JOLIET, Ill., July 14 (UPI) -- Kevin Harvick, who was not even on the radar screen for most of the race, used some strategy -- and one very bold move that nearly backfired -- to repeat as champion Sunday at the Tropicana 400.
Harvick posted an average speed of 136.825 miles per hour at the Chicagoland Speedway and won $200,028.
Harvick pitted out of sequence early in the race and that allowed him to stay on the track when the leaders pitted for the final time during caution on lap 242. Tony Stewart was the leader at that time and pitted for two tires, but was unable to catch the cars driven by Harvick and defending NASCAR Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon.
It was Harvick's third career Winston Cup victory and his first since winning this race last year.
"Those caution flags made gas for us today, that was a great, great race," said Gil Martin, Harvick's crew chief at Richard Childress Racing.
Harvick was so close on fuel that he ran out of gas on his victory lap after smoking the rear tires in a plume of smoke. He jumped out of the car in front of the main grandstands and jumped into the arms of his crew members.
"It was obviously a good day and finally I think we got a little luck on our side," Harvick said. "We got a little greedy with our fast race car and spun the thing out. And we came back and then we were forced to kind of just pit when we needed to and just stay out. We didn't know how fast it was going to be when it got out front, but it was plenty fast.
"We could come through traffic and pass cars and go high and go low. It was just a matter of track position for us and once we got it, it was pretty much lights out."
Harvick started 32nd and was able to jump-start his way to the front when he pitted on the 18th lap during the first caution period of the race for debris. That move would later pay big dividends as it allowed him to inherit the lead after Stewart and the rest of the leaders pitted during the final caution period.
Ironically, Harvick's drive to victory nearly ended in a spin on lap 197 when Harvick attempted a bold move to get under Kurt Busch and lost control of his car when he was forced onto the apron of the track. Harvick tried to regain control, but the Chevrolet shot up the track into the path of several other cars.
Jerry Nadeau, Hut Stricklin and Jimmy Spencer also were involved in the incident.
"I just went around a bunch of times," Harvick radioed to Martin. "I was cursing myself the whole time. I'm going to be back in about 20 laps."
Harvick was right.
"At that point, the race car was so fast that while the tires were fresh I was trying to get everything I could," Harvick said. "I thought that Kurt would clear the guy on the outside of him. And when I came back up, there wasn't a whole lot of room to go because when you come off the apron, you need to go straight up.
"I tried to go into the corner and up onto the race track and all at once and it just felt like somebody popped both the rear tires."
The caution period allowed Harvick to pit and top off his fuel tank so that he could make it for the final 67 laps without spinning. The spin did not derail Harvick's trip to victory lane, but the move did bring some less-than-complimentary comments from Gordon.
"It's funny how fortunate it can be for some and not for others," Gordon said of Harvick's move that caused the spin. "It was a pretty stupid move, in my opinion. "He drove a great race and drove the line he had to run to win.
"I have to give him some credit. Not too many guys could straighten it out."
Harvick believed Gordon's comments were something he expected out of a guy that finished second.
"Jeff Gordon got second, so maybe if he had been a little braver, he might have won," Harvick said. "We went down on the apron coming into the tri-oval, we did it two or three times. He thinks it was a stupid move and I think it was pretty cool."
There were 19 lead changes among 11 drivers, but that was a fairly misleading statistic because most of the race was a follow-the-leader parade. The high number of lead changes occurred during green-flag pit stops. Ryan Newman, the rookie who started on the pole, led the race two times for 87 laps.
But his potential first victory ended when a right front tire blew up on lap 239. He finished fifth.
Mark Martin, second in the championship race behind Sterling Marlin, picked up 28 points on Marlin to close within 49. Martin finished ninth in the race and Marlin 16th.