NASCAR Barometer: Harvick Wins Southern 500; Advances

NASCAR Barometer: Harvick Wins Southern 500; Advances

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Kevin Harvick won Sunday night's Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway becoming the first playoff driver to secure his spot in the next round of elimination races. Harvick did not have the fastest car in the race but he ran without mistakes and capitalized on the problems of others. Running behind the leaders in third place with less than 20 laps left in the race Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. collided, leaving Harvick to pick up the pieces in a drive to the checkered flag. Austin Dillon mounted an exciting charge in the final laps to reach Harvick's bumper but ran out of distance as Harvick grabbed his third victory at the track and eighth total on the season.

The round of 16 continues this weekend in another night race, this time at Richmond International Raceway. This will be the first visit the series makes to the short track this season. Martin Truex Jr. won both races at the track last season. While Harvick can relax, knowing that his spot in the next round is secure, the other 15 championship contenders have more work to do. 

UPGRADE

Kevin Harvick – Harvick lurked deeper in the field through the first stages as he tuned his car for the conditions, progressively moving forward as the night went on. While he was running third late in the race, the two leading cars collided, leaving Harvick to inherit the lead and only needing to hold off Dillon for the win. The team did not

Kevin Harvick won Sunday night's Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway becoming the first playoff driver to secure his spot in the next round of elimination races. Harvick did not have the fastest car in the race but he ran without mistakes and capitalized on the problems of others. Running behind the leaders in third place with less than 20 laps left in the race Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. collided, leaving Harvick to pick up the pieces in a drive to the checkered flag. Austin Dillon mounted an exciting charge in the final laps to reach Harvick's bumper but ran out of distance as Harvick grabbed his third victory at the track and eighth total on the season.

The round of 16 continues this weekend in another night race, this time at Richmond International Raceway. This will be the first visit the series makes to the short track this season. Martin Truex Jr. won both races at the track last season. While Harvick can relax, knowing that his spot in the next round is secure, the other 15 championship contenders have more work to do. 

UPGRADE

Kevin Harvick – Harvick lurked deeper in the field through the first stages as he tuned his car for the conditions, progressively moving forward as the night went on. While he was running third late in the race, the two leading cars collided, leaving Harvick to inherit the lead and only needing to hold off Dillon for the win. The team did not have the best car but did enough to get to Victory Lane, making it the first to secure its spot in the next round of championship eliminations. Harvick has three Richmond victories and has only finished outside of the top 10 once in the last eight races and has made himself a firm favorite to win another series championship this season.

Joey Logano – Logano was not immune to the problems that plagued Penske Racing at Darlington. The former champion was enduring a difficult night without the speed to get to the front and then picked up damage to make things worse. Rear-end damage sustained during a restart in the final stage could have spelled the end to the team's night. They plugged onward, though, and by the time the race was over, the No. 22 machine had come all the way forward to third. By never giving up and making the most of what would have been a disaster, the team now finds itself in good standing to advance to the next round of the playoffs. Up first is Richmond. Logano has two wins there and finished second in the spring race last season.

Martin Truex Jr. – Truex led the field to the first stage victory of the playoffs Sunday night at Darlington and then went on to dominate the second stage to grab even more points in the championship battle. While racing Elliott for the lead in the final miles of the race, he collided with the No. 9 machine and hit the outside wall. The damage from contact with Elliott left Truex with a flat rear tire that he had to pit for, throwing away the race win. After failing to capitalize on the car's speed at Darlington the team now needs to score a top finish this week. Truex won both Richmond races last season from the fifth and eighth starting spots. He also led more than 100 laps in six of his last seven races at the track. 

Alex Bowman – Bowman had a quiet but productive race Sunday night. He started fourth and spent the vast majority of the 500 miles running in the top 10. While he didn't have the speed to race for the lead, he made the right adjustments throughout the night and kept his car out of danger to finish sixth. That was enough to take advantage of a few other playoff drivers who stumbled, and now Bowman heads to Richmond fifth in the playoffs and in a comfortable early position in the round of 16. He needed to earn that cushion given his career at Richmond, too. In eight starts he has a best finish of 12th and an average finish of 25.6. Another smart and mistake-free race could be enough to see his way into the round of 12. 

William Byron – Like his teammate Alex Bowman, Byron drove a mistake-free night to make the most of the equipment he had. It was a night of intelligent racing for Byron that greatly improved his standing in the playoffs. The team started third and spent most of the night in the top 10, not overreaching, and consolidating a fifth-place finish that sets him up nicely for the next two races in the first round of the championship playoffs. Missing out on stage points in the second stage was about the only difference between Byron's night and the No. 88's, which leaves Byron ninth in the standings. He needed that ahead of Richmond, too. In four series starts, his best finish at the track is 12th with an average finish of 17.2.

DOWNGRADE

Ryan Blaney – Blaney's Southern 500 was a disaster comprising points deduction, loss of starting position and crew chief, and then a disappointing race on top of it all. Blaney worked his way from the rear into the top 15 by the end of the first stage but pitted as the second stage began with a flat rear tire. That left him a lap down and outside of the top 30, a deficit he was unable to overcome. His 24th-place finish and 10-point deduction puts him at the bottom of the championship standings with a mountain to climb to advance. Blaney has never scored a top-10 at Richmond and has a best finish of just 17th from eight tries, which may leave him even further behind.

Brad Keselowski – A flat tire sent Keselowski into the outside wall, leading him with heavy right-side damage late in the first stage Sunday night. The Penske Racing driver immediately went to pit road to have the damage repaired and returned to action a lap down to the leaders. While he worked to get back on the lead lap, he never had the pace to overcome the misstep and spent the rest of the race in damage limitation mode. That salvage effort worked him into an 11th-place finish, which was a good outcome for his playoff hopes but short of what the team expected. He will want more from this week's race at Richmond where he started on pole at the track last fall and lead 89 laps before finishing fourth.

Chase Elliott – Late contact took away another win from Elliott at Darlington Raceway Sunday night. It was the second time at the track this season the driver seemed destined to visit Victory Lane only for the race to end with damage. His battle for the lead with Martin Truex Jr. got too close and put both cars into the outside wall and out of contention for the win. Elliott dropped to 20th position by the finish and now sits seventh in the championship standings, losing most of his points advantage and making the next two races of the round of 16 more precarious. Next up is Richmond where Elliott has a best finish of second. He finished 15th and 13th at the two races there last season, however.

Matt DiBenedettoMatt DiBenedetto's playoff debut was one to forget. The Wood Brothers Racing driver struggled with handling issues early in Sunday night's 500-mile race, which made for a very long and frustrating night for the team. As the crew worked to make changes and find the speed needed to race forward, it fell short and was the only playoff team not running in the top 16 with less than 40 laps left in the race, losing significant ground on track and in the standings. This week's race may not be any better either. DiBenedetto's best Richmond finish was 14th last fall. His average finish from 10 career starts is 28.7. Another bad race this week could see his playoff life extinguished before it even gets going.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Austin Dillon – Not many fantasy players would have predicted Dillon would run as well as he did at Darlington Sunday night. The driver dropped to the back of the field at the start after making an unapproved adjustment prior to the start of the rear – the tires were backward on the car. The penalty was worth the adjustment, though. After struggling to move up in the order early in the race, Dillon maneuvered his way into the top five in the final segment of the race. His speed was real and he walked away from the first playoff race with a runner-up finish. Another race like that could see the team on to the next round of championship eliminations. Both of Dillon's top-10 Richmond finishes came in the last three races.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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