DARLINGTON, S.C. — 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 after winning the Southern 500.
The Cup Series race Harvick won May 17 at "The Track Too Tough to Tame," which returned NASCAR to competition after a 10-week shutdown amid the coronavirus pandemic, was run without spectators for health and safety reasons.
Harvick wore a huge smile as he waved to the 8,000 or so fans the state of South Carolina permitted to attend this time around, and he even gave the checkered flag to a young fan wearing one of his shirts. He had reason to be happy after leaders Chase Elliott of Hendrick Motorsports and Martin Truex Jr. of Joe Gibbs Racing bumped late in the race 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.
The 2014 series champion, Harvick was widely considered a favorite to be racing for a title this season. The 44-year-old Stewart-Haas Racing driver's eighth win this year put him into the second round and started the march toward the Nov. 8 season finale at Phoenix Raceway.
"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.
Elliott and Truex had the most speed throughout the race — Truex won the first two stages and led a race-high 196 laps — and were once again dueling for the 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 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."
When Harvick won at Darlington without spectators, he pointed into the television camera and told the fans how much they were missed.
Late in Sunday's race, 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."
Elliott wound up 20th, while Truex finished a lap down in 22nd.
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 the No. 4 Ford.
Dillon, in the No. 3 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing, was second. Joey Logano in a Ford for Team Penske was third.
Erik Jones, the 2019 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 driver outside of the playoffs who finished in the top 10.
Hendrick teammates William Byron and Alex Bowman were fifth and sixth, followed by reigning series champion Kyle Busch of JGR, Chip Ganassi Racing's Kurt Busch, and SHR teammates Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer.
JGR's Denny Hamlin, who won six races during the regular season and was considered 1B to Harvick's 1A favorite status, finished 13th.
Elliott, who was obviously disappointed after leading 114 laps and being in position for the win, said Truex "was close, but he wasn't all the way clear." 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 the 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.
The second playoff race is at Virginia's Richmond Raceway on Saturday night.