With just one race complete in the 2015 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, defending series champion Kevin Harvick already finds his back to the wall.
Harvick tangled with six-time champ Jimmie Johnson on a Lap 135 restart Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, sustaining damage that cut his left-rear tire a lap later and sent him crashing into the Turn Three wall. He returned to the track after lengthy repairs, eventually finishing 42nd in the 43-car field; a finish that leaves his hopes for a repeat title in considerable doubt.
“I got a pretty good restart, and (Joey Logano and Johnson) got a good run,” said a steaming Harvick after the wreck. “I held my line and the 48 slammed into the side of my door. I stood my ground and he just slammed into the side of my door like I wasn't even there.
“My spotter was telling me 'four-wide' and I guess he just figured that he'd come up the race track."
|Josh Hedges-- Getty Images|
Not surprisingly, Johnson had a different take, saying Harvick “was pinning me down (when) I’ve got to get back up on the track. When you’re in Kevin’s situation, you want to give that inside car a bad angle, so they’ve got to lift. I was fine with lifting, but I had to get back on the race track. I pulled down inside of him, and as I moved back into the racing groove, that’s when we touched door-to-door, tire-to-tire.”
Harvick was still steaming when he returned to the track after lengthy repairs, telling crew chief Rodney Childers, "Let me know when that 48's near me on the track."
The two never crossed paths on the race track, but they did clash after the race when Johnson went to Harvick’s motor home to discuss the incident. The conversation quickly grew heated, with Harvick showing Johnson in the chest with a closed fist before being pulled away by Kevin Harvick, Inc. Director of Business Development Josh Jones. Additional words were exchanged until Harvick’s wife, Delana, coaxed him into a waiting vehicle and away from the scene.
Now dead-last in the 16-man Chase standings, Harvick almost certainly needs a win at either New Hampshire or Dover to advance to the Contender Round. Despite having just one victory in 56 combined Sprint Cup starts at those two ovals, Harvick embraced the challenge Sunday, saying, “We can win anywhere. It’s just a matter of putting a couple of days together and being able to come back to Victory Lane. Same thing as last year.”
Childers also spoke optimistically about the job at hand, saying, “"We led the most laps in the last two races at Loudon and -- I think -- the last three races at Dover. You just have to go and do the best you can. The way (this Chase) is, it can be taken away from you in a week.
"It doesn't matter if it's the first week or last week… it's just the way it is."
That’s what’s best – and worst – about NASCAR’s Chase format. With just three races to make their case for advancement, drivers cannot afford to make mistakes. A momentary clash in Sunday’s opening round at Chicagoland now has Harvick hanging on by his fingernails, needing a win in the next two weeks to continue his championship dream. Unpredictability sells tickets, and also pushes tempers to the boiling point.
“Anytime you break your season into a three-race (segment), every point matters,” said Hamlin in Victory Lane. “Every position matters. We saw more fights in the Chase last year than we've seen in the last 10 years, because when people feel they're wronged by somebody, they can feel their entire season has been ruined.
"It's just racing," he said. "We mess each other up every single week, but those who are battling for a championship take it a little bit more seriously now than they did during the summer months.
“This is not the first and it's definitely not going to be the last confrontation you're going to see."