KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Smoke and duct tape frustrated Kevin Harvick on Sunday, but they couldn't keep him out of Victory Lane, or a title pursuit.
Harvick has emphatically inserted himself into the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship discussion with a dominant victory from the pole in the Hollywood Casino 400, leading a race-high eight times for 138 laps in the fourth race of NASCAR's 10-race playoffs.
"There's no way you can ever consider yourself out of it," crew chief Gil Martin said, answering a question his driver doesn't enjoy. "There's a lot of things that can happen in the next few races, and we're just going to have to capitalize on them. But by no means do I think we're out of it."
One of the few championship-eligible drivers who wasn't spinning, sliding or smoking at some point during the weekend, Harvick improved from fifth to third in driver points, narrowing his margin to points leader Matt Kenseth from 39 to 25 points. And in a race in which most of his Chase competition struggled to maintain control of its car using a new "multi-zone" Goodyear tire on a smooth, 2-year-old asphalt surface, Harvick had to overcome numerous potential pitfalls to win from the pole. Included among them was perfecting the handling of the No. 29 Chevrolet, although that hardly seemed a problem on Sunday.
"We gambled as to what the conditions were going to be, and everything worked out," Harvick said. "It was just an interesting weekend."
Harvick was forced to negotiate numerous restarts around a race record 15 cautions that consumed 71 laps, one because of debris just after he had pitted under a green flag and another because a grass fire on a bank beyond Turn 1 that was bellowing gray smoke over the track.
"I didn't even really know what to say on the second one," Harvick grinned. "I knew Gil was in full meltdown mode on the smoke because the first caution was for a piece of tape, and we just started the green-flag pit cycles, and, sometimes, it runs through the cycle and then they throw the caution to pick up the debris and not really change the outcome of the race, but today it was a caution. For us, it fortunately worked out."
Added Martin: "We were leading and trying to stretch it about 20 more laps, and we did not need a caution."
"And then there was smoke," Harvick continued. "What was on fire, mulch? Duct tape and mulch were our best friends today.
"Yeah, it's frustrating. Obviously, the first thing you think of is, 'Man, I got screwed up there' or 'Somebody is screwing us,' and they were just calling the race. And us sitting in the car, it's frustrating sitting on the pit box or sitting watching the race. You always think everybody is out to get you., but luckily, today, it all worked out."
Harvick has just six career poles -- none since 2006 before this weekend -- but has won the ensuing race half the time, including the past two. The win was his third of the season.
Jimmie Johnson appeared to have the only car at least capable of competing with Harvick's. While Harvick's Chevrolet was aerodynamically troublesome running in packs of cars, it thrived on the lead and was able to drive off on several occasions. Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet was balanced enough to allow him to navigate the field on multiple occasions, including a sequence on Lap 227 when the rest of the field took only fuel as stunned crew chief Chad Knaus opted also for tires, which sank Johnson from third to 14th. Johnson was running fifth in the final laps but ceded a spot with an engine problem on the last lap.
"We had so many things happen to us and still salvaged a very strong sixth-place finish," Johnson said. "I really feel like we had the fastest car today but just couldn't get there with issues and track position and cautions at weird times, and restarts were kind of an issue and there was a lot of craziness there.
"I feel kind of bummed out that we left some points on the table, but at the same time, I'm happy I made it to the finish line under power and I got a nice finish."
Kurt Busch, who crashed into the wall after losing control of the No. 78 Chevrolet in a practice on Friday, finished second in a backup car, producing his second top-5 in four Chase races.
Kenseth, who won the first two races of the Chase, rallied for an 11th-place finish after falling deep into the field in the final 20 laps, although his lead was winnowed from eight to three points by Johnson.
"It was a struggle all day, even when we were in front," Kenseth said. "It was a struggle. I've been so incredibly spoiled this year. I haven't had to drive a car like that in a long time."
The result didn't meet the standard he has set so far in the Chase -- two wins and a seventh-place finish -- but considering his problems handling the No. 20 Toyota, it was an exercise in damage control that could have massive championship ramifications.
Tough day, but we'll keep fighting...on to Charlotte...
— Kyle Busch (@KyleBusch) October 6, 2013
While Harvick clawed back into title contention, Kyle Busch likely fell out after enduring a horrific weekend at Kansas Speedway, even by his history. Busch, who entered the race with an average finish of 22.4 in 12 Cup starts at Kansas, wrecked in practice on Friday, also went to a backup car and found more reasons to despise the 1.5-mile track on Sunday.
Starting from the back with his brother, Busch was caught in a wreck on the first turn of the race when rookie Danica Patrick lost control of her No. 10 Chevrolet. On Lap 188 of 267, he appeared to attempt to block Juan Pablo Montoya on the frontstretch and was sent careening by the No. 42 Chevrolet. On Lap 198 and running midpack, he was sent up into the wall attempting to dip in front of Edwards. His car was mangled, and his race, mercifully it seemed, by his demeanor, was over with a 34th-place finish.
"I have no idea what happened on the last one," he said. "All I know is we're in Kansas, right?"
Luckily for Busch, he's not in Kansas anymore this season but perhaps not in the title hunt, either. Harvick would appear squarely in the middle of it, and neither duct tape nor smoke could prevent it.