Ryan: Many layers of intrigue to Kevin Harvick vs. Jimmie Johnson

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JOLIET, Ill. – Kevin Harvick cast a sideways glance toward the south end of the pits at Chicagoland Speedway, hesitated for a minute and then turned away quickly.

Flanked by two handlers, he strode purposefully through the concrete stalls, swigging from a bottle of water while dodging pit stop signs and stray air hoses. As dozens of crew members rushed toward their cars and furiously packed up equipment, Harvick and his small entourage headed in the opposite direction. They hopped the pit wall, hung a right past a Sunoco sign onto an access road to the motor home lot and disappeared through a back gate.

After a midrace collision with Jimmie Johnson left him with a flat tire and a 42nd finish Sunday that dealt a serious hit to his Sprint Cup championship defense, Harvick, the oft-combustible star who has built a career out of confrontations, seemed to have declined an opportunity to go jaw to jaw at a rival.

But amid the throngs at the other end of the pits, where Harvick briefly stared before leaving his No. 4 Chevrolet, Johnson knew it wasn’t over — particularly in knowing the run-in left Harvick displeased.

“I’m surprised (Harvick) has that opinion,” he said. “So hopefully he’ll want to talk. There’s no telling what he’ll want to do.”

The six-time series champion learned the hard way a few minutes later. An ostensibly good faith gesture by Johnson to hash things out resulted in Harvick emerging from his motor home and delivering a right cross to the Hendrick Motorsports driver’s chest in a video that will be replayed across highlight shows for the rest of the playoffs.

The concern now for Johnson is what’s next – and that’s exactly why he attempted to defuse the situation with the driver whose occasionally ill-tempered moods earned him the derisive nickname of “Happy.”

Feuds don’t fester well with Harvick, who relishes baiting opponents into beating themselves by playing manipulative mind games.

Whether Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch or current teammate Kurt Busch, there is a long list of drivers who have been the focus of the withering attacks by Harvick, a pit disturber who opened the Chase by brashly declaring to Joe Gibbs Racing’s four-car juggernaut that he planned to “pound them into the ground.”

He is the Svengali of the Sprint Cup Series, and he thrives on conflict while threatening retribution without compunction. When he was wrecked by Matt Kenseth at Martinsville Speedway in the opening race of the third round of last year’s Chase, Harvick vowed if he couldn’t win the title, then Kenseth surely wouldn’t.

The warning didn’t matter after Harvick advanced by winning two weeks later at Phoenix (where Kenseth was eliminated).

That scenario might be what Johnson secretly will be hoping for in the next two races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Dover International Speedway.

Even if Johnson advances, his bid for a seventh title will be at risk if Harvick is eliminated.

And an added layer of being quasi-teammates – Hendrick supplies the engines and chassis used by Harvick at Stewart-Haas Racing, and the teams constantly swap technical information – further complicates the row.

Though Harvick didn’t shed much light on his feelings about Johnson in his fleeting postrace comments, crew chief Rodney Childers was more forthcoming.

“You get disappointed in situations like that,” Childers said. “As much as we work together and share information, and I feel like we’ve helped them a lot this year trying to get their cars better. It’s just disappointing.”

After initially saying on the team radio that Johnson’s impact was intentional, Childers chalked it up to “good, hard racing.”

So would Johnson still have one coming from Harvick?

“I don’t know,” Childers said. “It’s part of it. You just have to go race the next two and see how it works out and go from there.

“I’m sure when you can consider yourselves teammates at times, teammates are supposed to push each other on restarts and not knock their doors in, so we just have to move on from it.”

There are some mitigating factors that could foster some measure of détente.

Johnson and Harvick have much in common as fellow California natives who both will turn 40 this year after traversing similar paths to the NASCAR pinnacle. The story is well documented about how they crashed together for several months on the same sectional couch at Camping World Truck Series champion Ron Hornaday Jr.’s Mooresville, N.C., house 18 years ago.

Again, as with any rival of Harvick’s, there have been past incidents of strife. Johnson once called on team owner Richard Childress to fire Harvick for causing a multicar crash at Daytona more than a decade ago. Harvick needled Johnson and team members for having a “golden horseshoe stuck up their ass” during the magical run of five consecutive championships.

