LOUDON, N.H. (AP) — Matt Kenseth had the fresher tires and the fuller tank as he stalked Kevin Harvick with postseason advancement at stake.
Harvick never slowed down to conserve fuel, his team firm in the belief he could stretch his way to victory lane.
The gamble backfired. Harvick was out of gas, and now, almost out of chances to defend his Sprint Cup title.
Kenseth pressured Harvick down the stretch and took the lead for good when the defending series champion ran out of fuel Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in the second race of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship.
“I ran as hard as I could to get as close as I could to him because I wanted to beat him,” Kenseth said. “The faster he has to go, obviously, he burns more gas.”
Harvick burned it all. Every last drop gone for the Stewart-Haas Racing driver before the finish line.
Kenseth, who won for the fifth time, earned a berth in the second round of NASCAR’s playoffs and gave Joe Gibbs Racing its fourth straight victory.
Harvick had the dominant car and led the most laps until fuel woes hit and knocked him out with three laps left. He tumbled to 21st a week after he was finished 42nd in the Chase opener and will surely have to win next week at Dover International Speedway to advance to the second round.
Harvick declined comment.
“Fast car. Great day. Bad ending,” he tweeted. “Things haven’t gone exactly to plan but I promise you one thing ‘we will not quit’ #itaintover.”
JGR is 2 for 2 in the Chase and continued to prove its Toyotas will be the ones to beat over the final eight races. Denny Hamlin, the winner last week at Chicagoland, was second for JGR. Chase drivers took eight of the top 10 spots.
The 16-driver Chase field will be cut to 12 after Dover.
“I was giving Kevin everything I had,” Kenseth said. “I thought he had us beat. He had the better car.”
Kyle Busch, Paul Menard, Harvick and Clint Bowyer are the final four drivers on the brink of elimination. They would advance with a victory, but Jimmie Johnson stands in their way at Dover, where he has a track-record 10 victories.
Harvick was knocked out of the race last week when he connected with Johnson and blew a tire. He later got into an altercation with Johnson in the motorhome lot and shoved the Hendrick Motorsports driver.
Harvick led 216 of 300 laps and heads to Dover — where he is 0 for 29 — with one of the biggest must-win races of his career.
Crew chief Rodney Childers had a lengthy post on Twitter that said the data showed Harvick had enough fuel in the No. 4 Chevrolet to last all 300 laps.
“It should have been a non-issue. Which is why we weren’t worried,” Childers wrote. “It looks like for some reason it must not have got full on our last pit stop of the race or the fuel cell bladder is coming apart. ... If anything showed we were taking a chance, we would have pitted.”
Chevrolet is winless in 11 straight races, matching its longest drought since 2012.
Harvick wasn’t the only Chase driver whose championship hopes are on the rocks.
Busch was the first Chase driver to suffer serious damage when his right front tire blew and he hit the wall. Busch, who won the July race in New Hampshire, took the No. 18 straight to the garage.
“It’s killed,” he said over the radio.
Fourth in the standings entering the race, Busch dropped to 13th in points after he finished 37th.
“It’s hard to leave the racetrack when you know you had one car that just had a real tough time today, and we care so much about those guys, too,” Gibbs said.
Brad Keselowski had his shot at an automatic bid into the second round end when he was black flagged with 58 laps left after a review showed he jumped the restart while racing Greg Biffle for the lead. He stayed on the lead lap but sunk to 25th after the penalty. He rebounded to finish 12th.
“It’s an entertainment sport, not a fair sport,” Keselowski said.
NASCAR officials vowed to crack down on restarts entering the Chase, and still had an issue last week when Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch battled for the lead. Gordon was spared a penalty when he appeared to jump the restart and pass Busch.
Cup series director Richard Buck said the restart rule was enforced fairly against Keselowski. Buck said it was a “clear cut call” that Keselowski beat Biffle to the line in the restart zone. The restart rules also are reviewed every race at the drivers’ meeting.
“We listen to the garage, we listen to what they say,” Buck said. “They wanted clarity, we gave them clarity on it.”
Joey Logano finished third and Biffle, a non-Chase driver, was fourth. Edwards was fifth, followed by Johnson, Gordon and Martin Truex Jr.
Gordon set the Sprint Cup record with his 789th consecutive start.
Other Chase results saw Ryan Newman in 10th, Jamie McMurray 14th, Menard 15th, Kurt Busch ran out of fuel and was 19th, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was 25th, and Bowyer 26th.