The last time the Cup Series visited a road course, the enduring image was of Kevin Harvick getting in Juan Pablo Montoya’s face. It was a comical confrontation, a fit of frustration after Harvick thought Montoya wrecked him out of the race. While the conduct was hardly professional, Harvick did have the perfect excuse for being a hothead; he’d just been made an innocent victim of a wreck not of his making.
Oh, the irony; for this time, Harvick made an innocent victim out of someone else, and because of it, his Chase chances are suddenly on life support.
The mistake happened with less than five laps to go. Harvick, running in fifth, was pushing hard to get by the cars of David Gilliland, Tony Stewart and Jamie McMurray in front of him. Finishing second here in the race last June, Harvick clearly had a car capable of repeating the feat; but instead of a runner-up finish, he flat-out ran into the cars directly in front of him. It was a surprising move from a man whose road-course expertise has improved these last few years; clearly locking the brakes up three seconds before entering the turn, Harvick’s speed carried him straight into the back bumper of the cars in front of him. He, McMurray and Stewart all wrecked; and as a result, none of them got the finish they deserved.
“I made a mistake late in the race and drove the car in too deep,” Harvick said after the race. “I wheel-hopped it. I feel bad for involving the No. 26 and the No. 20.”
But all the bad feelings in the world couldn’t make up for the missed opportunity both McMurray and Stewart experienced on Sunday.
“You could see it better than I could – I’m inside the car,” said Stewart after the accident. “We got ourselves in a position to run second there, and then it just didn’t work out.”
“I just got run into the back of,” said McMurray. “What are you going to do? I guess the No. 29 car just drove over his head.”
“We had a second- or third-place car and should’ve finished there, and we didn’t.”
The accident had ramifications for everyone involved. While Stewart finished 10th, his Chase bid remains precarious instead of pushing forward; he’s far too close to the bubble than he’d like and still waiting for that June burst of good finishes which leaves his team with three to four wins by the end of the summer. As for McMurray, it’s his second week of tough luck; after a green/white/checkered finish robbed him of a win on fuel mileage, the Sonoma snafu has him squarely on the hot seat at Roush instead of weaseling his way to victory lane – and perhaps safely into the final year of his contract.
But Harvick suffered the most of all from his transgression. It’s clear that his career off the racetrack continues to move in a positive direction. His Truck Series team won the 2007 series championship and is threatening to win once again with the two-truck combo of Ron Hornaday Jr. and Jack Sprague. The team’s Nationwide Series program isn’t quite as strong, but a handful of top-five runs this season leave Harvick hopeful he’s on the verge of a turnaround.
Instead, he was the one turned around after an accident that could have been avoided. And that’s continued a serious slump that’s seen him finish outside the top 10 in each of the past six races. Right now, Harvick isn’t on a crash course for the Chase; he’s simply crashing down the standings. And with Matt Kenseth officially jumping over him and into the top 12, Harvick now sits 13th and on the outside looking in.
All that on the basis of one critical mistake. But this much we know; Harvick now doesn’t have the leeway to make any more – at least, if he wants to be in the Chase come September.