Flat Spot On: Strange Ending for Harvick

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, November 5 2020

Kevin Harvick ended his hopes for a 2020 Cup Series championship in limp mode last Sunday. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Jim Fluharty)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

I like my racing unpredictable. But I’m not surprised that there are those who want something more predictable when it comes to a NASCAR Cup championship. 

How could a driver like Kevin Harvick, they ask, not make it to the final round of the NASCAR Playoffs at Phoenix on Sunday? If he’s not one of the final four contending drivers, then the Playoffs system needs to be re-examined.

Perhaps. But I don’t recall this point of view about the legitimacy of the Playoffs when Harvick needed a victory to continue – and got one. He won at Phoenix in 2014 to advance to Homestead, where he clinched his first title with a victory. 

Here’s my question. How did a driver who won the regular season championship and nine races fail to advance to the final round, given all the accumulated bonus points? 

When he needed a solid finish, Harvick and his Stewart Haas Racing team were, in a word, uncompetitive at Martinsville. Had Harvick barely advanced, instead of failing by a handful of points, and then won at Phoenix, sure, I’d consider him a bona fide two-time champion. But, I’m not disappointed in his absence. The other four contenders have had championship-worthy seasons with at least three race victories. It will not be the first time that consistency has overcome a victory total when it comes to a championship.

It’s not rocket science. Harvick and his Stewart Haas Racing team, despite all the bonus points, failed to get better at the same rate as the competition during the closing stages of NASCAR’s version of an oddball 2020 sports year. Harvick’s ninth victory came at Bristol, eight races ago. All of the other contenders have won a race since then and Chase Elliott has won two. Each victory carries five Playoff bonus points. As it was, Elliott needed that second Playoff victory last Sunday on the bullring at Martinsville to edge out Harvick, who finished a lowly 17th after spinning on the last lap while trying to gain one more needed point.

Those who simply don’t like the Playoffs are saying, in Harvick’s absence, “I told you so.” If the social media is any indication, it’s a wedge issue being held against the format that is described as a gimmick by the naysayers. I’ll be the first to admit the format is about TV ratings and trying to make racing more like other American major league sports. But it is precisely the elimination format that I find appealing. 

Isn’t winning a title about performing under pressure? Nobody ever talks much about Game 1 of a World Series or Game 2 of the NBA Finals as being decisive. Who recalls first-quarter heroics in the Super Bowl? It’s the do-or-die performances that stand out in elimination games. But it’s not as if racing tradition has been thrown out the window. Drivers carry their hard-earned bonus points forward and have three races in each round before the final do-or-die round, at Phoenix this year for the first time.

One of the arguments against the format is that victories get short changed. But how can that be the case if an eligible driver automatically advances with a victory? Don’t the Playoffs put a ton of emphasis on winning a race such as Elliott’s performance last Sunday? Isn’t it likely the title winner will have to finish first at Phoenix?

Two of the underlying refrains of protest are that racing should be different than other sports, and, more like it used to be. Guess what. If the Playoffs don’t always result in the driver with the most victories winning the title, it’s not a new thing. See Awesome Bill Elliott of Dawsonville and the 1985 season, for one of many examples. 

Nothing is normal about 2020, including Harvick’s season. He did not win a race until teams started playing by COVID rules. No qualifying, no practice, run what you brought on the hauler. This approach fit the methodology of Harvick and Crew Chief Rodney Childers well. They’ve usually done an outstanding job of making their Fords better as races progressed – and have arrived at the first practice in good shape. Harvick and Childers focused on changing track conditions and on running consistently enough to accumulate stage points with an eye on being in front for the final stage.

Since winning the championship in 2014 – the first under the Playoffs format – Harvick has been to the final round in Homestead five of six seasons prior to this year. What stands out about this year is a career-high nine victories – one more than he won in 2018, when he came up short in the season finale in Homestead and finished third behind Joey Logano and Martin Truex, Jr. 

Old school racing is about adjusting the chassis performance mid-race and adjusting one’s driving to meet the ongoing conditions of a track and race. That’s been given new emphasis in 2020. Cap’s off to Harvick for responding more quickly and better than his competition prior to the semifinal round of the playoffs. But in the last two races in the Round of 8, he finished next-to-last among the contenders after finishing second to Logano in Kansas.

Did NASCAR put Harvick at a disadvantage in Texas, where he discovered the misty weather conditions made the PJ1 traction compound like ice while the sanctioning body hemmed and hawed about trying to compete on a wet oval? Yes. After hitting the wall in the mist while leading, by time the race was finished three days later Harvick had made four unscheduled pit stops for repairs due to his contact with the SAFER barrier. Wrong by NASCAR to attempt racing in the mist? Totally. Horrific luck for Harvick? Yes. Would he have likely scored enough stage points at Texas, where he has won three times in Playoff races, to advance absent the incident on a wet track? Yes. Does he deserve to be in the final four at a Phoenix track where he is perennially competitive? Yes. 

But that race in Martinsville…

(Editor’s note: Jonathan Ingram is in his 44th year of covering motor racing. His current book is “CRASH! From Senna to Earnhardt – How the HANS Helped Save Racing.” See www.jingrambooks.com)

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, November 5 2020
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