But there is a strong bond of friendship and mutual respect for their immense abilities. At last year’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Harvick credited some of his title-clinching win to Johnson, who beelined to Harvick’s hauler constantly between practice sessions and texted tips about improving the No. 4’s handling.

And there also is the video of the wreck, which Harvick likely hadn’t dissected in great detail before Sunday’s confrontation.

On a Lap 135 restart, Johnson (running third) made a left turn onto the apron after a shot from Joey Logano. When his No. 48 Chevy tried to rejoin the banking, Johnson felt the contact was inevitable with Harvick, who had been leading.

“He didn’t leave me any space,” Johnson said. “He was pinning me down, and I’ve got to get back up on the track. I wouldn’t say what he did was any different than other situations I’ve been in like that. When you’re in Kevin’s situation, you want to give the inside car a bad angle, so they’ve got to lift. I was fine with lifting, but I had to get on the racetrack.

“I assumed he would try to find it as my fault.”

The assumption was correct.

Johnson knows Harvick well.

Well enough to know the next nine weeks could be very worrisome.

NASCAR Power Rankings: Kevin Harvick back at No. 1

NASCAR Power Rankings
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Stop us if you’ve heard this before: Kevin Harvick is the No. 1 driver in this week’s NASCAR rankings.

Martin Truex Jr. held the top spot for just a week before Harvick reclaimed the crown with his series-leading ninth Cup win of the year Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway.

This week’s rankings includes three ties as 12 drivers received votes.

More: Playoff standings after Round of 16

Harvick takes his power rankings lead to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the start of the Round of 12.

Here is this week’s NASCAR Power Rankings:

1. Kevin Harvick (Last week No. 1): The Stewart-Haas Racing driver has three wins in the last five races: Dover, the Southern 500 and Bristol night race.

2. Chase Elliott (Last week No. 7): Finished seventh at Bristol for his third top 10 in five races. His 11 top fives so far matches his total from each of the last two seasons. He scored a career-high 12 top fives in 2017.

3. (tie) Kyle Busch (Last week No.  9): Finished second in Bristol after he started from the rear due to inspection failures. Has three consecutive top 10s for the first time this season.

3. (tie) Joey Logano (Last week No. 3): Followed consecutive third-place finishes with an 11th at Bristol.

5. (tie) Martin Truex Jr. (Last week No. 1): Finished 24th in Bristol following contact with Denny Hamlin after an unscheduled pit stop.

5. (tie) Brad Keselowski (Last week No. 5): After winning at Richmond, Keselowski had a rough night in Bristol. He finished 34th due to power steering problems.

7. (tie) Aric Almirola (Last week unranked): Finished fifth in Bristol for his third consecutive top 10 and his fourth in five races.

7. (tie) Clint Bowyer (Last week unranked): Placed sixth in Bristol for his third consecutive top-10 finish and to keep his playoff chances alive.

9. Austin Dillon (Last week No. 3): Placed a respectable 12th to finish the first round after consecutive top fives.

10. Erik Jones (Last week unranked): Placed third in Bristol for his seventh top-five finish of the season and his second in the last three races.

Also receiving votes: Alex Bowman and Denny Hamlin

NASCAR Silly season features Bubba Wallace, Michael Jordan

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NASCAR Silly Season took a twist Monday. A day that started with the announcement that Ross Chastain would drive for Chip Ganassi Racing next year ended with the news that Denny Hamlin would co-own a team with Michael Jordan and have Bubba Wallace as the driver in 2021.

As JTG Daugherty Racing co-owner Brad Daugherty said: “I think it’s a pretty dynamic trio with Michael, Denny and Bubba. They’re going to be like rock stars.”

The 26-year-old Wallace is in his third full Cup season. All 105 of his starts in NASCAR’s premier series have been with Richard Petty Motorsports.

“Bubba has shown tremendous improvement since joining the Cup Series and we believe he’s ready to take his career to a higher level,” Hamlin said in a statement. “He deserves the opportunity to compete for race wins and our team will make sure he has the resources to do just that. Off the track, Bubba has been a loud voice for change in our sport and our country. MJ and I support him fully in those efforts and stand beside him.”

A team name, car number, manufacturer and sponsors will be announced at a later time.

