Harvick takes Kansas at Chase midpoint, standings tighten
Kevin Harvick "Harvck-ed" in Sunday's Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway. After a disastrous mechanical failure dropped him from the Charlotte race a week ago, Harvick entered the second race in the Round of 12 of NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup last in the standings.
Even with two races left to make up the points, many felt that Harvick pretty much had to win to advance to the Round of Eight. This is how they felt after his poor Chicagoland finish to start the Chase and he won at Dover. He did the same thing a year ago at Dover. And in 2014 he did the same at Phoenix to advance to Homestead's Championship Round, which he also won.
So guess what the 40-year-old did for the 35th time in his career? Here is how it happened.
Quick Shakedown: Chase driver Matt Kenseth (finished 9th) led a race-high 115 of the first 125 laps, before Harvick, who started 11th, blew his doors off so metaphorically and commanded the race's point for 43 laps. Then, as green flag stops began, rookie and Chase competitor Chase Elliott (31st) worked on Harvick and finally got by him. But before the pit sequence could finish, Elliott had to pit again with a flat left-rear tire and fender damage, trapping him about 25th and a lap down.
Elliott needed a couple of caution flags to finally race to and then get the free pass, but cut a tire again under green and had to pit, leaving him two laps down and in a must-win situation for Talladega next week, after also getting wrecked at Charlotte last week.
Chase driver Denny Hamlin (15th) had a delaminated splitter cause a right-front issue early in the race, but early cautions allowed the No. 11 team to repair the problem. Then Brad Keselowski (38th) got loose on the front straightaway and corrected in the way of Hamlin, who sent the No. 2 car into the grass, destroying the front end on lap 191. Keselowski tried to return to the race, but brought out another yellow when he dropped fluid. Hamlin had nose damage and later his crew set them back with a couple of pit road penalties.
Carl Edwards (2nd) assumed the lead after the pit stops near lap 175 and the second slow stp of the day for the No. 4 Harvick crew. Kyle Larson (30th) got into the wall on lap 178, but Edwards kept his hold on the top spot for most of the rest of the race. When Keselowski lost fluid on lap 221, Harvick had just passed Edwards for the lead and the field pitted for the final-needed pit stops. Chaser Austin Dillon (6th), took two tires for the second-straight race, but Edwards, Harvick, and others got by on the restart.
The 8th and final caution of the day on lap 235 for Regan Smith's (29th) tagging of the wall sent Chase driver Kyle Busch (5th) and the drivers from 7th on back in the field to pit road for new tires. The gamble appeared to work for Busch, as he immediately drove to 2nd spot. Unfortunately for Joe Gibbs Racing, Harvick launched like a rocket on the restart with 29 laps to go, leaving Busch to race JGR teammate Edwards hard for the spot and allowing Harvick to run away with the win.
The 80-degree weather threw teams for a loop, but made for better racing than would have cool, high-grip racing. Even still, the leader had a decided advantage and passing was difficult for the 267-lap affair. Harvick overcame that factor to survive for a championship.
Top-10: Harvick; Edwards; Joey Logano (strong all day and surged at the end); Jimmie Johnson (really has the championship look now, but was never fastest in this race); Ky. Busch (getting bottled up behind his teammate cost him more even more spots after over-driving his car); Dillon (two-tire gamble gained him a couple of precious spots near the end); Alex Bowman (impressive comeback); A.J. Allmendinger (ran in top 10 all day); Kenseth (had nothing handling-wise in the second-half); Kasey Kahne (came back from left-rear issue similar to teammate Elliott's).
The Chase Points: Johnson and Harvick have clinched Round of Eight berths with wins. Only seven points separate the two drivers in 8th (Logano and Dillon, Logano has the tiebreaker) from 11th-place Keselowski, with Hamlin just one point ahead of him in 10th. Elliott's two bad races leave him 25 points from 8th and in a must-win scenario at the sport's most unpredictable track.
7th-place Martin Truex Jr. has a 13-point cushion to the good, but he is only 16 points behind Kenseth for 3rd in the points. Even with all the cushions, someone in comfort now is almost certainly bound to leave Talladega eliminated from the Chase.
RaceTweet: Harvick did as Harvick does, winning a near-must-win at Kansas. Elliott and Keselowski mess the bed and head to 'Dega on the ropes.
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Kevin Harvick - The most impressive part of Harvick's win is that it happened in spite of two poor pit stops by the No. 4 crew. But Harvick didn't implode and then stormed back into the lead, meaning he doesn't have to allegedly purposely trigger a wreck at Talladega to save his Chase hopes, as he did last year.
