CONCORD, N.C. — Kevin Harvick moved into the third round of NASCAR’s championship race with a victory Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where tempers flared after the race and two drivers had to be restrained from fighting Brad Keselowski.
Harvick had to win a two-lap sprint to the finish to grab his third victory of the season, but attention turned quickly to two near-brawls in the garage involving Keselowski. Denny Hamlin was held back by his own crew from going after Keselowski, who appeared to try to wreck Hamlin after the race.
Then Matt Kenseth appeared to jump on Keselowski from behind between two haulers and multiple team members had to pull back Kenseth. Kenseth and Keselowski made contact racing for the lead on a late restart, and Kenseth was livid that Keselowski hit his car after the race.
“It was really the safety. He was doing something with Hamlin, I had my seatbelt off, my (head-and-neck restraint) off and he clobbers me,” Kenseth said. “The race is over, come back to pit road. If you want to talk about it like a man, go do that. But if you want to wreck somebody on the racetrack with people standing around, that’s just inexcusable.
“There’s no excuse for that. That’s a champion and he’s supposed to know better than that.”
It capped a terrible night for three of NASCAR’s biggest stars: Keselowski, six-time and defending champion Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. all go into next Sunday’s elimination race at Talladega needing a victory.
Keselowski finished 16th, Johnson was 17th and Earnhardt was 20th — last in the 12-driver Chase field. Earnhardt broke his shifter early in the race and it put him in a deep hole he couldn’t climb from.
“The vibration broke the shifter in half,” Earnhardt said. “The car wasn’t handling well and the vibration was giving us problems.”
The four drivers now in danger of being eliminated next week are Kenseth, Keselowski, Johnson and Earnhardt.
Kenseth also had his own rough night and didn’t even make it to the green flag before things went awry.
NASCAR ordered him to drop to the back of the field at the start of the race because his Joe Gibbs Racing team was penalized for making an unapproved change to his Toyota.
“They are out of control. Absolutely out of control,” crew chief Jason Ratcliff radioed about NASCAR.
Kenseth remained calm and urged his crew to do the same: “Let’s just get it together here, keep our composure and do the things we know how to do. It’s not a big deal. It’s 500 miles.”
He was anything but calm, though, after his 19th-place finish and tussle with Keselowski.
Keselowski, the 2012 champion and most dominant driver of the first round of the Chase, also had a post-race issue with Tony Stewart. He seemed to run into the back of Stewart after his issues with Hamlin and Kenseth, and Stewart backed his car up to crumple the front of Keselowski’s Ford.
Hamilton takes pole for Russian GP: In Sochi, Russia, Formula One championship leader Lewis Hamilton, bidding for his fourth consecutive race victory, will start from pole position at the inaugural Russian Grand Prix.
Hamilton earned his seventh pole of the season by beating Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg by two-tenths of a second in Saturday’s qualifying.
Williams driver Valtteri Bottas was faster than Hamilton for two sectors in his last lap but then went wide in the last corner and stayed third.
Hamilton leads Rosberg by 10 points and is seeking his ninth victory of the season. He has won the last three races — in Japan, Singapore and Italy — and Mercedes can wrap up its first constructors title if one of its drivers wins Sunday’s race.
“Pole is a great place to start from,” said Hamilton, who is seeking his second championship after winning the title in 2008. This was his 38th career pole.
Hamilton is clearly a fan of this Black Sea resort and the Sochi Autodrom around the Olympic Park, where the Winter Olympics were held in February.
“This is really a beautiful place and the weather has been amazing,” the British driver said. “I really enjoy driving here. The surroundings, the mountains, it’s quite an incredible place.”
“But it will be tough tomorrow, it’s a long way to turn 1,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton said he had no idea how important it was to start on pole on the circuit, since it has never been used for a Grand Prix before.
The sunny and warm weather was in contrast to last weekend’s race in Suzuka, Japan, held in heavy rain and fading light. Hamilton’s victory there was overshadowed by the accident that left Marussia driver Jules Bianchi fighting for his life in a hospital. Bianchi lost control in wet conditions and ploughed into a tractor recovering another car that crashed out at the same spot one lap earlier and suffered a severe head injury.
The Marussia car is racing only one car this weekend in a sign of respect for Bianchi and drivers have stickers on their helmets expressing support for the French diver.
Hamilton and other drivers praised the smooth surface of the Sochi Autodrom, saying there was good grip while almost no tire wear.
“It’s a fast flowing, medium to fast circuit and it should make for an interesting race,” Hamilton said.
With 125 points at stake in the remaining four Grand Prix of the season — including 50 at season-ending Abu Dhabi — Rosberg said every race was important.
“Lewis was quicker all weekend and I have to accept it, but front row is still good,” Rosberg said. “The track is so smooth on tires, it’s completely different from anything else we’ve had.”
Bottas said he did not know how close he was to the pole.
“Maybe I took it a little too hard on the tires at the start of the lap. I risked too much in the last corner and went wide,” Bottas said.
“It’s not nice to make a mistake but Mercedes have been very fast in the last sector all weekend and maybe I lost one place,” the Finn said.
Four-time defending champion Sebastian Vettel failed to make the third and final qualifying session in his Red Bull but because Kevin Magnusson of McLaren will be dropped five places for an unscheduled gearbox change, Vettel will move to 10th. Magnusson falls from sixth to 11th, allowing Daniel Ricciardo in the other Red Bull to move up one place to sixth.
Jenson Button of McLaren will start fourth and Daniil Kvyat delighted home fans by taking fifth place for Toro Rosso in his best qualifying result.