AVONDALE, Ariz. — The rain moved east from the Phoenix area Sunday.
After steady, light showers forced two long rain delays during Saturday’s Xfinity race, there were only a few lingering clouds and a lot of sunshine Sunday morning, allowing the ISM Raceway track in Avondale to dry out in plenty of time for NASCAR’s 14th annual TicketGuardian 500 Monster Cup race.
In a tight battle, Kevin Harvick beat Kyle Busch to the finish line to take the checkered flag for his third straight Monster Energy Cup victory.
The TicketGuardian runs just over 500 kilometers, or 312 laps over the Raceway’s one-mile oval.
Harvick started in the 10th position while Busch began from the No. 7 spot.
Kyle Larson, who was on the front row beside pole sitter Martin Truex Jr., grabbed the lead right off the bat.
But Busch and Harvick moved steadily up through the pack and on lap 57, Busch got inside Larson to grab the lead.
Four laps later, Harvick also found room to pass, making it Busch and Harvick running first and second.
Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott and Truex were also in the mix and on lap 208, Hamlin grabbed the lead with Harvick following.
“I could tell that myself and Kyle and Denny were going to be the top three,” said Bakersfield native Harvick. “I needed to be a little more aggressive. I was a little too patient. Denny did a good job of keeping his car in front of me”
From lap 232 through lap 244, Hamlin, Harvick and Busch staged a spirited and crowd pleasing fight for first.
Time and again, Harvick and Busch tried to pass Hamlin.
In each lap, the moves began as they entered turn 1 and battled around the corner through turn 2.
They repeated the action going into turn three through turn four — sometimes racing three wide.
Hamlin held them both off until Busch got by on lap 243. Harvick picked off Hamlin on the next lap and from there it was essentially a two man race.
Harvick finally caught and passed Busch on lap 290 and was able to hold him off to the finish.
“I knew I wanted to get Kyle behind me,” said Harvick. “I knew if I got the lead, had clean air up front, that I’d be tough to beat.”
“Our cars were pretty evenly matched today,” said Busch. “We’ve been doing whatever we do — just go to the racetrack and do the best that we can. Our guys did a great job. Through much of the race today I actually managed to out-race the 4 (Harvick) and beat him. Then with 11 (Hamlin), when 11 was holding up 4, I had an opportunity to get outside and make a three-way battle for the lead and take the 4 before he got clear of traffic. Once the four gets clear of traffic and gets in his own air, it’s hard to beat that guy.”
Chase Elliott, Hamlin and Truex finished third through fifth, respectively, in a day those five drivers were the class of the field.
Early on, Larson appeared to be the man to beat.
He took the lead on the green flag and raced away from the field until an early caution on lap 26 when Corey LaJoie’s engine failed, dumping oil on the backstretch and the entrance to pit road.
Truex moved into first on the re-start but Larson quickly took it back.
But Larson ran into mechanical problems on the 57th lap. While he wasn’t knocked out of the race, he slowly faded, finishing 18th, setting the stage for the Harvick-Busch duel.
“This weekend felt like a playoff moment for us. It felt more important to win this week that at Homestead for the championship. I can’t explain it but today’s win is just so rewarding,” said Harvick.
NASCAR moves west next week for the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.