BRISTOL, Tenn. — Sometimes you get wrecks. Sometimes you get fights.
And sometimes at Bristol, you just get one whale of a one-on-one battle.
The latter was the case on Saturday, as Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch put on a fantastic duel over the final 50 laps before Harvick held on to win the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race.
“Bristol, baby!” Harvick shouted to the roughly 30,000 fans at the speedway.
One version of it, yes.
Much like last week’s race at Richmond, the caution stayed out for most of this one.
The yellow flag waved only five times, and the last 81 laps stayed green.
That left it up to the two best cars, and they delivered.
Harvick ultimately took the checkered flag by a scant 0.31 seconds over Busch, but only after Busch made repeated moves toward his back bumper in the closing laps.
“Just didn’t have enough there at the end,” Busch said. “The guys did a great job in giving me a really good piece tonight to contend and at least be up there and be close, but unfortunately, just didn’t have enough.”
No other driver had anything close to enough. But to say that the rest of the field got out of the way for these two would not be accurate. Backmarkers played a major role in the outcome, as both Harvick and Busch had to make split-second decisions while fighting their way through lap traffic.
When Busch took his final lead with 41 laps to go, Harvick was blocked at the top of the track by Reed Sorensen, who was a whopping 156 laps down.
When Harvick retook the lead 10 laps later, he used Joey Logano as a pick to do it. Logano was fighting hard (and ultimately unsuccessfully) just to stay one lap down, as only six cars finished on the lead lap.
Harvick masterfully navigated the traffic the rest of the way.
“Lap cars were definitely a problem,” Busch said. “That’s part of racing. You’ve got to try to get around them when you can, but there was just no room for me to do what I needed to do on a couple of those opportunities to get past them.”
The nip-and-tuck battle between two future Hall of Famers was a welcome development, as the playoff drama that many anticipated did not materialize.
The four drivers who started the night below the cut line for the next round — Cole Custer, William Byron, Ryan Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto — finished below the cut line. That was good news for Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, and Aric Almirola, who came into this race closest to the danger zone.
Blaney and DiBenedetto likely needed wins to advance, and neither had a car to do it.
Byron saw his playoff chances literally go up in smoke just before the race’s midway point. Joey Gase checked up on the straightaway and forced Christopher Bell to slow, as well.
Byron, who was running 10th, had nowhere to go. He rear-ended Bell and damaged his car beyond repair. After stepping out of his ride, Byron gave the door a backhanded punch.
Meanwhile, guys like Bowyer and Kurt Busch likely let out a sigh of relief. Their quest for survival had just gotten much easier.
So, too, did it relieve some of the pressure on Kyle Busch, who was only 18 points clear of the elimination zone when the race began. He had to start at the back of the field because of failing pre-race inspection twice.
The early portion of the race was vintage Kyle. The eight-time Bristol winner picked off rivals with ease, finishing the 125-lap opening stage in second place. He won the second stage — just his second stage victory of the year — and looked poised to claim his long-anticipated first race victory of the season.
Busch’s runner-up finish matched his performance at the all-star race here in July. He was bitterly disappointed both times, but he had nothing to be ashamed of in this one.
Harvick spent the early portions of the race experimenting with different racing lines. He’d try to go high, then low, then high again.
By the end, he’d figured out a hybrid approach, often sticking to the bottom of the track in turns 1 and 2 before hugging the outside wall in 3 and 4.