BRISTOL, Tenn. — The sight of Kevin Harvick in victory lane after a NASCAR Cup Series race has become commonplace this season. The sound of fans cheering for him in celebration has been anything but, and it's clearly something he has missed.
Feeding off one of the largest crowds at a sporting event during the coronavirus pandemic, Harvick zipped into the second round of the playoffs in pursuit of a championship that is clearly his to lose.
The 44-year-old Stewart-Haas Racing driver held off a hard-charging Kyle Busch over the final 40 laps Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway for his career-best and Cup Series-leading ninth victory of the season. He did it in front of a sold-out crowd of 30,000 spectators, the most Bristol was allowed to admit and the largest NASCAR crowd since March.
"I hadn't been to too many races where I've been that jacked up getting in the race car," said Harvick, who is looking to add a second Cup Series championship to his 2014 title. "The fans were so enthusiastic tonight, and I don't know if we've just been away from them for that long, but you could feel the enthusiasm in the stadium tonight.
"As I was getting in the car, I was just wound up and just really, really ready to race."
Harvick took the lead from Busch and denied the 2019 Cup Series champion his first victory of the season. Busch furiously tried to catch him as the two weaved their way through lapped traffic, but Harvick held firm in the SHR No. 4 Ford to stay in front of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota.
Only six cars finished on the lead lap in a tepid event at the 0.533-mile bullring revered for bumping and banging, but spectators crowded the fence as Harvick celebrated his second win of the playoffs. Harvick also won the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway to open the playoffs two weeks ago, sandwiching Brad Keselowski's win at Richmond Raceway.
Harvick is ninth on the all-time Cup Series victories list with 58, two more than Busch.
Busch, who failed inspection twice before the race and drove from the back of the field to lead, was disappointed to finish second. He took aim at Team Penske's Joey Logano, who failed to move out of the way as Harvick and Busch battled for the lead — "He's nobody's friend for a reason," Busch said — as well as younger drivers Garrett Smithley and Joey Gase of Rick Ware Racing, neither of them in the playoff field.
"If that lapped car wasn't there, I would have blown it in on the outside or the inside and maybe we would have banged each other's doors or whatever and had a greater finish to the checkered," Busch said. "But some of them (idiot) kids don't know what the hell they're doing or where they're at and can't stay out of the way. Nothing like a Gase and a Smithley."
Smithley, who finished 32nd and has received criticism from Busch before, argued he's a target for Busch even when he didn't alter Busch's race.
"Went outta my way to give him room," Smithley wrote on Twitter. "Think he might have thought I was in a different car."
Either way, Busch was aggravated enough to predict his run in these playoffs will be short.
"We'll be eliminated next round, so don't care," Busch said.
The first elimination race of the playoffs knocked Hendrick Motorsports' William Byron, SHR's Cole Custer, Penske's Ryan Blaney and Wood Brothers Racing's Matt DiBenedetto from title contention. All four were below the cutline at the start of the race and failed to produce a finish strong enough to get them into the next round of 12 drivers.
DiBenedetto took a big swing with strategy during the first stage when he took just two tires on a pit stop. It cycled him into the lead briefly, but 11 drivers on a full set of fresh tires passed him, and DiBenedetto ended the stage 12th and ineligible for bonus points. He finished 19th.
"If we didn't have bad luck, we wouldn't have any luck at all," said DiBenedetto, who hopes to have the option on his contract picked up for 2021.
Blaney, who was ranked as high as second in the standings earlier this season, simply had a third consecutive below-average race. He finished 13th.
"That stinks," Blaney said. "Unfortunate end. I'm not done; we can still go try to win races."
Custer, the only rookie in the field, has been hampered by NASCAR's protocol during the pandemic and hasn't been able to practice or qualify the bulk of the season. He was 23rd.
Byron, who began the race three points behind the cutline with a shot at advancing into the second round, was the first driver officially eliminated when he ran into the back of Christopher Bell late in the second stage. Byron was running 10th at the time and alleged Bell had to slow to avoid Gase, who had stopped in the middle of the straightaway.
"I had literally nowhere to go. You can't stop in the middle of the straightaway," Byron said. "I've got to go back and watch that, because that was kind of ridiculous."
The second round of the playoffs begins next Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the opener of the most challenging three-race series in the postseason. After Vegas, it's on to Talladega Superspeedway and then Charlotte Motor Speedway's "Roval," the combination road course and oval.
Erik Jones, who is not eligible for the playoffs, finished third for Joe Gibbs Racing at Bristol and was followed by rookie Tyler Reddick and playoff contenders Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer. They were the only drivers on the lead lap.
JGR's Denny Hamlin, considered the closest challenger to Harvick this year, closed out a sub-par opening round of the playoffs with a 21st-place finish. His Toyota also failed inspection before the race and Hamlin started at the back, but he's been unable through three playoff races to crack the top 10.