Did You Notice? Kevin Harvick’s year of “almosts” is finally catching up to him? The reigning champ’s Chase is in serious jeopardy after contact with Jimmie Johnson led to a wreck and a 42nd-place finish. The incident was clearly not Harvick’s fault; it was a case of wrong place, wrong time on a hectic restart where Johnson and Joey Logano made contact behind him. An innocent victim, he now sits dead last in the playoff standings, 22 points behind the cutoff with two races left to close the gap.
Those points won’t matter, of course if Harvick wins at either New Hampshire this Sunday or Dover the following week. But despite an incredible season, one where he’s scored 18 top-five finishes in the first 27 races, a victory at either track appears unlikely. Yes, he ran in the top three at both places the first time around this season. But Harvick has never won at Dover, a track Johnson typically dominates during the Chase, and his only career victory at New Hampshire came in 2006. Now, are chances high they’ll score top-five finishes in both events? Absolutely… but this type of deficit makes it questionable whether all those points will wind up being enough.
That’s where we turn to bonus points and the little boo boos that kept Harvick from winning so many places this year. He has a whopping 10 second-place finishes to go along with just two victories; convert all those into wins and he’s sitting on the right side of the Chase bubble with 30 extra bonus points. Even half of those second-place runs turned into wins makes Harvick’s deficit to 12th just seven points; that gap would be easily surmountable.
A lot of people say bonus points don’t matter anymore since the Chase resets everyone to zero after the first round. But look at Harvick’s situation. 1,460 laps led paces all drivers, but the “Closer” just couldn’t close the deal enough. There was the race at Kansas Johnson beat them on old tires, another close loss to Johnson at Atlanta, not able to make a move on Logano in the final laps of the Daytona 500… the list is long. Sure, Johnson’s car ultimately knocked Harvick out of the race at Chicagoland but if they can’t surmount a comeback this Stewart-Haas Racing team will have no one to blame but themselves.
Did You Notice? Jeff Gordon lost 12 spots on that final restart? So much has been said about that final caution but for the most part, other than Kurt Busch losing the victory spots gained or lost over those final few laps will have minimal impact on the Chase. Busch and Denny Hamlin were almost certain to make it through to the 12-driver field anyway based on how both have been running over the past few months (and, in Hamlin’s case, the Joe Gibbs Racing organization).
For Gordon, though driving his final season in Cup the outcome was not so certain. He started right on the top-12 bubble, without any bonus points and needed three solid runs to ensure his spot in the next round. Solidly inside the top three during Chicagoland’s stretch run, Gordon had the best run of his season in months going which would have built a cushion over 13th place in the points on back.
Instead, now Gordon sits just three points ahead and leaves the door open for him to fall out should New Hampshire and Dover bring any bad luck, mechanical failures or simply a poor run. The weird circumstances at the end of Chicagoland bring to mind the way Gordon’s Chase unfolded last November; in contention to win at Texas, a late caution combined with contact from Brad Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford cost a wounded Gordon 20 spots, a spot in the Homestead Final Four and potentially the championship. (He had the fastest car for much of that season finale). In some ways, it would be fitting if the incident knocks Gordon out in the first round during his final season; he has never won during the Chase format but would conceivably have matched Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt’s record of seven championships if the old point system through 2003 had been kept. In 2004, ’07 and last year Gordon would have won the title going away if the point system was kept in place over 36 races.
Did You Notice? In an era of record-setting contract in other sports NASCAR’s purses have been down at select races this season? Winner Hamlin took home a shade over $306,000 for winning the race at Chicagoland Sunday. Last season, Keselowski took home just over $364,000. That’s a whopping 16% reduction, made even more surprising considering it’s the first year of NASCAR’s new, improved television contract which brought millions in increased revenue into the coffers down in Daytona Beach.
The purses are confusing enough to understand, considering a driver who finishes 42nd can make more than someone who runs 20th due to contingency prizes, sponsor bonuses, etc. But those reductions are troubling for two reasons. One, if you’re a potential owner looking to enter the sport, purses are how you build your financial backbone while accumulating sponsorship. How can you trust it’s a lucrative proposition (sports is a business, after all) when you spot a downward trend like that? Two, these independent smaller teams are using this purse money as a way to try and survive. With the costs of doing business going up and money you win going down… it doesn’t take more than a second grader to do the math on that.
No wonder why Rob Kauffman, outgoing co-owner of Michael Waltrip Racing and Chairman of the Race Team Alliance refers to the sport as a failing business model. When he’s so bitter as to suggest his former race shop should be turned into a housing development… that’s why.
Did You Notice? Quick hits before we take off…
- A quick look at the four drivers currently outside the Chase and the time they’ve spent up front this year. Somehow, it seems like one driver just doesn’t fit…
Driver Laps Led
Kevin Harvick 1,460
- With his teammate Logano dominating the headlines at Team Penske this Sunday at Loudon is a crucial race for Keselowski. He led a race-high 101 laps there in July and finished second to Kyle Busch in a race he could have easily won. Kes has won just once this season, a freak final restart at Fontana after NASCAR called a questionable caution to force a green-white-checkered finish. The No. 2 team has been off and cashing in on a place they could capitalize would be a good way to rebuild their confidence and reset expectations for the rest of the playoffs.
- Many people feel Kurt Busch should have four victories this season, not two after questionable cautions thrown at Fontana and Chicagoland. The chatter about debris has been well-documented but the answers here are simple: like on restarts, NASCAR needs to be made available to explain why they’re making these questionable calls. They need to direct TV to the right people and pictures that show why the yellow flag came out. Leaving things murky turns on conspiracy theorists and make them look inept in an era where cameras, social media, and blanket media coverage can reveal virtually anything in almost every other sport.