North Korean Missile Dud: Brad Keselowski - He entered Kansas Speedway in need of only a solid finish, but tried to get a little more and wrecked to 38th and now seven points outside the cut line. Really, his efforts at trying to win are admirable and fun to watch. But they put the No. 2 in a bad spot heading to a track that, with Keselowski's five-career wins at Talladega, they may be the only ones excited to go.
You Can Comeback, But You Can't Stay Here: Alex Bowman - Bowman started 5th, had to pit when no one else did for a problem, drove from 30th to inside the top 15. But Bowman got aggressive and scraped the wall, sending him to pit road under green about 36th on the track, two laps down. Bowman overcame that seemingly insurmountable adversity to finish 7th, his second top 10 (should have been his fourth) subbing for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Ghost Driver: Kurt Busch - The rock solid, consistent, Tony Gibson-led No. 41 team that top 10'd the first half of the season to death is a notch lower now. Busch started the race from rear, after wrecking in the grass in practice, but was never more relevant than 15th place. Even though Busch is 6th in points and 17 above the cutoff, the team's mediocre runs of late leave them little room for failure. Busch did lead his first lap of the Chase Sunday, when he pitted a lap later than the leaders on the first pit sequence.
Never Fear, Underdog is Here: A.J. Allmendinger - He ran in the top 10, but wrecked last week in Charlotte. This week, Allmendinger started in the top 10 and crew chief Randall Burnett kept the handling in check enough to keep the No. 47 there. Then Allmendinger kept the wheels under it and wheeled it to his first top 10 since Bristol in August.
Wheel of Misfortune: Chase Elliott - As hard as Elliott is on himself, the problems the last two weeks have almost zero to do with him. The left-rear tire issue may have more to do with some special tricks in the Hendrick Motorsports shop (Kahne had the same problem) than anything else. And Elliott was a bystander in the Charlotte wreck, though he irked his crew by purposely giving up a spot on pit road to restart on the outside line (where he ultimately got swept up in the wreck). Elliott had a super-fast car in both races, led laps, and has nothing but a huge deficit to show for it.
Jimmie Johnson Golden Horseshoe: Denny Hamlin - The other Chase drivers with issues softened Hamlin's engine failure at Charlotte. The fates of Elliott and Keselowski made Hamlin's 15th-place at Kansas less dooming. And the fact that Hamlin almost had to make a green flag stop as his splitter came undone and hurt his right-front tire, but a caution saved him makes him arguably the most lucky, unlucky driver in the 2016 Chase.
Head-Scratcher Crown of Thorns: Sprint Cup Series racecars are more reliable now than they have ever been. DNF's used to be the norm for most starters in most races. Parts failures these days are comparably quite rare, but they - and rare ones at that - likely will be the difference in this year's Chase.
Harvick's oil pump fitting failure is what shut his car off at Charlotte. The crew couldn't even diagnose the problem on the spot. Martin Truex Jr. had a clutch fail at Charlotte and then - of all things - the fuel receptacle plate act up at Kansas (causing the No. 78 team to fail to fill the car with fuel multiple times). Hamlin's splitter started...splitting? When does anyone remember that happening?
These freak problems have tightened the points and heightened the drama, but seeing the championship decided by one of these would be a bummer.
NXS RaceTweet: Kyle Busch stole the show from the series regulars at Kansas Speedway and three Chase drivers wrecked. So there's that.
Georgia On My Mind: Chase Elliott had another day from hell at Kansas, after leading laps and showing again that a win is close. But he wasn't the only Georgia driver to wreck.
David Ragan lost the nose of his car figuratively and then immediately literally on lap 37. He shot up the track as Aric Almirola had just checked up and gotten into his teammate Brian Scott. Almirola spun into the wall and grass and was done for the day. Ragan got the nose of the No. 23 Toyota torn off and finished nine laps down in 36th.
Reed Sorenson swapped rides with teammate Cole Whitt in the No. 98 Chevy, since he brought Harrah's sponsorship. He paced to 34th at the finish and six laps down.
Saturday's Xfinity race saw Brandon Jones rebound from three rough races that knocked him out of the Chase to finish 8th. Garrett Smithley took his No. 0 Chevy to an impressive 18th-place at the end and Ryan Sieg got in a wreck with a few Chase drivers and placed 34th.
Next: The Xfinity Series takes a two-week sabbatical, while the Sprint Cup Series and Camping World Truck Series gear up for "TALLLAAAADANNNNNGDEGAAAAA!!!!
The final restrictor plate race of the year sees a 2 p.m. ET start Sunday on NBCSN on TV and MRN/Sirius/XM Ch. 90 on radio for the NSCS. The NCWTS also sees a Chase elimination race Saturday at 1 p.m. ET on FS1 on TV and the same radio networks. These races no doubt will be gut wrenching and extremely compelling to watch.