INDIANAPOLIS — Kevin Harvick turned up the pressure on Denny Hamlin late in Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway — and as the oval cooled, Hamlin's worn tires simply gave out.
With the sun setting and Hamlin seven laps from victory at one of the few tracks where it has eluded him, his Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota went into the wall on the first turn with a flat right front tire. Harvick then beat Matt Kenseth off the final restart and won the annual race at the Brickyard for the second year in a row and third time overall.
"We had great tire wear today, so I was able to really push my car as hard as I could," Harvick said after winning the 400-mile event that started later than scheduled due to lightning. "I was able to push him a little harder that last run than earlier in the race, and when the sun went down, the track was cooling and speeds were going up in the turns."
The strategy worked out perfectly — just like Stewart-Haas Racing's holiday weekend.
Not only did Harvick race to the 53rd victory of his Cup Series career to move within one of tying Lee Petty for 11th on the all-time list, teammates Aric Almirola and Cole Custer, a rookie, finished third and fifth Sunday, and SHR's Chase Briscoe won Saturday's second-tier Xfinity Series race on the road course.
Harvick remained at the top of the points standings on the top-tier circuit with his fourth win this season, which matches Hamlin for the most in 2020. The 44-year-old Californian has driven the SHR No. 4 Ford to four straight top-10 finishes.
For the third straight race, it looked as if it would be another one-two finish for Harvick and Hamlin, though until the late, stunning twist, it appeared the 39-year-old Hamlin would win the Brickyard race — officially known this year as the Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 Powered by Big Machine Records — for the first time.
"It's just, it's tough. I hate it for the FedEx team," the frustrated Hamlin said of his crew. "It was just kind of roulette if it (the tire) stays together or not, and mine didn't."
How dominant have Harvick and Hamlin been recently?
Including them trading victories and runner-up finishes during back-to-back Cup Series races last weekend at Pocono Raceway and the outcome Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, they've combined for seven of 12 victories since the season restarted in mid-May after a three-month shutdown during the coronavirus pandemic.
Sunday also marked only the second time in seven races Hamlin hasn't finished in the top seven, but as Harvick's crew chief plotted strategy and monitored tire wear, he sensed Hamlin's car was on borrowed time.
"We tried to play it a little safe, and we had backed down a little bit to save our tires," said Rodney Childers, who helped Harvick win the 2014 Cup Series championship. "It just depends on how that situation plays out at the race, and it just so happened we were out there a long time on tires, so backing down was the way to go."
Kenseth couldn't catch him.
"We were really fast," the Chip Ganassi Racing driver said. "I think if we were in front, we would have been tough to beat.
Noticeably absent was seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Johnson, who tested positive for the coronavirus on Friday, watched the race from his Colorado home as the series' longest active streak of consecutive starts and fifth-longest run in series history ended at 663. Johnson, who has announced plans to retire from full-time Cup Series competition after this season, hoped to become the third driver to win five races on the 2.5-mile oval.
Instead, Justin Allgaier replaced him behind the wheel and didn't stick around long.
Allgaier was involved in a six-car pileup near the entrance to pit road that brought out a red flag on the 16th lap when one of Ryan Blaney's crew members was pinned between two cars. Track workers put Zachary Price on a stretcher, and he was eventually transported to a nearby hospital, but there was no immediate update after the race.
Two laps later, Allgaier's day at the track was over.
"I didn't know if I got the gentleman on the No. 12 or not," Allgaier said. "Once the wreck started happening in front of us and we all got bottled up there, one car after another was getting run into. It's just a shame. I hate it for these guys."
Kurt Busch also had a rough day after making the 700th start of his Cup Series career. A plane flew over the track before the race to celebrate the milestone, which broke a tie with NASCAR Hall of Famer Buddy Baker for No. 16 on the all-time list, but after starting second in the Chip Ganassi Racing No. 1 Chevrolet, the 41-year-old's hopes for victory faded due to a mistake during an early pit stop.
NASCAR's weather problems also continued, this time with the start delayed 55 minutes for lightning.
