Vintage Kevin Harvick strikes again

RICHMOND, Va. -- Kevin Harvick did it again.

The driver who has shown an uncanny ability in recent seasons to take a late lead and make it stick pulled off another unlikely victory Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway in the Toyota Owners 400.

And as usual, it wasn't easy.

It didn't look like he could catch Juan Pablo Montoya over the final laps before the caution flag flew with four of 400 laps remaining.

When Harvick's team's decided to pit for fresh tires with Montoya and the other leaders as the race headed to overtime, it looked like it doomed any chance Harvick had of earning the victory when three drivers -- including his teammate Jeff Burton up front -- elected to stay out and three others got off pit road before him.

When a free-for-all broke out when the green flag finally flew on the green-white-checkered restart, and it looked like he was as likely to get caught up in a wreck as he was to win, Harvick rushed to the front as cars around him spun tires, banged fenders and got sideways.

And it was gratifying.

"Everybody was going to be aggressive at that point because nobody really knew … you knew, what, three cars up front that didn't pit, right?" Harvick said. "So you had three cars that were going to be pretty much in the way compared to the guys on tires. So we didn't know if there would be one green-white-checkered or two green-white-checkereds, so you had to go and be as aggressive as you possibly could be without taking yourself out of the race.

"Fortunately, we were able to have it all line up for us tonight. You just have a plan in your mind and try to play it out."

Coming in for tires was clearly the right call for Harvick and crew chief Gil Martin, but it was still a gutsy one.

"If a final caution comes out in the last 10 or 15 laps, you're within sixth to 12th place, it's no-man's land because there's so many cars on the lead lap now," Martin said. "There's 30 cars on the lead lap. You're sitting there eighth. If you pit, a lot don't pit, you lose track position. Then there's the tire advantage. We've been on the wrong end of that. We have to be more aggressive on that. Tonight we were. It paid off for us."

Clint Bowyer, who came in for fresh tires and finished second, said that call was above his labor grade.

"I had not made a decision [about pitting]," Bowyer said. "Luckily for me, [crew chief Bryan] Pattie had made that decision -- which is what he gets paid for -- and it was the right one.

"But you're damned if you do, damned if you don't on that, literally. If you pit, and 10 cars come in behind you, you're fine. If they don't, well …"

It was Harvick's 20th career victory in his 439th Cup race, all of them with Richard Childress Racing.

And for at least one weekend, the win is a respite from the talk that being a lame-duck driver -- he's headed to Stewart-Haas Racing next season -- means he and his team have lost their competitive edge.

"Well, I just want to thank everybody. It's been a tough start to the season. [But] our cars have been really fast," Harvick said. "… You know, a lot of people have thought we might lay down this year and there ain't no lame in that game, is there?

"It was a great night."

Childress was pleased, too.

"When they dropped that green, he found the hole, drove it through there, made it happen," he said. "Won the race. I think everyone, even the 29 [Harvick's] team, was probably pulling for Burton. At the end of the night, when he got up there, we were all pulling for Kevin and Jeff.

"It was a good night for RCR."

And for Montoya's part, he was stoic in defeat, but only after pounding on his steering wheel when the final caution flag flew.

"I really feel bad for Juan," Bowyer said. "He's had a couple of rough years in the sport and that was really his race. He had it won."

But as is typical for short-track racing, it wasn't a great night for everyone, and tempers flaring when the race was over was more common than remaining stoic.

Kurt Busch used his car to bump Matt Kenseth's on the not-so-aptly named cool-down lap. Tony Stewart bumped Busch, and they then shouted back and forth about the messy final restart. And Joey Logano -- who rode the train forward behind Harvick and Bowyer to finish third -- was simply relieved.

"I did not p--- anybody off tonight," Logano said. "Holy crap!"

It all happened under the watchful eyes of NASCAR officials, who have had about enough drama for one week between huge penalties levied against Kenseth and his team, Nationwide Series driver Nelson Piquet Jr. kicking fellow driver Brian Scott in the groin, and then later Friday night, two RCR crewmen who are assigned to Scott's team confronting Piquet and getting themselves arrested in the process.

And now they all get to take whatever simmering feuds are left to Talladega next Sunday, the fastest and potentially most dangerous track on the circuit, with Jimmie Johnson still holding the points lead by 43 over Carl Edwards.