The 2019 Monster Energy Cup Series regular season came to an end in Sunday’s Big Machine Vodka 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. For Kevin Harvick, he started on the pole and led the most laps to give himself the momentum riding into the playoffs.
Alongside Harvick on the front row was fellow Ford driver Paul Menard. With all but two of the sixteen playoff spots filled, the final positions were up for grabs for any new race winner. Otherwise, the four drivers along the standings’ cut line of Clint Bowyer (fifteenth in points), Daniel Suárez (sixteenth), Ryan Newman (seventeenth), and Jimmie Johnson (eighteenth) were left to fight for the slots. Bowyer started third, with Johnson fifth, Suárez twentieth, and Newman twenty-second.
Stages #1 and 2
Starting the race on the outside line, Harvick took off with Joey Logano moving up to second. After just ten laps, Suárez’s playoff hopes were jeopardised as he hit the wall in turn two, forcing him to pit road.
With Indianapolis’ narrow pit road, many drivers experienced contact as Chase Elliott spun into Darrell Wallace Jr., with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Martin Truex Jr. also suffering damage. Johnson pitted twice under caution.
The race resumed on lap 16 with Harvick leading, though Kurt Busch suffered a tyre rub that sent him to the pits. Stenhouse pitted on lap 36 to address the damage he suffered in the incident on pit road during the yellow.
On lap 41, Landon Cassill slammed into the turn turn wall to bring out the caution. Logano and Newman elected to stay out as the leaders pitted, with Johnson changing two tyres. The race resumed on lap 47, with a poor restart by Johnson allowing Harvick to take third.
A lap after the green flag, Brad Keselowski and Erik Jones collided in turn two, sending the latter into a spin and the former sliding into the tyre barrier on the backstretch. With Keselowski’s car lodged in the tyres, the red flag came out for repairs.
Logano won the stage under yellow, ahead of Kyle Larson, Harvick, Ryan Blaney, Newman, Johnson, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Alex Bowman, and Chris Buescher. Under caution, Larson, Harvick, and Blaney stayed out to open Stage #2.
The green flag waved on lap 57 as Harvick took the lead from Larson. Blaney also passed Larson for second a lap later.
With the end of the stage approaching, various drivers began pitting. Harvick did so on lap 85, while Busch’s car stopped on pit road after catching fire, bringing out a caution. Johnson, who was leading at the time, pitted under yellow, while Hendrick Motorsports team-mate Alex Bowman was penalised for speeding.
The restart took place on lap 96 with Harvick leading, though a debris caution came out after one lap. As such, Stage #2 ended with Harvick leading Larson, Blaney, Logano, Suárez, Kurt Busch, Johnson, William Byron, and Aric Almirola.
Harvick and Larson led the field to the restart on lap 105, which quickly saw Johnson’s playoff hopes evaporate when he spun, clipping Busch and collecting Menard, Byron, Buescher, Daniel Hemric, Parker Kligerman, and Matt Tifft. For Johnson, who ended his day in thirty-fifth, he will miss the playoffs for the first time since the postseason was created in 2004.
“What a bummer, what a letdown,” Johnson said in a video posted on social media. “Thank you to all my fans for all your support. I promise you, we are getting stronger. This team is going in the right direction. (Crew chief) Cliff Daniels is doing an amazing job. Top to bottom, this Ally team is getting stronger and we will finish the season strong and be a threat next year in 2020.”
Larson pitted during the caution. The race resumed on lap 112 as Harvick and Blaney battled for the lead, the latter winning out. Behind them, Wallace began his climb into the top five.
Suárez and his Stewart-Haas Racing ally Harvick pitted on laps 127 and 128. During the latter, Larson hit the inside wall in turn two for the eighth caution of the race.
An attempted restart on lap 135 fell aprt when Bowman spun off turn two and hit the tyre barrier, sparking another restart on lap 139. Harvick led Logano to the green, continuing the pace until Tifft hit the turn one wall.
Lap 152 saw the ensuing green flag, with Harvick and Logano dueling for the lead before the former cleared his fellow Ford driver. As Harvick pulled away, Suárez attempted to gain positions on Newman.
By the checkered flag, Harvick was victorious at Indianapolis for the first time since 2003. Bowyer finished fifth to claim one of the final two playoff spots, while Newman’s eighth trumps Suárez’s eleventh by four points to round off the playoff grid.
With reseeding, Kyle Busch, who won the regular season championship, is the points leader entering the first round at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Harvick is sixth.