Jimmie Johnson vs. Kevin Harvick doesn’t meet any definition as the cantankerous and combustible sort of rivalry upon which NASCAR was built.
The past two champions of the Sprint Cup Series and the two best drivers on the circuit this season essentially are de-facto teammates who compete under different banners. The Chevys that carried Harvick to the 2014 title feature the same chassis and engines produced by Hendrick Motorsports that delivered Johnson to six championships.
Johnson and Harvick both hail from California and followed remarkably similar routes to stardom, crashing on the same sectional couch at Camping World Truck Series champion Ron Hornaday Jr.’s house in Mooresville, N.C., 18 years ago as both tried to make inroads in NASCAR.
There is scarce history of contentiousness between them in the manner of the hotheaded highlights that are a hallmark of Harvick’s feisty career as a perpetual firebrand.
But if you’re seeking fireworks this season in Sprint Cup, it might be the best hope.
Johnson and Harvick are tied for the series lead in victories, and they have dominated the 1.5-mile speedways that comprise 11 of the 36 races (and half the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup).
It’s been six races and six months since a 1.5-mile winner other than Johnson (who has won two in a row at Texas and at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March) or Harvick (who won at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway last year and Las Vegas Motor Speedway last month).
While divergent tire strategies made for some entertaining scrambling in the last 30 laps of Johnson’s victory Saturday night in the Duck Commander 500, there also was an air of inevitability. Johnson and Harvick combined to lead 224 of 334 laps at Texas.
The battle was for best in class among drivers without Hendrick horsepower. They led 47 laps (46 between Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano; Richard Childress Racing’s Paul Menard paced the other circuit).
A week after ending a 10-month winless drought with Denny Hamlin at Martinsville Speedway, Toyota didn’t lead a lap at Texas and claimed a 10th by Carl Edwards as its top finisher.
“Stats don’t lie, and the stats say that those guys or really anyone with a Hendrick engine or chassis is going to be capable of winning right now,” Hamlin said after an 11th at Texas. “We just can’t drive through the field like what those guys are capable of, and we’re a work in progress.”
Hamlin believes his Joe Gibbs Racing team will find that speed before the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins in five months. But it’s hardly a contest for now, and that’s changed the dynamic of the series from recent seasons.
Last year, it was Penske vs. Hendrick battling in a weekly sequence of memorable battles. In 2013, Hamlin and Logano were sniping as the season opened with five different winners.
Such verve has been relatively absent this season.
Heading into the April 19 race at Bristol Motor Speedway, the 0.533-mile oval where scores often are settled or feuds are started, there is a decided dearth of ill will. It’s been replaced by the resignation of everyone trying to catch Johnson and Harvick. Even Logano just shrugged his shoulders after being punted aside late in the Texas race by Harvick, whom he engaged in a preseason shouting match at Daytona.
There didn’t seem much friction Saturday between the top two finishers, either. Johnson masterly seized the lead by swooping around Jamie McMurray, who had been busy frustrating Harvick from the front.
Crew chief Chad Knaus actually angered Johnson by chiding his driver for being “a gentleman racer” in choosing not to block Harvick early in the event.
This doesn’t completely discount the potential for a decent skirmish between the top two drivers on the Chase grid. It isn’t on the level of Richard Petty vs. David Pearson, but there have been some flare-ups between Johnson and Harvick.
Johnson once angrily called on team owner Richard Childress to fire Harvick for triggering a multicar crash in a Gatorade Duel at Daytona International Speedway a decade ago. And it was Harvick who said five years ago that Johnson and his team had “a golden horseshoe stuck up their ass,” coining a term that became synonymous with the championship dominance of the No. 48 Chevrolet.
Harvick relishes playing mind games, and his devious sense of humor poked through when he was pressed on why Johnson’s car was so good.
“Maybe they drilled more holes in their tires than we did,” Harvick said with a joking reference to NASCAR’s investigation into tire manipulation that has been the season’s biggest controversy. “I don’t know.”
Fighting words? Not really.
But for now, it’s the best fight NASCAR has to offer.