Did You Notice? How to get away with murder from a sporting perspective? Kevin Harvick has mastered the craft, deftly dodging questions about whether his Talladega wreck was intentional Tuesday while knowing NASCAR has finalized their decision not to penalize him on the incident.
“Look, I just tried to get going and thinking and try to keep somebody behind me to help me get going,” Harvick said of a final green-white-checkered restart which ended with him turning right into Trevor Bayne’s rear bumper, preserving his spot in the Chase with a car that would never have come up to full speed over the final two laps. “As I moved up, before I even knew [Bayne] was gone, he was beside me. I didn’t even know he was out there until he was already by me. It happens pretty fast. I was hoping the No. 6 would push me. He started behind me.”
Instead, Harvick pushed Bayne, sparking a dozen cars spinning wildly and the field frozen before the reigning champion could be eliminated from the Chase. Other drivers saw what happened; everyone from the normally reserved Matt Kenseth to the more emotional Denny Hamlin called Harvick out, either on camera afterwards, on Twitter or both mediums. Privately, several NASCAR teams are up in arms this week about an incident that they claim is not that far off Clint Bowyer spinning out intentionally at Richmond two years ago in order to ensure Martin Truex Jr. earned his spot in the Chase. In that case, Bowyer manipulated the results intentionally in order to assure a certain result. If someone believes that Harvick made that move intentionally, isn’t the same theme of manipulating the race in play?
The difference, of course is in Bowyer’s case NASCAR had hard evidence in the form of radio communications and even admissions from the team itself at Richmond there was intent to change the outcome of the race. Here’s the problem when athletes see a crime getting committed like that; you learn how to do it better the second time around. Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers weren’t going to say anything to the level of “wreck your car intentionally” on the radio. Barring a shocking surprise defection, there is going to be no “smoking gun” in the form of a crew member or spotter admitting afterward some funny business was going on. Instead, Harvick’s previous move of getting out of the way on the restart before his wreck showcased he had an engine problem and was willing to move aside for other drivers to pass him. That’s enough right there to keep NASCAR from doling out a punishment even though Harvick’s in-car camera appears to show he pulled to the right just as Bayne was going past.
Now, since there’s no penalty what you have is a driver who knows he got away with one and is doing all the right things after over a decade of being involved in this sport and paying the price for bad behavior or aggressive quotes made in front of the press. Harvick, already a champion, turns 40 years old this year and has learned how to play the game of public relations.
Example: When asked about other driver’s anger, culminating in an ugly post by Hamlin that insinuated fans paid money on Sunday to watch “crap” Harvick was understanding, even sympathetic to his rival’s plight.
“Look, Denny is a very emotional person,” he said at Media Day for the Chase Eliminator Round, at which Hamlin wasn’t present because, well, he was already eliminated after that Talladega mess. “I would consider Denny a fair acquaintance. I don’t consider too many of them my friends because we get into situations like this… and so I think as you look at that, he’s a very opinionated person. He’s going to stand behind what he believes in and that’s fair and I don’t think anybody can knock him for that. I’m not going to sit here and throw stones because I’ve been mad at situations.…”
It’s Harvick the sage, understanding old veteran who’s taking the high road while others complain about the end result. When asked about his position in the Chase, the driver maintained a similar tone, sounding almost disappointed in his results thus far while remaining humble in how “lucky” the No. 4 team appears to be to still be alive in the postseason.
“I feel like we’ve been as sloppy as we’ve been in two years, since I’ve been involved with this race team and still hanging around,” he said. “I feel like our pit crew is on point and we’ve had speed in the cars, those have really been the only two things that have been 100%. We’ve had some parts failures and things go wrong, those pieces not being 100%…”
And so the driver moves on even when fans and other rivals remain up in arms. You can appreciate him playing along but for those exasperated by what has happened in the latest rendition of NASCAR’s playoff format the answers they got over the past few days are not going to satisfy anyone.
Did You Notice? For the second straight year in this format, a driver second in points heading into Talladega wound up eliminated from the Chase? Last year, it was Kyle Busch getting involved in a wreck and this time around it was Hamlin, victimized by a roof hatch that just wouldn’t stay tied down.
Look, I understand that in the playoffs you are going to have certain situations where top seeds get eliminated. We see it all the time; the team with the best record in baseball this year, the St. Louis Cardinals were cut down before they even had a chance to fight for the National League Pennant. That being said, putting Talladega in the position where it decides the fate of drivers who have worked so hard to get to this point in their season appears grossly unfair. So much at this racetrack is out of your control; you’re stuck in the draft where a wreck not of your making can appear at any time. A $5 part that cost Jimmie Johnson at Dover appears a bit easier to swallow than the green-white-checkered mess that cost Ryan Newman a spot or even the roof hatch incident with Hamlin, however similar that part failure may be to Johnson’s Dover disaster.
