RICHMOND, Va. - Suddenly, and just as the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs are approaching, veteran driver Kevin Harvick may be stamping himself as the man to beat.
The 2014 season champion took the lead from Joey Logano with 66 laps to go Sunday at Richmond Raceway, then held off Christopher Bell for his second consecutive NASCAR Cup Series victory.
Harvick, who ended a 65-race drought one week earlier at Michigan International Speedway, won for the 60th time on NASCAR's top circuit - and the fourth time at Richmond but the first time on the 0.75-mile oval since 2013. The 46-year-old Stewart-Haas Racing driver matched Kyle Busch for ninth in career victories in the Cup Series and credited an increased understanding of the Next Gen car for his progress.
"We're just going to keep doing the things that we're doing," Harvick said after climbing out of the No. 4 Ford. "I think we just have to keep an open mind about things and keep progressing and keep understanding the car, understanding what we could have done better today, understanding what we could have done better in qualifying yesterday and do the same thing over and over."
He even took some blame for allowing Bell in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Toyota to get so close at the end.
"I knew he was coming, but I forgot to shift down the front straightaway the last time," he said. "I was not paying attention, and he got closer than he should have. I made a mistake there a couple laps doing the same thing."
Harvick's victory also kept alive the intriguing battle for the final playoff position with two races remaining in the regular season. The 15 winners this year have all likely claimed playoff berths unless there are new winners as the series moves to the road course at Watkins Glen International next weekend and then Daytona International Speedway before the 16-driver, 10-race playoffs begin.
Bell finished second, followed by Chris Buescher in the RFK Racing No. 17 Ford, Denny Hamlin in the JGR No. 11 Toyota and Chase Elliott in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 Toyota. Joey Logano, who led 222 of the 400 laps, faded to sixth, followed by Martin Truex Jr., Aric Almirola, Busch and Ryan Blaney.
Blaney and Truex are the top two drivers in points hoping to make the playoffs without a victory. Thanks to stage points, Blaney increased his lead from 19 points to 26 over Truex for the final playoff spot, assuming there is not a 16th different winner.
Sunday's race had just five cautions for 28 laps, and that included the two that come at the end of each stage. The last one was when Bell spun on the 252nd lap, and Harvick pulled away after a pair of green-flag pit cycles. The final pit stops under green came with just more than 50 laps to go.
"I got held up pretty bad at the beginning of the run by a couple slower cars, and that was ultimately the difference when you get beat by a couple car lengths," said Bell, who won last month at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Before the charge by Bell, Buescher was on Harvick's bumper, though he never got around him.
"I think it's a little easy with this format to feel like third place doesn't matter, but it's nice to be close and to keep progressing and getting better," Buescher said. "Just burned the rear tires up. Ultimately that's on me. Lap traffic didn't do us any favors, either, but ultimately just got to keep the rears under us a little bit better so we can have a little bit better shot there to get after him for the win."
Ross Chastain has ruffled many feathers this year with his aggressive style, and Sunday was no different as he got together with Busch on the 241st lap. After rallying for a top-10 finish, Busch still said he and his team "got 'Chastained' this week."
Chastain, who took the lead at the start of the race and led the entire 70-lap first stage, never got back to the front again and finished 18th, two laps down.
Ty Gibbs again replaced Kurt Busch - who missed his fourth consecutive race while recovering from a concussion - in the No. 45 Toyota for 23XI Racing. After getting his first top-10 finish a week earlier, Gibbs completed 180 laps before his engine blew.
Bubba Wallace, 23XI Racing's other driver and coming off a contract extension announcement this past week, had his string of top-10 finishes end at four as he wound up 13th.