Kevin Harvick had a lock on the front of the field in Saturday night’s O’Reilly Auto Parts Challenge at Texas Motor Speedway, but there was plenty of action behind him.
The class of the field in the 200-lap, 300-mile Nationwide Series race, Harvick won handily, crossing the finish line 1.628 seconds ahead of 18-year-old Ryan Blaney, who made the most of a pit stop for tires on Lap 178.
Polesitter Kyle Busch ran third, followed by Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who erased the six-point series lead Elliott Sadler held when the race began. Stenhouse, the defending Nationwide champion, is tied with Sadler with two races left in the season.
The victory was Harvick’s second of the season and the 39th of his career, third most all-time. Harvick, who led 127 laps, notched his fifth Nationwide victory at Texas, tied with Busch for the track record.
Harvick and Busch battled for the lead after the last restart on Lap 182. Busch crossed the stripe with the nose of his car ahead of Harvick’s at the end of that lap, but Harvick’s No. 33 Chevrolet cleared the No. 54 Toyota through Turns 1 and 2 on lap 183 and began to pull away.
Harvick’s real worry, however, wasn’t Busch but the cars behind him on fresh tires.
“I didn’t want to make a big mistake and give up a big chunk of time there, because I knew somebody was going to be faster coming through the field,” Harvick said. “But it all timed itself out pretty good, and everything worked out.”
Stenhouse, fighting a loose handling condition, trailed Sadler for the majority of the race, but a restart on Lap 160 began a dramatic reversal of fortune for the two drivers fighting for the title.
Stenhouse took the green flag in the 14th position and began a charge to the front. On Lap 175, he passed Logano for the fourth spot. The real turnaround occurred, however, after Joe Nemechek brushed the Turn 4 wall on Lap 177 to cause the fifth and final caution of the race.
Both Stenhouse and Sadler remained on track, while many in the field behind them, including Blaney, came to pit road for tires. Stenhouse was able to hold the fourth position after the Lap 182 restart, but Sadler, who restarted sixth, lost ground to the drivers with fresh rubber and faded to 11th.
“When the cautions came out, we were able to make some adjustments to it,” said Stenhouse, whose crew used liberal changes to the track bar, air pressure and wedge (weight distribution) to try to tighten up the No. 6 Ford. “We just took advantage of that second-to-last restart there with 40 (laps) to go and got our track position.
“It was a great night for us, but definitely disappointing — we wanted to win.”
Denny Hamlin ran fifth, with Austin Dillon, Sam Hornish Jr., Justin Allgaier, Kevin Swindell and Joey Logano completing the top 10. Swindell was making his first NNS start of the season.
Busch congratulated Blaney after the race and had high praise for the talented teenager. The runner-up finish was a career best for Blaney in 12 Nationwide starts this season.
“He’s really showing what he can do,” Busch said. “He’s done a good job of doing it and being clean while doing it. He’s got a lot respect for everybody out there, and he can finish top two, three, four, five week in, week out, and he does it without making a big deal out of it.
“I just congratulated him and told him he did a great job.”
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