Persistence pays off for Kevin Harvick, passes Kyle Busch with 5 laps left to win Nationwide race at Kentucky

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Kevin Harvick tried at least three times to pass Kyle Busch on restarts or at points late in the race, and finally was able to do so with five laps remaining to win Friday night’s John R. Elliott Hero Campaign 300 Nationwide Series race at Kentucky Speedway.

Every time Harvick tried to challenge Busch for the lead, the latter would come right back and pull back ahead.

But it appeared Busch started to have his tires fall off on the final restart and Harvick took advantage.

In doing so, Harvick prevented Busch from his goal of winning all three races – Camping World Trucks (which he won Thursday), Nationwide and Saturday’s Sprint Cup event at Kentucky this weekend.

Rallying was somewhat of a theme for Harvick throughout the race, who only led 14 of the event’s 200 scheduled laps on the 1.5-mile tri-oval. At one point, he fell back to 18th place and could also be heard yelling at his pit crew for mistakes on pit road that proved costly.

“Yeah, I kind of got into them (his pit crew) pretty good,” Harvick told ESPN in victory lane. “We made a lot of mistakes and it was just a frustrating place to race and a frustrating weekend. In the end, we had a good restart and they made the car better there at the end.”

It was Harvick’s second NNS race at Kentucky; he won the first NNS race there in 2001. It also was Harvick’s second Nationwide Series win this season.

Pole-sitter Brad Keselowski finished second, passing Busch with two laps to go for the runner-up spot.

Keselowski, who came into the race with two NNS wins and six top-10s in as many starts there (he also won the Sprint Cup race there in 2012), dominated much of the race, leading 138 of the first 148 laps.

“You have to give credit to Kevin and his team, they were really fast,” Keselowski said. “He was definitely a little bit faster at the end, so they deserve credit. Great night all around, qualifying on the pole and leading a lot of laps. We were just one spot short of where we wanted to finish.

“We were kind of on a different strategy there (than Busch) and it kind of worked out there where we had fresher tires (than Busch) at the end, and in the end we got a good restart, were able to get out in front and the car was a lot better.”

Busch faded to a third-place finish, followed by another strong performance by Paul Menard in fourth and Ryan Blaney finished fifth.

Last week’s winner on the road course at Road America, Brendan Gaughan, finished sixth, followed by Richard Childress Racing teammates Ty Dillon and Brian Scott, Kyle Larson was ninth and Elliott Sadler finished 10th.

There was also a shake-up in the NNS points standings. Elliott Sadler moved up from second into first place. He holds a four-point lead over Chase Elliott, who moved up from third to second, while former points leader Regan Smith, who was involved in a late-race wreck, fell to third-place. Smith now trails Sadler by eight points. Ty Dillon remained in fourth (29 points out) and Brian Scott remained in fifth in the standings, 47 points back.

The race was put under caution for debris on Lap 156, and with ensuing pit stops, Busch emerged as the race leader when the green flag dropped again on Lap 161.

Harvick was about to pass Busch heading onto Lap 170, but the caution came out after Ryan Reed got into the rear of Regan Smith, the points leader coming into the race (had a seven-point lead), sending Smith into the wall and then the infield.

It was the second consecutive race at Kentucky that has frustrated Smith. In last year’s race there, he suffered with a broken suspension mount that required lengthy repairs and left him with a disappointing 30th-place finish.

On the restart, Harvick again challenged for the lead but Busch held on. That lasted just one lap before yet another caution occurred when Dakoda Armstrong was involved in a solo spin.

Busch held off Harvick on the restart and appeared headed to the checkered flag unopposed when the caution fell again when Trevor Bayne and Chase Elliott made contact on Lap 193, sending Bayne into the wall, but suffered only minor damage to his right front fender.

The race resumed on Lap 196 and Busch had a rare bad restart – arguably his worst of the day – and Harvick jumped ahead, never to be challenged again the rest of the way.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

NHRA: Top 10 storylines of the 2019 season

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The 2019 NHRA season wound up being one where there was almost as much news and highlights made off the drag strip as on it.

That was the case in two of the top four storylines for the recently completed season, with the top story occurring even before the first pass down a drag strip in competition took place.

We’ve also included a poll for you to vote and see if you agree with our picks or not.

Here’s how our top 10 looks:

1. A Force-ful departure: Just two weeks before the 2019 season was due to open, Funny Car driver Courtney Force, daughter of 16-time champion John Force, stunned the drag racing world by announcing she was taking a hiatus from the sport – although she insisted she was not retiring. The wife of IndyCar driver Graham Rahal, Force turned over her high dollar Advance Auto Parts sponsorship to sister and Top Fuel driver Brittany Force, who had previously been sponsored by Monster Energy. Courtney Force became the second high-profile female drag racer to step away from the sport in just over a year, joining fellow Funny Car driver Alexis DeJoria, who went on hiatus after the 2017 season. This past October, DeJoria announced she would return to full-time NHRA competition in 2020. But as for Courtney, she remains on hiatus for at least the time being.

2. Torrence’s Texas two-step: Proud Texas native Steve Torrence won his second consecutive Top Fuel championship in 2019, winning nine races (including eight in a nine-race stretch). While Torrence enjoyed an outstanding season in 2018, winning 11 races and becoming the first driver in NHRA history to win all six races in the Countdown to the Championship playoffs, he won just one playoff race in 2019. But he still managed to earn just enough points to hold off his closest rival, Doug Kalitta, by a mere three points for the second championship. Also of note: Steve’s father Billy finished a career-best fifth in the final standings, even though he competed in just 16 of the season’s 24 national events.

