DOVER, Del. – Kevin Harvick stood by his confetti-coated car and used it as a resting spot for a couple of crushed beer cans, while his crew belted out a catchy rallying cry.
“I believe that we will win! I believe that we will win! I believe that we will win!”
Harvick delivered one more time Sunday, dominating a race he had to win to advance to the second round of NASCAR’s playoffs. Mired in 15th in the standings, Harvick went out and led 355 laps Sunday at Dover International Speedway and earned the third automatic berth in the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field.
“Never quit. That’s why right here, guys,” Harvick said over the radio as he took the checkered flag.
Harvick’s title defense lives on. Meantime, Jimmie Johnson’s bid for a record-tying seventh championship came to a shocking end when a broken part sent the No. 48 Chevrolet to the garage and sent him plummeting in the standings.
NASCAR had the drama it craved Sunday when it revamped its playoff format last season. Dale Earnhardt. Jr. earned the final transfer spot over Jamie McMurray on a tiebreaker. Earnhardt finished third and McMurray fourth on Sunday.
Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer also were eliminated as the Chase field was sliced from 16 to 12. Four more drivers will be eliminated in the next three-race segment that starts next week at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth had already earned berths in the next round with wins in the first two Chase races. Carl Edwards also advanced along with Joey Logano, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch.
They all had a shot at knocking out Harvick.
Now, they all have to deal down the stretch with a driver who has led 571 of 700 laps run the past two weeks. That’s bad news for the field.
“That was a guy that we wanted to knock out,” Kyle Busch said. “That’s a guy that can win all these races, and you don’t want to have to compete against a guy like that.”
Harvick overcame stout circumstances against him to reach Victory Lane: He hadn’t won since going back-to-back in the third and fourth races of the season and had been 0-for-29 at Dover. An easy title favorite, he finished 42nd in the Chase opener at Chicagoland and 21st at New Hampshire.
But Harvick remained confident, saying last week, “We’re going to pound them into the ground.”
He never wavered in his approach even as his title chances were bruised.
“If you’re not ready for it, it’ll eat you up,” Harvick said.
Harvick has been here. He had to win last season at Phoenix International Raceway to advance into the championship finale. He won, then won it all the next week when his second straight checkered flag gave him the highest finish among four championship drivers to earn the crown.