TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — In a battle of Ford drivers in which the blue oval was determined to find its way to victory lane, Ryan Blaney held off Kevin Harvick at the Talladega Superspeedway finish line as Blaney advanced into the round of eight of NASCAR's playoffs.
Harvick, who is retiring at the end of the year, remained winless on the season and was disqualified after the race when his car failed inspection.
Blaney used a crossover move from the outside lane to the inside to nudge ahead of Harvick with two laps remaining. Blaney in his Ford for Team Penske and Harvick in a Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing finished essentially in a drag race with both drivers refusing to lift as a crash broke out behind them.
“I’ve won it by more than I have the last couple years. That one might have been by 4 feet, the others were by 2 but you just don’t know," said Blaney, a three-time winner at Talladega. “You just kind of drag race a line and hope you get help.”
Blaney joined William Byron as the two drivers locked into the round of eight. The field of 12 will be pared next Sunday to eight following the race on The Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Blaney boss Roger Penske praised the strategy of the Ford camp to work together to ensure a Ford victory as the Chevrolets from Hendrick Motorsports were making a quick challenge.
“For Harvick, who it was his last race here, working like he did with Ryan, it was amazing to see that,” said Penske. “The Hendrick freight train was coming and we all stayed together, that was the call that Ford had earlier in the day when we talked. It was just perfect execution.”
Ford has won 10 playoff races at Talladega, most at any track, and Team Penske has won 10 of the last 18 races at the 2.66-mile Alabama oval.
Blaney, winner of the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in May, now has multiple wins in a season for the second time in his career. But he's got a lopsided stat this season in that he has only five top-five finishes, but two wins.
“It was a pretty wild restart, let alone the last couple of laps, losing momentum and getting it back, just getting clear to the bottom to get to the front row and drag race it out with Kevin,” said Blaney. “To win here three times at Talladega is super cool.”
Harvick finished second as his winless streak stretched to 43 races dating back to last season. NASCAR said nearly two hours after the race that his Ford had been disqualified because the fasteners on his windshield were not secure.
The Harvick disqualification dropped him to last in the field. Byron in a Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports moved up to second and Denny Hamlin, who rallied from a lap down, moved up to third in a Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Hamlin led three laps during the second stage but was flagged for speeding on pit road — a troubling habit of the three-time Daytona 500 winner considered the best driver to never win a Cup championship — and the penalty contributed to him falling a lap off the pace. It was Hamlin's fourth speeding penalty of the season and it took him most of the race to earn his position back on the lead lap and then drove through the field to secure his finish.
“Not how we drew it up, but a dub is a dub and that was a dub in our book — it’s as close as it gets to it," Hamlin said. "A top-five is a long way from where we were with about 15 laps to go.”
Corey LaJoie, who is not in the playoffs, moved up to fourth in a Chevrolet for Spire Motorsports. Blaney teammate Austin Cindric moved to fifth and was followed by Justin Haley of Kaulig Racing in a Chevrolet, defending race winner Chase Elliott for Hendrick, and the Fords of Ryan Preece and Riley Herbst. Daniel Suarez moved up to 10th. None of the drivers who finished fourth through 10th are in the playoffs.
The race had 70 lead changes among 24 drivers and was fairly clean. Ross Chastain was in an early crash that caused last year's championship runner-up to finish last. Brad Keselowski was in a later crash with 28 laps to go that ended the race for him, caused damage to Talladega's outer wall and stopped all action under a red flag.
Even though he crashed and finished 32nd, Keselowski remained two points above the cutline headed to Charlotte's elimination race.
The four drivers in jeopardy of elimination are Tyler Reddick of 23XI Racing, Chastain of Trackhouse Racing, Bubba Wallace of 23XI and Kyle Busch of Richard Childress Racing. Busch must win to advance.
Wallace had a lengthy post-race chat with 23XI co-owner Michael Jordan on pit road following his 23rd-place finish. Jordan appeared to be encouraging him, at one point placing his hand on the back of Wallace's neck and then shoulder, then pulling him in for a hug.
CHASTAIN CRASHES OUT
Chastain, who finished second to Joey Logano last year in the championship race, finished one spot ahead of Harvick after a collision with fellow title contenders Busch and Christopher Bell on the final lap of the first stage.
Chastain entered Talladega, the middle race of the round of 12, ranked sixth in the Cup standings and 12 points above the cutline. His last-place finish dropped him below the cutline and forced him into a high-pressure situation next week on The Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Chastain has struggled in his four previous starts on Charlotte's hybrid road course/oval track. His best finish is 22nd.
“Left and right,” he said when asked how he expects next week to go. “I'm living my dream, so whatever our team brings next week, we'll put our best foot forward. As long as I'm getting to drive these rocket ships that Trackhouse brings me, I'm living my dream and we'll keep fighting.”
NASCAR races next Sunday on The Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where Bell won last year to avoid playoff elimination.