Despite being the dominant driver of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season, Kevin Harvick will not race for the championship Sunday at Phoenix Raceway.
A nine-time winner in Cup Series competition to date, the Stewart Haas Racing driver suffered through a decidedly sub-par performance yesterday at Martinsville Speedway, struggling with early race handling issues before cutting a tire and losing two laps while pitting under green for repairs. His team made modest improvements to their Mobil 1 Ford in the second half of the race, but despite long runs of green flag racing, Harvick struggled to regain that lost ground.
He eventually scrapped his way back into contention and was briefly tied with Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski for the final two spots in the Championship Four. As Chase Elliott crossed beneath the checkered flag, Harvick stood one point below the cutoff line. He attempted a desperation, dump-and-run maneuver on Kyle Busch, door slamming the defending series champion in the final turn and causing both drivers to spin.
Harvick came to rest just a few yards short of the checkered flag and eight points short of a title opportunity in Phoenix.
His failure to advance has triggered an interesting tumult of complaints from some corners, alleging that NASCAR’s playoff format is flawed and should not allow a driver as dominant as Harvick to be eliminated.
Here’s a dose of reality, for those either unable or unwilling to see it: The system did not cause Kevin Harvick’s playoff demise.
A lack of late-season performance – and an average finish of 12.7 in the last six weeks – caused Harvick’s elimination from the championship picture. He admitted as much following the race, saying, “We didn’t put together these last few weeks like we needed to.”
A truly dominant regular season allowed Harvick to enter the playoffs with a substantial safety net. He received 15 points for clinching the regular-season title; the equivalent of three race wins. His cushion grew even larger when he won two of the first three playoff races at Darlington and Bristol. Those bonus points camouflaged a handful of lukewarm outings in the Rounds of 12 and 8, but another poor performance at Martinsville yesterday consumed the final few bites of that safety net, leaving Harvick with his back unexpectedly to the wall.
A cut tire put him behind the eight-ball early yesterday. But he had 320 laps to regain two lost laps and save his bacon. He got one of those laps back almost immediately by taking the Wave Around on Lap 188, but spent the next 200 laps trying unsuccessfully to put himself in position to earn the Free Pass. Unfortunately, an ill-handling race car prevented him from doing so.
In the final analysis, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski did what they had to do yesterday, turning in championship-caliber performances when the chips were down.
Harvick did not.
As shocking as it was, the demise of the No. 4 team is far from unprecedented. In NASCAR – and in other sports – the best team over the course of the season quite often fails to win the championship.
In 2008, the New England Patriots ran the competitive table on their way to Super Bowl XLII, entering the final game of the season with an unblemished 18-0 record. They lost the championship game to a New York Giants team that lost four games in the regular season.
Closer to home, Alan Kulwicki won the 1992 NASCAR Cup Series title, despite winning only two races and going winless in the final 16 weeks of the campaign. Championship runner-up Bill Elliott won five times that year.
In 1993, Rusty Wallace won 10 races, but lost the championship to six-time winner Dale Earnhardt.
Terry Labonte won two races en route to the 1996 Cup Series championship, with 10-time winner Jeff Gordon finishing second.
Nobody howled “unfair” back then, and no one called for the system to be revamped so a team with more wins could be crowned champions, even after losing a critical playoff game.
Right now, the knee-jerk reactionaries have the stage. Overflowing with fire and brimstone, they demand that immediate changes be made, outlawing the kind of stunning upset we saw last night at Martinsville Speedway. We’ve heard calls today for NASCAR to begin seeding the regular-season champion all the way to the Championship Four in coming seasons, a move that would allow a driver to finish dead-last in nine consecutive playoff races, before being crowned champion in the season finale.
That, my friends, is overreaction in the extreme.
The people making noise today were eerily silent last week, apparently seeing nothing wrong with a system that -- since its inception -- has made the kind of upset we saw yesterday a distinct possibility. They have also had virtually nothing to say today about Gander Truck Series regular season champion Austin Hill, who saw his playoffs end Friday night in almost-identical fashion, after suffering a blown engine.
Why is that? Why so much outrage over Harvick’s Cup Series dismissal, with none on the Truck Series front? It’s a question I cannot begin to answer.
Let’s be clear about one thing. Despite his recent struggles, Kevin Harvick is a true racer, a championship-caliber driver with a top-notch team behind him.
It’s not easy to maintain regular-season momentum through a full, 36-race season, and while obviously disappointed, Harvick, Rodney Childers and company have absolutely no reason to hang their collective heads. They will be back next season to contend strongly for the championship as they always do, using the hard lessons learned in the last few weeks to make them even better than they were this time around.
And when they do -- despite all the noise being made right now -- they will do so under exactly the same playoff system.