Once the checkered flag dropped, though, it was clear sailing for Harvick. He led for most of the first stage before giving way to William Byron, who chose not to pit with nine laps to go. Harvick then won the second stage before earning the big prize, which he acknowledged depending on a bad break for Hamlin.
"We weren't going to get by him unless he made a huge mistake, and obviously his tire was wearing out," Harvick said. "His car was a little better than me on the long run. We were better on the restarts, so we would have needed a caution. We couldn't have beaten him on a green."
Formula One finally gets going
SPIELBERG, Austria — Valtteri Bottas insisted before the season-opening Austrian Grand Prix on Sunday that he has what it takes to win the Formula One world championship.
That's a tall order with six-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton as his teammate at Mercedes, and with Hamilton needing just one more title to equal Michael Schumacher's record of seven, it might be even taller.
However, Bottas showed impressive composure to win Sunday's race despite having Hamilton — among the best drivers at overtaking in F1 history — just a half-second behind him for spells. Bottas also endured a chaotic race, surviving three restarts behind a safety car.
"There was definitely quite a bit of pressure. One safety car was OK, but by the last I was like, 'Come on — again?'" a relieved Bottas said. "There were so many opportunities for Lewis to take the lead if I made a small mistake and he was really quick today. But I managed to keep it together, could really control the race from my side, and there's obviously no better way to start the season."
Hamilton crossed second but finished fourth after getting a late time penalty.
Bottas kneeled with the winners' trophy, and the podium trio — second-place Charles Leclerc for Ferrari and third-place Lando Norris for McLaren joined Bottas — held up a black T-shirt with "End Racism" written on it. No fans were present at the race due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Nine of 20 drivers did not finish, including Red Bull's Max Verstappen and Alexander Albon — who tried to overtake Hamilton on the outside with 10 laps left, touched wheels and flew off the track. Clearly, it was better to be up ahead.
"I dodged a few bullets today," the 30-year-old Bottas said after the eighth F1 win of his career.
Hamilton was given a five-second time penalty for causing Albon's crash, having earlier been hit with a three-place grid penalty after an incident in Saturday's qualifying was reviewed by stewards.
"It was just a misjudgment by Lewis at the end of the day, and it'd be good if he apologized for it," Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said. "This sport can be pretty brutal sometimes, and it feels like today's been one of those days. Alex drove a great race; he didn't deserve that."
The race had looked like a straight fight between the two Mercedes, as has been the case so often in recent years, but late drama in Spielberg ensured otherwise.
"It felt like a victory today. Second place is something I never would have expected," said Leclerc, who started seventh. "I will rate this as one of my best races. I didn't do many mistakes."
Norris sent McLaren's garage into raptures, and social distancing went out the window amid the euphoria as CEO Zak Brown hugged everyone in sight.
The jubilation was understandable.
It was the 20-year-old British driver's first top-three result in F1, and his superb final lap was the fastest of an exciting opening race. Norris became the youngest British driver to secure a podium finish and the third youngest ever in F1 history. Only Verstappen and Lance Stroll were younger.
All drivers wore "End Racism" T-shirts before the race, but six drivers did not take a knee: Verstappen, Leclerc, Kimi Raikkonen, Daniil Kvyat, Antonio Giovinazzi and Carlos Sainz Jr.
Hamilton, the only Black driver in F1, wore a T-shirt with "Black Lives Matter" on the front and "End Racism" on the back.
Verstappen was chasing a hat trick of wins at the Red Bull Ring, but his race ended early while Sebastian Vettel's miserable form from last season carried over as he finished 10th.
Hamilton's three-place grid penalty pushed Verstappen up to second place in the starting lineup. Norris jumped to third and Albon to fourth.
Bottas made a strong start from the pole position, while Hamilton took a little while to overtake Norris and Albon, but he was gifted a position as Verstappen crawled to a halt.
Daniel Ricciardo (Renault), Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean (Haas), Stroll (Racing Point), George Russell (Williams), Raikkonen (Alfa Romeo) and Kvyat (AlphaTauri) also failed to finish.
When Magnussen went off track after trying to overtake Esteban Ocon's Renault, a first safety car was deployed for two laps, allowing Hamilton to claw back a few seconds on Bottas.
