Harvick's dominance in Sprint Cup continues with Las Vegas win

Las Vegas, NV ( - Defending Sprint Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick continues to be on a roll after winning Sunday's Kobalt Tools 400 in dominating fashion at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Harvick started 18th and took the lead for the first time on lap 91 when then leader Jimmie Johnson, who won last weekend at Atlanta, had to pit unexpectedly for a loose wheel. Harvick ran in front for 142 of the 267 laps in this race, including the final 16. He crossed the finish line 1.64 seconds ahead of his closest competitor, Martin Truex Jr. It's the first time he's won at this 1.5-mile racetrack in 15 starts.

Las Vegas began a three-week West Coast swing for NASCAR's premier series. Next weekend, the series will be at Phoenix, where Harvick has won four of the last five races, including a season-sweep last year. Fontana, California is the following week.

"It's so cool to win here in Las Vegas and start this West Coast swing off this way," said Harvick, who scored his 29th career Sprint Cup win.

Harvick, the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet, claimed his sixth straight top-two finish in Sprint Cup, a streak that began last November at Texas. He finished second in both the Feb. 22 season-opening Daytona 500 and the March 1 race at Atlanta before his victory at Las Vegas.

Jeff Gordon was the last driver to finish either first or second in six consecutive races, accomplishing the feat in 1996.

With the win, Harvick is virtually guaranteed of making this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. He joins Joey Logano (Daytona) and Johnson (Atlanta) as those drivers who have all but assured themselves a spot in the playoffs.

"This whole Chase thing, there is a lot of strategy to get into it," Harvick said. "The best strategy is to go out and win races. I'm just really proud of everybody on our team."

Harvick also grabbed the lead in the Sprint Cup point standings. He holds a nine-point advantage over Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished fourth.

Truex, who drives the No. 78 Chevrolet for Furniture Row Racing, a single-car team, had his best finish in a Sprint Cup race, second, since his most recent victory in the series in June 2013 at Sonoma, California (59 races ago). He drove for Michael Waltrip Racing at the time. Truex has finished in the top-10 in each of the first three races this season, including eighth at Daytona and sixth at Atlanta. He is now fourth in points (-16).

"It was fun day for us, a good weekend overall," Truex said. "I feel like we can keep chipping away at it, getting a little better each week and hopefully by the end of the year, we will have some wins under our belt."

Ryan Newman finished third, while Denny Hamlin placed fifth.

A.J. Allmendinger, Brad Keselowski, who won last year's race at Las Vegas, Kyle Larson, Matt Kenseth and Logano completed the top-10.

Johnson, the six-time Sprint Cup champion and record four-time race winner at Las Vegas, wound up finishing 41st. Shortly after he pitted for his loose wheel and went one lap down, Johnson blew a tire and slapped the wall in turn 1. He cut a tire and hit the wall again on lap 186, which put him in the garage briefly for repairs. Johnson had led 45 laps and was a strong contender to win this race.

"The first one, they said the bead blew on it," Johnson noted of his first tire blowing before he hit the turn 1 wall. "We don't have any brake temp here, so I don't know what could have caused that. That's kind of a freak deal. The second one, it went soft. So there could have been some damage that caused it or some rub or something like that, and it went soft going into turn 3, and I hit the wall unfortunately. I'm disappointed. We certainly had an awesome race car."

Jeff Gordon had won the pole for this 400-mile race on Friday but had to start from the rear of the field in a backup car. Gordon was involved in an accident with Danica Patrick in the final minutes of Saturday's practice, damaging his primary vehicle. He worked his way through the field in the early going and had been in contention until Johnson's second encounter with the wall. While trying to avoid Johnson, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Gordon hit the back of rookie Jeb Burton and sustained damage to his No. 24 Chevrolet.

"I was right behind Jeb getting ready to make a move on him," Gordon said. "I wasn't sure if I was going to go inside or outside, but all of a sudden, he started checking up, and I thought he was doing it to let me go by him. I didn't realize until right at that moment when my spotter said something to me that Jimmie was having a problem. I ran into the back of him. It ruined our day with this (car) and certainly ruined the front end. Our car just wouldn't go down the straightaway, and it was real tight."

Gordon finished one lap behind in 18th.

Brian Vickers placed 15th in his season debut. Vickers, the driver of the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota, underwent open heart surgery three months ago and had to sit out Daytona and Atlanta.

"It was good, a top-15 considering where we were at three months ago," Vickers said. "I'll take it."