FORT WORTH — Martin Truex Jr. has dominated this season on 1 1/2-mile tracks, posting six of his seven wins on the intermediate ovals. Kevin Harvick had one win, on the twisty road course at Sears Point.
Truex was leading Sunday late in the AAA Texas 500, with Denny Hamlin second and Harvick third. Harvick fought his way past Hamlin and immediately began chasing down Truex on the type of track where he's thrived. With 10 laps remaining, Harvick made a move to the outside lane in Turn 2 at Texas Motor Speedway, surged past Truex and pulled away to win the race and secure a contending spot in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship finale.
"First thing I want to do is thank all these fans in Texas," Harvick said. "I'm happy to finally get to victory lane here; it's been a long time coming. Just really proud of everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing and our Mobil 1 Ford, but damn it's good to be in victory lane here at Texas."
Truex finished second and was followed by Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and playoff drivers Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney.
Kyle Busch finished 19th but will race for the title Nov. 19 at Homestead after winning last week at Martinsville. Truex clinched the third championship berth Sunday based on a 76-point lead over Hamlin, now fifth in the playoff standings. Only fourth-place Keselowski could mathematically climb past Truex next week, locking Truex into the final four.
That leaves Keselowski, Hamlin, Blaney, Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson to race for the one remaining Homestead berth next week at Phoenix International Raceway. A win would fill out the final four; otherwise, the final spot will be based on points.
"We need to be really aggressive," Blaney said. "We need to try and win the race. That's really the only thing we can do."
Hamlin led the first 46 laps after starting second behind Kurt Busch. Harvick took his first lead on Lap 70 and held off Truex to win the 85-lap first stage of the race, which was run without any caution periods.
The first yellow flag for an incident flew on Lap 94 when Daniel Suarez drifted high and spun out Kasey Kahne. It was nearly identical to an incident on Lap 1 that saw another Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, driven by Kyle Busch, drift up into Keselowski.
The contact cut Keselowski's left rear tire. No caution came out, and Keselowski pitted and lost a lap. Kyle Busch pitted with damage and lost two laps. Their rally back toward the front was the highlight of the day's action until the ultimate showdown between Harvick and Truex.
Keselowski was the driver returned to the lead lap during the Suarez-Kahne caution. Kyle Busch eventually joined him, and both were running in the top seven on a restart at Lap 239 of 334. Kyle Busch, however, was unable to stay on the lead lap, pitting for a flat tire on Lap 275.
Once Harvick passed Hamlin for second at the end of the race, his No. 4 Ford was nearly a second and a half behind Truex's Toyota. With 25 laps to go, the gap was 1.2 seconds. Five laps later it was just 0.2 seconds. Harvick patiently stalked Truex for the next 10 laps and waited for his opportunity to make the winning pass.
"As the runs went, I would get looser and looser — wasn't much I could do about it," Truex said. "[Harvick] got to my outside and was just faster at the end. Once he got in front of us, he was just gone."
Harvick pulled away and won by 1.6 seconds.
"I knew I had a really good car, and I knew I had to do something different and I started driving it into Turn 1 just a whole lot deeper," Harvick said. "I got him loose as I brushed across the back, I think, and was able to get on the outside."
Keselowski currently holds the fourth and final championship berth. Hamlin is 19 points behind him and followed by Blaney (22 points behind Keselowski), Elliott (49 points) and Johnson (51).
"We probably need to win [next week], which is amazing," Hamlin said. "It's the second year in a row in the third [playoff] round where I average inside a top-five finish and that ain't going to be good enough."
Harvick's 37th Cup win is his first in Denton County. He joins Kyle Busch as the only drivers to win at TMS in all three of NASCAR's national series.
Truex led four times for a race-high 107 laps. Kyle Larson led for 74 laps before a fiery crash that brought out the final caution and a 10 1/2-minute red flag. Harvick led a race-high five times for 38 laps.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. went to the garage after the caution came out on Lap 242. His chance to win his last TMS race as a full-time Cup driver was ruined because of a left front hub failure on the No. 88 Chevrolet. He finished 30 laps down in 35th place.
Gossage addresses future of Audacity beer
Audacity Brew House of Denton has brewed No Limits Checkered Past Texas Ale since last year, and TMS president Eddie Gossage told the Denton Record-Chronicle on Saturday that the speedway is looking to keep its craft beer alive after the brewery shuts its doors next weekend.
"Audacity, which brews Checkered Past beer, just announced they're going out of business, and we own the recipe, so we'll be talking to different brewers about it," Gossage said. "We've got the distributorship set up and all that, so hopefully we can find somebody to pick it up and run with it.
"We actually own I don't know how many thousands of cans, so we have money invested in it. Goes great with [the track's "JR88" pretzels honoring Earnhardt]. These pretzels are making me thirsty for Audacity beer. It's a really good product, and we hate to see Audacity have trouble."
AAA Texas and TMS announced Sunday that the auto club has renewed its title sponsorship of the fall race in Fort Worth. The multiyear deal is the second renewal of the original five-year agreement signed in 2010. ... NBC Sports reported that the temperature reached 92 degrees, breaking the record of 91 in April 2011 for the hottest Cup race at TMS.
MATT CRIDER can be reached at 940-566-6906.