The reigning Sprint Cup champion, Kevin Harvick, is in big trouble just one race into NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup.
In order to keep his hopes of repeating intact, Harvick is going to have to win one of the next two races, and history doesn't favor him. He crashed and finished 42nd in the first of 10 races set aside to determine the championship over four stages.
"I'm just really proud of everybody on our...team for not giving up and doing all the things they had to do to get the car back on the track," Harvick said, "and we've just got to go win one of these [next two] races."
Twelve of the 16 Chase qualifiers will advance to Round 2 after the races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon and Dover International Speedway in Delaware. Harvick has won once in 29 races at the former and never in 29 tries at the latter. The winners of the races in each of the first three rounds advance automatically.
Harvick did, however, finish third in New Hampshire and second at Dover earlier this season.
On the 138th of 267 laps in Sunday's MyAFibRisk.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois, Harvick crashed after contact between his Chevrolet and that of six-time champion Jimmie Johnson caused left-rear tire failure. After one of the Chase's 10 events, Harvick trails the field.
"I just held my ground, and he [Johnson] just slammed into the side of the door like I wasn't even there," Harvick said. "The spotter was telling me 'four wide,' and I guess he Johnson] just figured that he'd come up the race track."
The winner, Denny Hamlin, will move on. That much is certain. Harvick, as a practical matter, will have to win one of the next two to do so. Barring an unbelievable set of circumstances in which many others experience similarly unexpected catastrophes, Harvick, who has won twice this season, is going to have to win one of the next two in order to keep his hopes alive.
Johnson saw the incident differently.
"I assumed he would try to find it as my fault," he said. "I just simply needed the lane to get back on the race track. By no means was I trying to do anything different. I've seen him on the flat, working his way back up looking for a racing lane. That's what I was doing.
"I was on the bottom, trying to get back on the racing surface, and he was trying to pin me down, and I had to get back up or else it would have been a hell of a mess."
The actual racing was mostly nondescript. Hamlin won by almost (.962) a second over Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Carl Edwards. The Gibbs Toyotas have won three straight races and eight of the last 10. They finished first, second, fifth (Matt Kenseth) and ninth (Kyle Busch). They led 137 laps, though Hamlin led only nine.
Restarts were the most compelling aspect of the Chase opener. It was a restart that doomed Harvick. Joey Logano's Ford bumped Johnson's Chevrolet, which wobbled a bit and cut low, beneath Harvick. They bumped. Johnson's car was undamaged, and he went on to finish 11th. Harvick's started throwing off smoke as a result of the fender rubbing the left-rear tire. On the fourth green-flag lap, Harvick crashed.
In radio communication with his team, captured on NBC Sports' coverage, Johnson put the blame on Logano. ("What was he doing?")
After the race, Logano was having none of it. "I had nothing to do with that," he said. "The '48' [Johnson] went three-wide bottom, and I was just sitting there. I was no part of it."
One could almost imagine Logano, cartoon style, whistling and then saying, uh, dum-dee-dum-dum.
Harvick physically resisted Johnson's attempt to hash things out before leaving the track. He met Johnson's apparent explanation with several forearm shivers caught by TV cameras.
NASCAR officials held a meeting with teams on Friday in which they supposedly tightened rules governing restarts, appointing an official to monitor them and promising to penalize drivers who violated those rules. But some thought the refs swallowed their whistles when Jeff Gordon, who led 41 laps, took the lead from Kyle Busch on Lap 144.
After serving notice of "an official review," NASCAR took no action.
|The Champ Is in the Cellar|
|Dale Earnhardt Jr.||2,038||14|
|Martin Truex Jr.||2,035||17|
Hamlin's 26th career victory—and second of the season—tied him with Hall of Famer Fred Lorenzen for 27th place on the all-time victory list. Lorenzen, a native and resident of the Chicago area, was present at the drivers' meeting.
It took Hamlin most of the race to get his Toyota to the front after he spun on the second lap. He started the race 29th.
"We did have a lot of adversity," Hamlin's crew chief, Dave Rogers, said. "You know, in the Chase, you're going to have adversity. It's going to strike. We've been talking about it, been trying to mentally prepare for it.
"This doesn't change our strategy. We're going to carry as much momentum...as possible. [Winning] definitely opens some doors. Anything can happen in these races. We saw the '4' car [Harvick] get torn up today. He was fast. Now we have a 'mulligan.' If we have a problem the next two weeks, it doesn't matter."
Hamlin is competing in spite of a knee injury he suffered playing basketball a few weeks back. He has insisted it won't be a major issue and proved it by winning.
"I think we can make a run," he said. "I've told everyone these Chase races set up for nobody more than me as the Chase goes on. The next round is the most challenging for us, personally. You just get us to the final eight, and I'm pretty confident we'll be at Homestead [site of the final race] with a chance."
A great race? No. A compelling story? Undeniably.
One race in, and a feud is in progress between the winners of the past two championships, Harvick and Johnson, whose sixth title was in 2013 and needs only another to tie the all-time record, shared by Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.
Do further hostilities await? The format practically guarantees it.
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All quotes are taken from NASCAR media, team and manufacturer sources unless otherwise noted.