qualify more a focus in the second half.

Denny Hamlin, who has missed the playoffs just once from 2006 through 2017, stands seventh in the points and is one of those winless drivers who could be shuffled to the outside without that victory. Hamlin, Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, said the difference this year has been finding that little bit of speed that’s the difference between ending up out front or further down standings.

“We’re disappointed,” said Hamlin, third at Charlotte. “It’s something we’re going to continue to look for.”

Truex won last year’s title with eight victories. He won the Auto Club 400 in California this season to lock into the playoffs. Still, he said he and his team are fighting to find the speed and make another run at the top.

“We’ve still got a long way to go,” Truex said.

Not much searching is required at the moment for Busch, the pole-sitter who won every stage at a track where he had never won a points race before.

Busch had a race-day aura about him, crew chief Adams Stevens said, that showed he was prepared to finally break through at Charlotte. Busch kept pulling away from the field on restarts and had a six-second lead on runner-up Martin Truex Jr. on the final laps.

“It’s important for me to help Kyle reach his goals,” Stevens said. “And this was a big one for him.”

Busch is 33 and racing at his best. He’s looking forward to the rest of the season, no matter who stands in his way. Few things make him happier than being in the car competing for a victory.

“He doesn’t settle for less from himself and doesn’t settle less from the people around him,” Stevens said. “I take comfort for that, personally. You know what you are going to get. He’s hard to beat.”

So is Harvick, who shook off a terrible week with an amazing — albeit brief — run to the front.

Harvick failed inspection several times Thursday, meaning he couldn’t qualify and was moved to the back of the field. He then lost practice time Saturday as his team worked to resolve the issues. Harvick was not fazed by any of it, steadily working his way up the grid Sunday to sit in fourth before hitting the wall on lap 83 and heading to the garage.

Despite finishing dead last in the 40-car field, Harvick was thrilled about his season so far — and the power he showed before leaving.

“It was fun to come through there,” he said.