DOVER, Del. — Kevin Harvick stood by his confetti-coated car and used it as a resting spot for a couple of crushed beer cans, when his crew belted out a catchy rallying cry.
“I believe that we will win! I believe that we will win! I believe that we will win!”
Harvick has mastered his Game 7 races, nerves steeled and never rattled from any pressure that should come in a must-win spot.
He delivered one more time and dominated a race he had to win to advance to the second round of NASCAR’s playoffs. Mired in 15th in the standings, Harvick went out and led 355 laps Sunday at Dover International Speedway and earned the third automatic berth in the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field.
“Never quit. That’s why right here, guys,” Harvick said over the radio as he took the checkered flag.
Harvick’s title defense lives on.
Jimmie Johnson’s bid for a record-tying seventh championship came to a shocking end when a busted part sent the No. 48 Chevrolet to the garage and sent him plummeting in the standings.
NASCAR had the drama it craved Sunday when it revamped its playoff format last season. Dale Earnhardt. Jr. earned the final transfer spot over Jamie McMurray on a tiebreaker. Earnhardt finished third and McMurray was fourth on Sunday.
Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer also were eliminated as the Chase field was sliced from 16 to 12. Four more drivers will be eliminated in the next three-race segment that starts next week at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth had already earned berths in the next round with wins in the first two Chase races. Carl Edwards also advanced along with Joey Logano, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch.
They all had a shot at knocking out Harvick.
Now, they all have to deal down the stretch with a driver who has led 571 of 700 laps run the last two weeks. That’s bad news for the field.
“Hell, yeah,” race runner-up Kyle Busch said. “That was a guy that we wanted to knock out. That’s a guy that can win all these races and you don’t want to have to compete against a guy like that.”
Harvick brushed some stout circumstances against him to reach victory lane: He hadn’t won since going back-to-back in the third and fourth races of the season and had been 0 for 29 at Dover. An easy title favorite, he finished 42nd in the Chase opener at Chicagoland and 21st at New Hampshire.
But for a driver who faced the colossal responsibility in his first Cup start of replacing Dale Earnhardt Sr., winning races isn’t much of a concern.
It was only three weeks ago when a confident Harvick said about the JGR drivers, “We’re going to pound them into the ground.”
He never wavered in his approach even as his title chances were bruised.
“If you’re not ready for it, it’ll eat you up,” Harvick said.
Harvick is simply clutch for Stewart-Haas Racing. He was eighth out of eight teams and had to win last season at Phoenix International Raceway to advance into the championship finale. He won, then won it all the next week when his second straight checkered flag gave him the highest finish among four championship drivers to earn the crown.
Harvick would love to win another championship not just for himself, but for friend and team owner Tony Stewart. Stewart announced this week he will retire from Sprint Cup racing after next season.
Stewart and Harvick grabbed hands in celebration window-to-window with their Chevrolets parked on the track.
“We weren’t in a good situation coming into today, but that’s what this team is made of,” Harvick said. “This is what it’s all about, those big-time moments.”
One more big moment eluded Johnson.
He entered fifth in the standings and, with 10 career wins at Dover, seemed a lock to advance. His No. 48 Chevrolet was forced off the track for 36 laps with a torn rear axle seal and his title shot was gone. He’s 14th in the standings.
“It’s tough having a very inexpensive axle seal be the culprit and take your championship hopes away,” he said.
Johnson won championships in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2013, putting him one shy of matching Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most on the career list.
Truex survived after he was sent to the back of the field after his team made an unapproved adjustment to the right rear after inspection. Gordon’s drive for a fifth championship is still alive in his final season.
Earnhardt made the pivotal outside pass on McMurray on the race’s final restart and earned that last Chase spot because he had the best finish in the three playoff races.
Earnhardt climbed out of his car and immediately walked over to McMurray and consoled one of his close friends.
“That was a deserving pass he put on to be able to make through to the next round,” McMurray said. “Our car wasn’t that good on the outside and I didn’t expect anyone else’s to be that good.”