When the race restarted on the 30th lap, Bottas got away cleanly.
Moments later, though, Vettel tried to pass Sainz on the outside but misjudged his attack, spinning his car after nudging into the McLaren and losing several positions.
Hamilton lurked right behind Bottas for the next 20 laps but could not find a way past.
The safety car came out a second time on the 52nd lap, and again after the right tire flew off the front of Raikkonen's car and narrowly missed Vettel's.
After that restart, Albon made a daring but slightly hasty move on the outside of Hamilton, who appeared to impede him just as he was passing.
F1 stays in Austria next Sunday, then goes to Hungary as part of an eight-race European swing.
The rest of the calendar remains uncertain amid the pandemic. The canceled Australian GP had originally been scheduled as the opening race of the 2020 season in March.
IndyCar: Scott Dixon's next move
INDIANAPOLIS — It took Scott Dixon 12 years to make a second trip to victory lane at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
He's already plotting a third trip next month.
The 2008 Indianapolis 500 winner ended what had been a frustrating quest for a second win at the Brickyard, beating Graham Rahal to the checkered flag by 19.9469 seconds Saturday and earning his first IndyCar Grand Prix title.
"It's really nice to get another win at Indianapolis even though it's not the big one," Dixon said. "It is significant, man, to win at this place. Sometimes you need a little bit of luck, and sometimes you need a clean race like we had today."
The atmosphere at Indy was subdued.
Dixon donned a face mask as he raised his arms and pumped his fist inside the recently redone winner's circle. The stands were empty, and the usual celebratory noise was almost nonexistent.
After three consecutive runner-up finishes in this race and a career full of near misses and bad luck on the IMS oval, Dixon was going to have some fun, and he appeared to savor one of the rare spoils of victory — giving the starting command for NASCAR's inaugural Xfinity Series race on the road course.
Dixon couldn't have scripted a better strategy for the 14-turn, 2.439-mile road course, either.
The 39-year-old New Zealander opted to begin on the slower black tires and maneuvered his way through the field after starting seventh. Then, just a few laps after pitting to put on the reds, Dixon got the break he needed when rookie Oliver Askew crashed into the outside wall as he tried to enter the front straightaway.
Dixon knew immediately he was in charge.
"We were in the right situation to go hard. It was a bit of a no-brainer," he said. "Some of those guys were just sitting ducks with the tires they were on."
Dixon controlled most of the second half of the 80-lap race, helped in part when Will Power, who started in the pole position, stalled in the pits.
When Dixon made a clean pass of Rahal, whose team-owning father, Bobby, won the Indy 500 in 1986, it was only a matter of time before Dixon chalked up his 48th IndyCar win. Only A.J. Foyt (67) and Mario Andretti (52) have more victories in the American open-wheel series.
"Dixey just had tremendous pace in the middle of the race," Graham Rahal said.
He was so fast in the clean air, nobody could get close.
Dixon's victory broke up Team Penske's monopoly on winning this race, with this edition the first at the track since Roger Penske bought it from the Hulman family in November.
Power, of Australia, and Simon Pagenaud, of France, split the previous six victories on the road course — the last five as teammates for the series powerhouse. Pagenaud finished third Saturday after qualifying 20th.
"We weren't totally happy when we started the race, but we made up a lot of ground in pit sequence and gained a lot of ground that way," Pagenaud said. "The yellow helped us a bit because we pitted five laps before."
Still, he couldn't catch Dixon, who has opened the season with back-to-back wins for the first time in his 20-year career, both in dominant fashion. He won last month at Texas Motor Speedway.
Saturday's race ended a one-month hiatus for the series and kicked off a busy schedule that features four races over the next two weekends. It was also the opener of an unprecedented IndyCar-NASCAR weekend at IMS.
IndyCar will return here in mid-August for Indianapolis 500 qualifying. That race, normally held on Memorial Day, is scheduled to be run Aug. 23 and in front of fans. Race organizers have announced they intend to cap attendance at about 50% capacity.
The past two GP winners also won the 500.
"I'm pretty aware of those stats," Dixon said. "And, yes, it's been a long time since 2008. It's definitely eluded us, and we'll try to get another one next month."