PHOENIX/AUTOSPORT – Kevin Harvick fended off Kyle Busch to claim Richard Childress Racing’s first win of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season, while Brad Keselowski moved into the Chase lead after Jimmie Johnson hit the wall in an eventful afternoon at Phoenix.
Keselowski now needs a 15th-place finish at Homestead in order to clinch his and Penske’s maiden Cup title.
He was sixth on Sunday, whereas Johnson was classified 32nd having hit the wall due to a melted tyre bead that caused his right-front to deflate exiting Turn 4 on lap 236 of the scheduled 312.
Harvick, who started the weekend making headlines over a potential move to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, broke a 44-race winless streak by beating Joe Gibbs Racing’s Busch on the penultimate restart, then keeping Busch and Denny Hamlin at bay in a green-white-chequered finish.
Busch had led most of the distance and looked set to claim his second win of the season.
But Harvick passed him on the outside when the green flag waved on lap 305, following a caution caused by Sam Hornish Jr’s Penske Dodge crashing after an exchange with Stewart-Haas Racing’s Danica Patrick.
As the white flag was about to appear, the caution came out again when Jeff Gordon retaliated for a previous incident with Clint Bowyer. Both hit the wall and collected Joe Gibbs Racing’s Joey Logano. Keselowski watched the action unfold right in front of him.
During the subsequent red flag, Bowyer and Gordon’s crews got into a fight when Gordon got out of his car.
As soon as Bowyer parked, the Michael Waltrip Racing driver ran towards Gordon’s Hendrick hauler in pursuit of his rival but officials prevented the feud from getting any further.
When the race resumed, Harvick not only had to fight Busch’s Toyota for the lead but also cope with a slick track that would see him drift sideways out of the final turn to take the chequered flag as chaos unfolded right behind.
Greg Biffle got sideways on the slippery asphalt and hit Furniture Row’s Kurt Busch, causing a multi-car incident that also involved Patrick, who was running slowly ahead of them following contact with RCR’s Jeff Burton and the wall on the penultimate lap.
“You can’t throw the caution flag as fast as you can throw it one time and then let everybody run through a whole straightaway full of oil,” said a critical Harvick about the final restart.
Keselowski was caught up in the final incident, Kurt Busch ending up hitting the side of the #2 Penske after he struggled on the restart.
Hamlin eventually got second from his team-mate Busch in the end. Kasey Kahne finished fourth and moved up to third in the Chase, making the most of Bowyer’s troubles, although both are now out of title contention.
Despite being involved in the final incident and spinning out of the last turn, Ryam Newman rounded out the top five.