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Kevin Harvick nabs 9th win of season to roll into 2nd round

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Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Kevin Harvick celebrates in Victory Lane after his win in the NASCAR Cup Series auto race Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020, in Bristol, Tenn. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

BRISTOL, Tenn. – Feeding off one of the largest crowds at a sporting event during the pandemic, Kevin Harvick steamrolled his way into the second round of NASCAR's playoffs in a championship that is clearly his to lose.

Harvick held off a charging Kyle Busch over the final 40 laps Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway for his career-best and Cup Series-high ninth victory of the season. He did it in front of a sold-out crowd of 30,000 spectators, the most Bristol was allowed to admit and the largest crowd since March.

“I hadn’t been to too many races where I’ve been that jacked up getting in the race car,” Harvick said. "The fans were so enthusiastic tonight and I don’t know if we’ve just been away from them for that long, but you could feel the enthusiasm in the stadium tonight.

“As I was getting in the car, I was just wound up and just really, really ready to race.”

Harvick took the lead from Busch and denied Busch his first victory of the season. Busch furiously tried to catch him as the two weaved their way through lapped traffic, but Harvick held firm in the No. 4 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing.

Only six cars finished on the lead lap in a tepid event at the 0.533-mile bullring revered for bumping and banging. Track officials sold all 30,000 tickets allowed — making Bristol one of the largest sporting events since the pandemic — and the spectators crowded the fence as Harvick celebrated his second win of the playoffs.

Harvick also won the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway to open the playoffs. He's ninth on NASCAR’s career list with 58 Cup victories.

Busch, who failed inspection twice before the race and drove from the back of the field to lead in his Toyota, was disappointed to finish second. Busch took aim at Joey Logano, who failed to move out of the way as Harvick and Busch battled for the lead — “he's nobody's friend for a reason” — as well as younger drivers Garrett Smithley and Joey Gase.