Kevin Harvick celebrates his win Sunday night in the Cup Series playoff opener at Darlington Raceway. It was the series high eighth win of the season for Harvick, who is assured of advancing to the second round of the playoffs. Chris Carlson/Associated Press

DARLINGTON, S.C. — Another race, another win for Kevin Harvick. Again at Darlington Raceway and this time to open the playoffs and his march toward the NASCAR championship.

Only difference? Harvick didn’t dominate the Southern 500 in his series-best eighth victory of the season. The regular-season champion and top seed in the playoffs inherited the lead Sunday night when Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott bumped into each other and then brushed the wall as they raced for the victory.

Elliott dropped off the pace and Harvick passed him for second. Truex – who led a race-high 196 laps – had to pit for repairs on his damaged car and Harvick was suddenly out front.

“The leaders got tangled up there and the next thing you know we were racing for the win,” Harvick said. “This is one of the most prestigious races in our sport and obviously everybody in our sport knows the history that Darlington has for our sport, so anytime you can win here is pretty special.”

Harvick has won twice this season at Darlington, including the May 17 return to competition for NASCAR after a 10-week pause at the start of the pandemic. When he won that race – held without spectators – he pointed into the television camera and told the fans how much they were missed.

South Carolina allowed Darlington to admit up to 8,000 for this race – the third Cup race this season for the track – and Harvick immediately noted their presence.

“The first thing I want to say is ‘Welcome back fans! This is a hell of a lot more fun with you guys up there,’” he told the crowd. He also gave the checkered flag to a young fan wearing one of his shirts.

The victory fell into Harvick’s lap with 14 laps remaining when Truex attempted to pass Elliott. As Truex went to complete the move, he clipped Elliott’s front side and both touched the wall.

“Just not enough room there for both of us,” Truex said of the botched pass for the lead. “I thought I had enough of a run to clear him. I think it was close, obviously. I thought I had enough momentum and distance on him that he was going to let me in there.”

Harvick had to hold off a hard-charging Austin Dillon, a driver few predict will advance very far into the playoffs, to seal the victory in his Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing.

Dillon, in a Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing, was second. Joey Logano in a Ford for Team Penske was third.

Erik Jones, the defending Southern 500 winner who is being replaced at Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of the season, finished fourth in a Toyota. Jones was the only non-playoff driver to finish in the top 10.

Hendrick Motorsports teammates William Byron and Alex Bowman were fifth and sixth, followed by reigning series champion Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, and SHR teammates Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer.

Elliott wound up 20th, while Truex was a lap down in 22nd.

• Ryan Blaney was penalized 10 points and sent to the back of the field before the start of the race.

Blaney’s car was found to have improperly mounted ballast. Blaney’s crew chief, Todd Gordon, was suspended for the race.

Blaney’s owner, Team Penske, said in a statement that a 5-pound bag of lead normally used to simulate fluid weights prior to installing the race engine “was accidentally left in the car.”

Team Penske said Travis Geisler would serve as Blaney’s crew chief.

Blaney, one of three Penske drivers in the 16-man playoff field, was supposed to start seventh before the penalty.

Blaney earned his playoff spot with a victory at Talladega earlier this season.

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