DARLINGTON, S.C. — Running second with less than 60 laps to go in Sunday’s Southern 500, Kevin Harvick arguably was in the best position.
But instead of ending the night in Victory Lane and advancing to the second round of the Cup playoffs, Harvick finished 19th and left Darlington Raceway frustrated.
He’s two points below the cutline with two races left in the opening round. Kyle Larson, who benefitted from the pit call chaos, celebrated his third win of the season and Reddick finished second.
Heading into what was to be his final pit stop of the 367-lap race, Harvick trailed Reddick when crew chief Rodney Childers called Harvick to pit road on Lap 310.
Childers sought to pit a lap before Reddick, using the advantage of fresher tires to take the lead. By making the call as late as possible, Childers hoped to keep Reddick from reacting.
Reddick’s team was monitoring Harvick’s radio channel. Immediately after Childers told Harvick to pit, crew chief Billy Scott called Reddick to pit road.
“As soon as someone undercuts you by one lap (to pit road), it’s a couple of seconds (gained by them),” Scott told NBC Sports about how vital it can be to pit a lap before a competitor. “So, if you don’t have a big enough lead over the next car behind you, they can play off of you and pit before you. Once that happens, it’s done. You know you’re probably going to come off behind them.”
Scott’s late call gave Reddick little time to come down the track and head for pit entrance. Darlington’s pit road is difficult to enter during a green-flag run because the tires are worn and the surface is slick. That makes it easy to miss the commitment line.
“I was trying to make pit road,” Reddick said. “I missed it and I kind of took back off. Unfortunately, I don’t think Ryan (Newman) had anywhere to go.”
Reddick’s actions caused Newman to spin, bringing out the caution as Harvick headed to pit road. Video showed that pit road was closed before Harvick entered. William Byron, trailing Harvick veered back on track.
“I saw Harvick and William both pull down, so I was going to follow them,” said Larson, who was fourth at that moment. “It looked like Reddick was just going to have to pit the next lap and got caught late.”
Crew chief Rodney Childers said he heard spotter Tim Fedewa tell Harvick to stay out, but Harvick entered pit road.
“Caution came out and the light was on and I didn’t think I could turn right,” Harvick said in response to a question from NBC Sports.
Had Harvick driven down pit road without stopping in his stall, he wouldn’t have been penalized. He would have lost several positions since pit road speed is 45 mph and the rest of the field was running faster even as they slowed for the caution.
Instead, Harvick’s team serviced his car and he was penalized for pitting when pit road was closed. That forced Harvick to restart at the tail end of the longest line. He was 26th.
“(Spotter) Timmy (Fedewa) was yelling ‘Might as well go ahead and pit’ and that confused me,” Childers said. “We should have drove through. But we were going to be 25th no matter what. You’re kind of screwed either way. I don’t know what would have been the right thing to do.”
The result was that Harvick was out of contention for the win.
“If we’re being honest with ourselves, I think there were four or five cars that had they gotten the lead, it was going to be hard to pass,” said Cliff Daniels, Larson’s crew chief. “Harvick gets the lead, I don’t think anybody passes him. I think the top four or five were very, very equal together just in the way the track position was kind of staging itself.”
Just as critical in the sequence was that Larson moved into second behind Reddick. Byron had slowed on the apron and Larson went by before Byron returned to the track.
“That was a big deal,” Daniels said. “Because it set us up to be second coming down pit road, have a good pit stop, come out with the lead.”
Larson’s team had its fastest pit stop of the race, giving him the lead. Reddick exited second. That’s how they would finish.
After seeing a chance for his first win of the year disappear, Harvick looks to Kansas and Bristol to avoid being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs for the second consecutive season.
“Just go put the gas pedal down and do the exact same thing we’ve done for … 23 years,” Harvick said of what he must do to continue his quest for a championship in his final Cup season.
“Race for the win,” he said.
It’s that simple after a chaotic lap in a four-hour race dramatically altered Harvick’s playoff chances.