After a miserable first seven races that saw him finish worse than 36th in four events despite having cars fast enough to win, Kevin Harvick finally put an entire race together. His reward: a victory in Saturday evening's Bojangles' Southern 500 at the legendary Darlington Raceway. It is Harvick's second win of the 2014 season (making him the first driver to repeat after a stretch of seven different winners to open the campaign), his first at Darlington, and the 25th of his Sprint Cup career. Harvick's previous best at Darlington was a second in August 2003. He had only led 63 laps in 17 prior trips to Darlington, but he more than made up for that Saturday, leading 238 of the 374 laps. With the triumph, he has completed a "Grand Slam" of the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400, Coca-Cola 600, and the Southern 500.
Hendrick Motorsports teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson took second and third. Matt Kenseth led the way for Toyota with a fourth-place finish, followed by Greg Biffle in fifth in the best Ford. Kyle Busch finished sixth, ahead of Jeff Gordon in seventh. Rookie phenom Kyle Larson continued to impress with an eighth-place finish in his first Sprint Cup trip to Darlington, while Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman completed the top-10.
Harvick's victory was not without its drama, however. He was cruising toward the checkered flag when the yellow waved for smoke from Joey Logano's machine. The leaders all hit pit road under caution, with Johnson, Earnhardt Jr., Gordon, and Kenseth leapfrogging Harvick with two-tire pit stops. Harvick took four and restarted fifth. He only gained two positions before the caution waved again, this time for an incident involving Denny Hamlin and Travis Kvapil that pushed the race past its scheduled 367-lap distance.
Earnhardt broke away on the subsequent restart, but the race went back under the yellow almost immediately when a bump from Clint Bowyer sent Kurt Busch slamming into the inside wall on the backstretch. Harvick, restarting second, stalked Earnhardt for most of the first lap of the final restart before making the pass off turn four with the white flag waving. From there, he cruised to his second win with Stewart-Haas Racing and crew chief Rodney Childers, though for a little bit of luck he easily could have two or three more victories - at least.
Kasey Kahne was perhaps the night's hard luck driver. After qualifying 22nd, he steadily worked his way towards the front. An issue with the fueling of his Chevrolet left him with a fuel tank that was less-than-full. Forced to pit road earlier than his rivals, Kahne got the benefit his new tires and actually cycled ahead of Harvick when the pit stops concluded. A subsequent crash by Paul Menard got Kahne back on sequence. The handling on his car gradually deteriorated, however, and he ultimately crashed from the race with 51 laps remaining and wound up 37th. Kahne has yet to record a finish better than eighth (which he has accomplished twice) in the first eight races of 2014.
Gordon retains his point lead but by only one marker on Kenseth. Neither driver has yet won a race, while two-time winner Harvick has become the first driver to guarantee he will compete for the 2014 Sprint Cup championship this fall.