EditorsNote: Adds quotes, race details
With a victory already in hand in the first round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, along with the automatic berth into the second round that goes with that, Kevin Harvick could have taken it easy in Saturday night's Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Instead of kicking back, Harvick kicked butt.
The Stewart-Haas Racing driver took the lead for the fourth and last time with 32 laps to go in the 500-lap race, held off defending champion Kyle Busch of Joe Gibbs Racing, and drove away with his ninth win of the season.
"Bristol, baby," Harvick said upon exiting his No. 4 Chevrolet.
Even though Harvick didn't need to win, he planned to win.
"We were here to try to win a race," he said. "It's just been a weird a year, but it's been an unbelievable year on the racetrack."
His margin of victory over Busch, who was scrapping to get his first victory of the season, was .31 seconds. Harvick led a race-high 226 of 500 laps. Busch led 159 laps, which was second most.
Busch has won eight times at the Bristol half-mile track -- more than any other driver in the field.
"To beat Kyle Busch at Bristol, I kind of got myself in a bit of a wringer there, I hit a lap car there and got a hole in my nose but I just kept fighting. We didn't have anything else to lose," the 2014 Cup champion said.
Busch had his best chance of 2020 to break into the win column.
"Just didn't have enough at the end," Busch said. "The guys did a great job and gave me a real good piece tonight to contend and at least to be out there and be close.
Busch started from the rear of the field due to failing his pre-race inspection but picked off car after car en route to the front of the field.
"Lapped cars were definitely a problem," Busch said. "But it's part of racing and you've got to try to get around them where you can, and there was just no room for me to do what I needed to do on a couple of those opportunities to get past him.
"He obviously had the faster car than us tonight."
Finishing third was Erik Jones, a non-playoff driver, while rookie Tyler Reddick, also a non-playoff-er, was fourth. Placing fifth was playoff driver Aric Almirola, Harvick's teammate.
The race was the final event of the playoffs-opening Round of 16. The Round of 12 begins next weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Moving on to the Round of 12 are Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Chase Elliott, Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Austin Dillon, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Alex Bowman and Martin Truex Jr.
Relegated to non-playoffs status were Hendrick Motorsports' William Byron, who crashed out with a damaged front end while running 10th, along with Cole Custer, Ryan Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto.
"I think the 51 car (of Joey Gase), it was a black and green car, checked up in the middle of the straightaway. I had really nowhere to go," Byron said. "Ridiculous that that's what takes us out. I thought we had a shot to run top five or seven."
Blaney, who is teammates with Logano and Keselowski, was the only Team Penske stable to not make the Round of 12. "I was kind of tight all night," he said.
DiBenedetto's night was plagued by a loose wheel and then, after a comeback, a cut tire.
"If we didn't have bad luck we wouldn't have any luck at all," DiBenedetto of Wood Brothers Racing said.
--Field Level Media