There was no doubt which of his two Darlington Raceway victories this year Kevin Harvick enjoyed more.
“The first thing I want to say is, ‘Welcome back fans! This is a hell of a lot more fun with you guys up there,’” he told the crowd Saturday night.
Harvick had a large smile as he waved to the 8,000 or so fans — the May 17 event here was run without spectators due to the coronavirus pandemic — and even gave the checkered flag to a young fan wearing one of his shirts.
Harvick had reason to be happy, taking the Southern 500 when leaders Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. bumped as Truex tried to make a pass and both brushed the wall.
Harvick was there to take advantage — and begin NASCAR's playoff the best way possible.
Harvick, the 2014 series champion, was widely considered a favorite to be racing for a title this season. His eighth win this year put him into the second round.
“It was way better” getting out of the car and hearing a fan reaction, Harvick said. “It felt really good to have fans cheering.”
Especially after what they witnessed down the stretch at the track “Too Tough to Tame.”
Elliott and Truex had the most speed throughout — Truex won the first two stages — and were once again dueling for lead. Once they touched and hit the wall, things opened up for Harvick, who suddenly found himself out front.
Elliott dropped off the pace and Harvick passed him for second. Truex — who led a race-high 196 laps — had to pit for repairs on his damaged car, giving Harvick a clear path to the finish.
“The leaders got tangled up there and the next thing you know we were racing for the win,” Harvick said. “This is one of the most prestigious races in our sport and obviously everybody in our sport knows the history that Darlington has for our sport, so anytime you can win here is pretty special.”
Harvick's May victory at Darlington came in NASCAR's return after a 10-week pause at the start of the pandemic. When he won that race without spectators, he pointed into the television camera and told the fans how much they were missed.
It was difficult to imagine the win going to anyone other than Truex or Elliott, who combined to lead 310 of 367 laps.
But as Truex tried to complete a pass for first, he clipped Elliott's front side and both slid up into the wall.
“Just not enough room there for both of us,” Truex said about the botched pass for the lead. “I thought I had enough of a run to clear him. I think it was close, obviously. I thought I had enough momentum and distance on him that he was going to let me in there.”
Harvick had to hold off a hard-charging Austin Dillon, a driver few predict will advance very far into the playoffs, to seal the victory in his Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing.
Dillon, in a Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing, was second. Joey Logano in a Ford for Team Penske was third.
Erik Jones, the defending Southern 500 winner who is being replaced at Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of the season, finished fourth in a Toyota. Jones was the only non-playoff driver in the top 10.
Hendrick Motorsports teammates William Byron and Alex Bowman were fifth and sixth, followed by reigning series champion Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, and SHR teammates Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer.
Elliott wound up 20th while Truex was a lap down in 22nd.
Elliott was disappointed with the result after leading 114 laps and being in position for the win.
Truex “was close, but he wasn't all the way clear,” Elliott said. “Obviously, I hate it.”
Elliott said he needed a little more pace there to extend the lead instead of “playing defense” to prevent Truex's approach. “But regardless, I thought we were in a good spot,” he said.
Almiorola is now squarely on the bubble ranked 12th among the 16 drivers after the first playoff race. Four drivers will be eliminated at the end of the first three-race round. Bowyer is 13th in playoff standings with Cole Custer, Matt DiBenedetto and Ryan Blaney also on the outside with two races left in the opening round.
Blaney's title chances took a hit just hours before the first playoff race began. His Team Penske Ford was found with improper ballast during inspection and NASCAR docked the team 10 points and sent him to the back of the field from his seventh-place starting spot. Blaney's crew chief, Todd Gordon, was also suspended for the race. Team Penske said the weight is usually there before the engine is installed and was mistakenly not removed Things didn't get much better for Blaney during the race as he fell two laps down after a flat tire at the start of stage two. He ended 24th.