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Brendan Marks: What does Kevin Harvick’s untimely penalty mean for NASCAR’s championship picture?

November 11, 2018

So, this hasn’t been the best week for Kevin Harvick — which is, obviously, surprising given how it started out.

On Sunday at Texas, Harvick won his eighth race of this NASCAR Cup Series season, simultaneously locking himself into championship race at Homestead later this month ... or so he — and we all — thought.

Because on Wednesday, NASCAR announced that Harvick’s spoiler had failed post-race inspection at its R&D center, officially devaluing his win and costing him his golden ticket to Homestead. All for a calculation that was several hundred-thousandths of an inch out of line.

And even that wasn’t all. Harvick was docked 40 driver points in addition to his automatic championship berth being revoked, and the team lost 40 owners points, as well. Then his crew chief Rodney Childers and car chief Robert Smith were both suspended for the final two races of the season, and Childers was fined $75,000.

What a difference a few days makes.

So now, Harvick sits just three points clear of the cutoff line, behind his counterparts in the Big 3, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch. That means if anyone wins Sunday other than those two or Joey Logano, who is already locked into Homestead by virtue of his controversial win at Martinsville, then Harvick will be out.

Yeah, a week after winning, NASCAR’s best driver this year would be eliminated.

Wild, right?

The good news for Harvick is that if there was any track he’d want to take his mulligan on, it’s Phoenix. Harvick has won there a staggering nine times in his career, three times as many victories as at any other track. The most recent of those came this spring, too, so the same setup and strategy should apply and only further stack the deck in Harvick’s favor.

But let’s say, for the sake of both reality and argument’s sake, that Harvick doesn’t win. Maybe Kurt Busch or Chase Elliott capitalizes on this untimely penalty and squeaks out another win. Heck, maybe Aric Almirola or Clint Bowyer come off life support and etch out an underdog win. Point is, let’s consider the odds that Harvick doesn’t make it.

Regardless, we’re tracking towards a situation where both Kyle Busch and Truex are almost confidently into the Championship 4. It would take an engine blowup or complete mayhem before the end of the first stage Sunday to cost one of them their shot. They’re just too far ahead in the points standings for anyone to realistically catch up without a little help from fate (or a fortuitous wreck).

It actually may be in Harvick’s best favor, if he himself can’t pull out a victory, for one of those two to do so.

Kyle Busch has only won once at Phoenix, but his past six races there, he’s never ended in worse than seventh. Plus, over that same span, he has two runner-ups and a third — those are encouraging, but not overwhelming results. Over that same span, Truex has a third, fifth ... and a lot of garbage. Of the two, you’d be much smarter throwing money on Busch.

As for other challengers beyond Harvick?

Elliott — with just five career races at Phoenix — probably has the best odds of stealing a win, just from a statistical standpoint. His career-worst finish there is 12th, and if not for some late-race antics with Denny Hamlin last year (call it payback, revenge, comeuppance, whatever you prefer), he might’ve had a shot to win. Plus, the kid’s got all the momentum of his breakout playoff run and season, meaning any spark could ignite him to victory.

The other three ... well, it’s easier just to say that Elliott has the best chance of the lot.

There’s a good chance none of this discussion matters, really. Harvick has as strong a shot as anyone to win at Phoenix.

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