FORT WORTH, Texas -- Kevin Harvick saved the day at Texas Motor Speedway.
It could be said that a driver winning for the eighth time this year -- leading 177 of 377 laps, including 65 of the final 80 -- and already pretty much a lock to make it to Homestead-Miami Speedway is of a ho-hum kind of day.
But if Harvick didn't win the AAA Texas 500 -- when he didn't make any pit road mistakes nor get involved in a crash -- the race would have been disappointing in the sense that the driver who clearly had the best car didn't win and couldn't do anything about it.
When Ryan Blaney passed him on a restart with 24 laps to go, it appeared Harvick might lose it. Granted, Blaney had a great car, but if he had won, it would have just emphasized even more what a track position game this was and just how difficult it was to pass at a track that two years ago went through a reconfiguration and a repave to try to spice up the racing.
"A lot of tire strategy, a lot of things happened today that turned into a track position-style race," Harvick said. "In the end, four [fresh] tires were faster than two tires. It took a little bit to pass. ... Look, repaves are difficult. I think they put in as much effort here as anywhere that we've gone."
Harvick made the pass with 20 laps to go and then held off Blaney on a green-white-checkered restart to still win by nearly a half-second.
"Our money spot was in the middle of [Turns] 1 and 2," Harvick said about the winning pass. "He hit the apron down there; we didn't. We were able to get by [Blaney]. ... It was just about keeping the pressure on him to try to keep him from hitting his marks.
"He wound up missing his marks. Luckily that was a lap that I hit mine."
The race started with an embarrassing NASCAR error that sent Jimmie Johnson to the rear because somewhere a NASCAR official wrote down that Johnson had failed prerace technical inspection three times.
Despite several Twitter posts from reporters on site that Johnson had passed on a third attempt and the fact the penalty was communicated to media about 15 minutes before the engines were fired, no one seemed to alert the officials of the error. Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief, didn't even know about it until the pace laps; obviously he's not on the media e-mail list, but somehow the miscommunication wasn't conveyed early enough to allow Knaus time to argue.
From there, the teams that supposedly are the best in the business kept acting like they didn't want to win the championship.
Kyle Busch suffered a speeding penalty and later had to pit under green for a loose wheel. Martin Truex Jr. also had a loose wheel, and then he even got hit with a penalty for driving through more than three pit boxes coming into his pit.
"The sun went down and there was all kinds of shadows and everything looked different, and I just turned in too early, a couple of feet," Truex said. "I knew right away. ... That's the first time I think I have ever done it since the rule was implemented. What a dumb moment."
Truex was able to rally to finish ninth after getting back on the lead lap. Busch never did, finishing 17th.
But none of the playoff drivers who started well behind them in points could make up their deficits. Chase Elliott, Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola finished sixth-seventh-eighth but didn't rack up enough stage points to gain on Truex.
Elliott left the track frustrated.
"I don't know what genius decided to pave this place or take the banking out of 1 and 2," Elliott said about the reconfiguration, which made Turns 1 and 2 different than Turns 3 and 4. "[It was] not a good move for the entertainment factor, in my opinion."
Almirola left frustrated at Joey Logano -- the winner last week at Martinsville and therefore already having clinched a spot to vie for the championship -- for pinching him in the turn when he felt unnecessary.
"He made it really difficult on me today, which was really unnecessary," Almirola said. "He could have run fourth, fifth, 11th, it doesn't matter. He is still going to go to Homestead and race for a championship. It is just not smart."
Even Harvick had a chance where frustration could have ruined him, as he felt a vibration on one of the restarts, worried he had a loose wheel.
"To me, that's a Goodyear problem," Harvick said. "It's not something that every team magically has loose wheels and has things go wrong. There's some issues that come with the tires."
Harvick did note that Goodyear fixed a tire issue drivers had in April with tires blowing out. That was a positive on a day when the crowd appeared disappointing. TMS is one of the biggest tracks (the December 2017 seating still lists it at 137,000), but it certainly wasn't close to being half-full.
The fans know it is a place tough to pass, and NASCAR hopes its 2019 rules package will make a difference as far as ability for drivers to challenge for the lead.
"We've been able to figure out how to pass, keep our car turning," Harvick said. "For whatever reason, we just feel really good about the things that happen for us at this particular track since they've redone it."
The result of the day: Kyle Busch lost some ground, seeing his cushion go from 46 points ahead of the cutoff to 28 on his brother Kurt, the first driver on the outside looking in going into the elimination race next week at Phoenix.
Truex entered the race with a 25-point edge on Kurt Busch, and that remained the same. Elliott is 39 points behind, while Almirola is 57 points back and Bowyer is 73 back.
"We're in a good spot," Truex said. "We have to go to Phoenix and have a good day, but I know we can do it. ... If we have another day like today, we'll be in good shape to go to Miami."
Unless something crazy happens at Phoenix, the four drivers at Miami will be the Big 3 of Harvick, Kyle Busch and Truex, plus Martinsville winner Logano.
If that happens, many will believe that's a legitimate championship four, considering Harvick has eight wins, Busch has seven and Truex, the defending Cup champion, has four. Despite all the frustration many had at Texas, the results could seem just.
"I don't even know how you have a favorite," Harvick co-owner Tony Stewart said. "When you think of the reality of what Homestead is, you're loading all your chips into one race.
"You never know what can happen. There's still 40 cars in the race, four of them racing for a championship [and] 36 guys that can make a mistake and change the outcome of the event."
But Stewart also knows he might have the best driver to handle it all.
"I like the fact that we got Kevin Harvick there," Stewart said. "That's a guy that I don't care who he's up against, that's a guy you kind of want with the ball in the bottom of the ninth."