Kevin Harvick will be riding into the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs as the top seed. With his series-leading seventh victory of the season in Sunday’s Drydene 311 at Dover International Speedway, he clinched the regular season championship with one race remaining before the postseason.
With an inversion of the top twenty from Saturday’s race, Matt DiBenedetto started on the pole ahead of Ryan Newman, while Harvick and that day’s winner Denny Hamlin were seventeenth and twentieth, respectively. Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman went to backup cars and started at the back, while Garrett Smithley had an engine change.
It only took seven laps before the first caution of the day: Joey Logano clipped Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on the frontstretch, with Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch also suffering damage. Smithley and Joey Gase also went around behind them, the latter hitting the outside and inside walls to end his day. Gase’s retirement and last-place finish continued a rough day for Rick Ware Racing, whose Indianapolis 500 run with James Davison ended in flames two hours prior; Davison also finished last, with his incident coming on lap six.
Aric Almirola restarted second and took the lead at the green, holding the spot until the next caution on lap 33 for debris. DiBenedetto changed two tyres on his stop to be the first out of the pits, while Kyle Busch had to pit again for repairs.
Ryan Blaney stayed out to lead the field to the lap 40 restart. A nice pass by Harvick allowed him to take the lead on lap 69. The points leader would lead to the green-checkered flag for the stage victory.
Behind Harvick and Blaney were William Byron, Almirola, Brad Keselowski, Logano, DiBenedetto, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, and Austin Dillon.
Between stages, the race was red flagged due to repair track pavement damage in the restart zone. A similar issue had plagued the speedway in the 2014 summer race when Jamie McMurray‘s car hit a chunk of the surface, resulting in a lengthy red flag.
The stage began with Harvick leading. He would stay out front until Corey LaJoie spun on lap 99 in turn two after getting bumped by Ty Dillon, resulting in a caution. Logano won the race off pit road while Johnson received a speeding penalty.
Logano led the field to the restart on lap 107, while J.J. Yeley exited the event on lap 110 with a right-front suspension failure. Harvick took the lead on lap 115 and ran unopposed to the stage conclusion to secure the regular season title.
Tailing were Hamlin in third, Martin Truex Jr., Blaney, Byron, Alex Bowman, Cole Custer, Johnson, and Keselowski.
The final stage commenced on lap 193 with Harvick maintaining the lead ahead of Hamlin. Harvick led until Quin Houff spun on lap 217 for the third race-related yellow of the day.
After being the first out of the pits, Harvick continued to hold the top position, while Hamlin successfully held off Logano’s charge to keep second as the race resumed. However, Hamlin was forced to pit shortly after for a loose left-rear wheel and fell a lap down.
On lap 290, LaJoie’s tyre went down in turn three what would be the final caution of the race. Harvick would lead from the restart on lap 295 to the checkered flag for his seventh victory of the season and third at Dover. He led 223 of 311 laps.
Harvick’s victory marked the 700th Cup win for the Ford Motor Company, and capped off a Sunday sweep for Stewart-Haas Racing after Chase Briscoe won the Xfinity Series event earlier in the day.
Almirola (finished seventh), Kyle (eleventh) and Kurt Busch (thirteenth) clinched playoff spots with their runs, joining the ten race winners. With thirteen places in the playoff grid now locked up, three more are up for grabs entering the regular season finale at Daytona International Speedway.
Clint Bowyer holds a 57-point advantage over the cut line in fourteenth, while the final two spots are currently held by DiBenedetto and Byron by just nine and four points, respectively.
“Overall a good weekend,” Bowyer tweeted after finishing sixteenth. “Good day yesterday, had a decent day going doing what we needed to and had a little hiccup with LF on last stop. Shit happens…have to wait till next week to lock us in the playoffs.”
DiBenedetto was less than thrilled with his seventeenth-place run, simply tweeting out a series of angry emojis.
He and Byron face challenges from the latter’s Hendrick Motorsports team-mate Johnson, seeking to make the postseason in his final season, Erik Jones in his last year with Joe Gibbs Racing (50 points back), and rookies Tyler Reddick (69 points) and Christopher Bell (176 points).
“It’s going to be a really interesting race in Daytona from that respect,” Johnson said in his post-race press conference about battling Byron for the final playoff position. He had finished third at Dover with Byron behind him in fourth. “But at the same time, it’s still Daytona, and in my opinion, the Big One or all the wrecks that can happen is really going to determine who makes it into the playoffs.
“We did the best that we could here over these two days, had two respectable results, closed the gap, but now it’s kind of in luck’s hands or in fate’s hands down in Daytona at the plate rate.”