3. What happened to ‘The Sarge’? Tony Schumacher is the winningest Top Fuel driver in NHRA history, with eight championships and 84 national event wins. But he was essentially AWOL in 2019, failing to compete in even one race. The reason: sponsorship. Or more precisely, lack thereof. The U.S. Army, which had sponsored Schumacher for nearly 20 years – which prompted him to adopt the colorful nickname of “The Sarge” pulled its funding after the 2018 season, leaving Schumacher without a fully-funded ride for 2019. Rather than try to race piecemeal from race to race with limited sponsorship, the son of team owner Don Schumacher decided to watch the season from the sidelines. How Schumacher could not attract a new big dollar sponsor, given his domination and success in the Top Fuel class, is almost unfathomable. Unfortunately, it’s looking like Schumacher – who turns 50 on Christmas Day – may remain sidelined in 2020.

John Force

4. A Force to be reckoned with once again: Even though he fell short of adding to his record 16 NHRA Funny Car championships, the 2019 season was definitely one of resurgence for John Force, the sport’s winningest and most popular driver ever. Force, who turned 70 years old in May, isn’t letting age slow him down, earning two wins during the season – including a milestone 150th Funny Car victory of his career – and finished fourth in the standings (up from ninth in 2018, seventh in 2017, and his best finish since he ended up fourth in 2016).

Robert Hight

5. At the Hight of his success: Robert Hight isn’t flashy or verbose as his boss, John Force. But when he’s not working as president of John Force Racing, the soft-spoken Hight has become one of the premier drivers in Funny Car history. In 2019, he earned his third Funny Car championship – his second in the last three seasons and third since 2009. Along the way, he captured six wins, was runner-up three other times, reached the semifinals five times and led all drivers as the No. 1 qualifier for eight races (a full one-third of the season). This was perhaps the most dominant championship of all for Hight, including leading the Funny Car standings for 23 of the 24-race season.

Erica Enders

6. Erica’s baaaaccckkkk: Erica Enders is back on top of her game, and on top of the Pro Stock category, earning her third championship in the last six seasons (and first since 2015). Admittedly, her championship came in the first year of a shortened Pro Stock schedule, having been cut from a full 24 races to just 18. Still, the Texas native won two races, finished runner-up three other times and reached the semifinals four other times. Also of note, Enders’ Elite Motorsports teammate, five-time Pro Stoc champ Jeg Coughlin Jr., came oh, so close to winning his sixth title, finishing just 21 points behind Enders in the final standings.

Doug Kalitta

7. What does he have to do to win first championship? Doug Kalitta came the closest he ever has to earning the first Top Fuel championship of his 20-year drag racing career, finishing just three points behind Steve Torrence in the Top Fuel rankings. It was almost heartbreaking as Kalitta seemingly did everything he needed to do to win the championship, including winning the season-ending race in Pomona, California, one of three wins he earned (as well as two runner-up finishes and six semifinal showings). Kalitta began the season with a win at Pomona, as well. But Torrence came into the season-ending event at Pomona with just enough of a lead (and reached the semifinals) to hold off Kalitta’s challenge. How close was Kalitta from winning the championship? If he had advanced one more round in any of the six playoff races, he would have bested Torrence. Unfortunately, in a sense, Kalitta – nephew of legendary NHRA team owner and racer Connie Kalitta – has become the Mark Martin of NHRA Top Fuel: always a bridesmaid but never a bride when it comes to winning a championship. But there’s still hope, Kalitta fans: he’s going to give it another try in 2020. Maybe that will be his year – finally.

Andrew Hines

8. He’s one heck of an easy rider: Andrew Hines made it look easy in 2019 – although it was far from it – when he earned his sixth career NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle championship (and first since 2015). Son of past PSM champion Byron Hines, Andrew Hines enjoyed one of the most dominating seasons ever of his career — not to mention one of the most dominating seasons in the Pro Stock Motorcycle category — winning eight of the 16 PSM events contested, along with earning two runner-up and three semifinal finishes. Hines held off 2016 PSM champ Jerry Savoie by 26 points and 2018 champ Matt Smith by 46 points.

JR Todd

9. What a difference a year makes: JR Todd had an exceptional season in 2018, with six wins, two runner-up finishes and six semifinal showings. Not surprisingly, the Indiana native went on to win the Funny Car championship that season for Kalitta Motorsports. But one year later, Todd was seemingly an afterthought when it came to challenging for the Funny Car crown once again. For as good as he was in 2018, Todd struggled through much of the 2019 season with just one win, three runner-up and two other semifinal finishes, ultimately finishing seventh in the standings, a distant 246 points behind series champ Robert Hight, who was second to Todd in 2018.

Austin Prock

10. Strong start for sport’s top rookie: When your father is renowned crew chief Jimmy Prock, it’s clear that the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree. Such is the case of Austin Prock, who finished his first season in Top Fuel by earning NHRA’s rookie of the year honors. The younger Prock finished eighth in the Top Fuel season standings, including one win and five semifinal finishes driving for John Force Racing. Ironically, he finished one spot higher than three-time Top Fuel champ Antron Brown, who had a rough season, finishing ninth in the standings, with no wins, two runner-up showings and reached the semifinals just five times.

Follow @JerryBonkowski