The sport will refuse to remove Talladega from the Chase going forward because they feel the popularity amongst fans is too much to let it go. The 2.6 final Nielsen rating we saw for that event is easily the highest for any race in the postseason; the crowd at the track is among the largest we’ve seen all year.
However, NASCAR’s interpretation of why the race is popular appears to be 180 degrees off base. People tune into Talladega not for the playoff implications but to cling to a once-regular occurrence that the majority of the field could potentially win this event. For one of only a handful of races all year, someone like a Cole Whitt from Front Row Motorsports or Michael McDowell from Leavine Family Racing (who was running inside the top 10 for much of the day) could come from nowhere and score an upset win. New names and new faces combine with the well-funded teams within the Cup Series, battling toe-to-toe and for much of the race they’re doing it inches from each other in three-abreast formation. That’s why Talladega is so intriguing for so many – not because they get to sit there doing math all day as to who advances to the next round of the playoffs and who doesn’t.
The sport, even with the 2016 schedule released would be wise to move Talladega’s position outside the Chase and replace it with another short track or even a road course to introduce more versatility into the postseason. Sadly, that won’t happen but the randomness it introduces into the title race dilutes the championship within the garage and amongst the fan base. You think Kenseth is going to sit there and congratulate Harvick if he’s holding the trophy in Homestead? Yeah, I didn’t think so either.
Did You Notice? The record ratings this playoff season is getting for NBCSN? Yes, NASCAR audiences are down across the board but for a fledgling network like this one it’s the stability executives have long been looking for. The 2.6 final Nielsen number for Talladega was the third-largest audience we’ve seen for that network ever. A channel that was once focused on obscure Olympic sports and the long-suffering IndyCar Series now has a “sport” to hang its hat on.
That’s important because those final numbers are what top-level executives are looking to see with their bottom line. No President of NBC Sports is going to delve into the nitty-gritty of the final laps at Talladega; trust me, kids, I’ve been in television 10-plus years. They don’t have time to care about that as NASCAR is just one card on the table of a desk filled with 24-hour, 7-day-a-week programming that has to be monitored. What they do care about is numbers they can show the stockholders, ones that prove the channel is building its audience. NASCAR’s ratings, as disappointing as they can be for those inside the sport, actually do the trick there as they sure beat an 0.3 for national Gymnastics qualifying that might have run in place of Sunday’s event.
I think NBC and NBCSN have done a fantastic job, to be honest covering the sport in their first season. But if people are looking for someone to throw down the gauntlet there and force NASCAR to make major changes, either to its playoff system or to its Chase schedule in the wake of Talladega it’s not going to come from the network. The people in suits are as pleased as they can get with programming they grossly overpaid for in this world of depleting cable subscriptions. Virtually every rights fee for every major sport is turning into a bad contract but for now, these numbers are the best NBCSN can do under the circumstances and that’s all executives are going to care about. The NASCAR officiating will be left to NASCAR officials, part of the problem as well as the inevitable solution….
Did You Notice? Quick hits before taking off…
- I counted the comments on an article Bob Pockrass wrote for ESPN calling the latest version of the Chase “a circus.” 66 of those 68 comments were negative, including fans claiming they had watched their last race or that NASCAR’s playoff system had become a true farce. Typically, after 10-plus years of writing I know people will focus on the negative far more than the positive, but that’s a clear message being sent.
- A lot of people are now looking ahead to Martinsville as a race where drivers could take matters into their own hands. Absolutely, if I was Harvick or Joey Logano I would be nervous their day could end on a wrecker after some angry rival decides to enact revenge on what’s gone on the last couple of weeks. But I’m also not so sure at this point that’s good for the sport either. The second you see a teammate retaliate in football, knocking an opponent to the ground there’s a penalty flag thrown and the move is generally frowned upon. Yes, what Logano and Harvick did the past few weeks isn’t going to be supported by 100% of the fanbase, but kicking the crap of them out on the racetrack doesn’t seem right either.
- At some point, to me the question is simple in the wake of Talladega and similar questionable incidents we’ve seen the last few years. Is what we’re seeing on the racetrack going to attract new fans? Is a finish like we saw Sunday easily explainable to people and going to cause others to pay money to sit in the stands? I’m not going to personally answer this question; I think the controversy we’ve seen in the wake of Talladega speaks for itself.