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Kevin Harvick steamrolled his way into the second round of NASCAR’s playoffs in a championship that is clearly his to lose.

 

Harvick held off a charging Kyle Busch over the final 40 laps Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway for his career-best and Cup Series-high ninth victory of the season. He did it in front of a sold-out crowd of 30,000 spectators, the most Bristol was allowed to admit and the largest crowd since March.

 

Harvick took the lead from Busch and denied Busch his first victory of the season. Busch furiously tried to catch him as the two weaved their way through lapped traffic, but Harvick held firm in the No. 4 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing.

 

Only six cars finished on the lead lap in a tepid event at the 0.533-mile bullring revered for bumping and banging. Track officials sold all 30,000 tickets allowed — making Bristol one of the largest sporting events since the pandemic — and the spectators crowded the fence as Harvick celebrated his second win of the playoffs.

 

Harvick also won the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway to open the playoffs. He’s ninth on NASCAR’s career list with 58 Cup victories.

 

Busch, who failed inspection twice before the race and drove from the back of the field to lead in his Toyota, was disappointed to finish second. Busch took aim at Joey Logano, who failed to move out of the way as Harvick and Busch battled for the lead — “he’s nobody’s friend for a reason” — as well as younger drivers Garrett Smithley and Joey Gase.

 

The first elimination race of the playoffs knocked William Byron, Cole Custer, Ryan Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto from title contention. All four were below the cutline at the start of the race and failed to produce a finish strong enough to get them into the next round.

 

Blaney, who was ranked as high as second in the standings earlier this season, simply had a third consecutive below-average race. He finished 13th.

 

The second round of the playoffs begin next Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the opener of the most challenging three-race series. The playoffs go from Las Vegas to Talladega Superspeedway and then end at Charlotte Motor Speedway on the combination road course and oval.

 

Denny Hamlin, considered the closest challenger to Harvick this year, closed out a sub-par opening round of the playoffs with a 21st-place finish. His Toyota also failed pre-race inspection and Hamlin started at the back, but he’s been unable through three playoff races to crack the top 10.

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