ANNOUNCED CUP RIDES FOR 2021

No. 00: Quin Houff enters the second year of his two-year deal with StarCom Racing.

No. 1: Kurt Busch enters the second year of a multi-year contract that Chip Ganassi Racing announced last season.

No. 2: Brad Keselowski and Team Penske announced a contract extension Aug. 3.

No. 4: Kevin Harvick signed a contract extension in February that will keep him at Stewart-Haas Racing through the 2023 season.

No. 8: Tyler Reddick said Aug. 7 that he will be back with Richard Childress Racing next season.

No. 9: Chase Elliott is under contract with Hendrick Motorsports through the 2022 season.

No. 10: Aric Almirola extends deal with Stewart-Haas Racing for 2021 season.

No. 11: Denny Hamlin is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 12: Ryan Blaney and Team Penske announced a multi-year extension earlier this season.

No. 18: Kyle Busch is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 19: Martin Truex Jr. is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 20: Christopher Bell moves from Leavine Family Racing to take over this ride in 2021.

No. 22: Joey Logano is tied to Team Penske “through the 2022 season and beyond.”

No. 24: William Byron is under contact with Hendrick Motorsports through 2022.

No. 42: Ross Chastain takes over Chip Ganassi Racing’s ride for the 2021 season.

No. 47: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. enters the second year of a multi-year deal with JTG Daugherty Racing.

No. 88: Alex Bowman will race for Hendrick Motorsports under a one-year contract extension announced earlier this year.

No. TBA: Bubba Wallace joins the new team co-owned by Denny Hamlin and NBA great Michael Jordan. The team purchased Germain Racing’s charter. Germain Racing will not continue after this season.

 

Available/possibly available rides

No. 14: Clint Bowyer is in a contract year to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing.

No. 21: Matt DiBenedetto said Sept. 17 that Wood Brothers Racing has an option to pick up his contract for next year and the deadline is the end of September.

No. 32: Ride is open with Corey LaJoie announcing he will not return to Go Fas Racing in 2021.

No. 43: Bubba Wallace will not return to Richard Petty Motorsports in 2021, the team confirmed on Sept. 10.

No. 48: With Jimmie Johnson retiring from full-time competition, Hendrick Motorsports has this seat to fill.

No. 95: Spire Motorsports purchased the charter and assets of Leavine Family Racing and will be a two-car operation in 2021.

No. 96: Daniel Suarez and Gaunt Brothers Racing announced Sept. 15 that they would part ways after this season.

 

Brad Daugherty: Michael Jordan to NASCAR is ‘huge moment’

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Brad Daugherty calls Michael Jordan’s ownership of a Cup team a “huge moment for NASCAR.”

Jordan and Denny Hamlin will co-own a Cup team next season. Bubba Wallace will be the driver. Jordan will become the first Black majority car owner of a full-time team since Wendell Scott owned and raced cars in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Daugherty, the only Black owner of a full-time Cup team currently, is excited about Jordan’s entrance into NASCAR.

“It’s a big momentum shift for this sport culturally, period,” said Daugherty, co-owner of JTG Daugherty Racing and an analyst for NBC Sports. “Three years ago, this would have never happened. A year ago, this wouldn’t have happened. It’s the timing. If the timing is right and you have someone like Michael Jordan put his brand and what he’s all about into whatever you are doing, it adds a lot of credibility. I look forward to whatever he can bring to the table to help continue to build NASCAR.”

Daugherty told NBC Sports that Jordan can help the sport reach more people.

“The eyeballs are going to be incredible,” Daugherty said of Jordan’s potential impact. “The opportunity for entrance into the sport will be made more available as far as people being aware of the availability to get involved in NASCAR as a fan or as a business. There’s just so many different areas that will light up just because of who he is and what he represents. His entire legacy creates opportunity for everyone.

“Now, we start talking diversity with what he’s able to do from a corporate standpoint and also just from a legacy standpoint with his brand. It’s going to be exciting. I’m excited because I think more people now, more than ever, will take a look at NASCAR with a keen eye and keen interest and be excited about maybe participating as a fan or as a business partner or as someone wanting to learn how to drive a race car or own a race team. The more notoriety the better.”

NASCAR stated Monday: “Michael is an iconic sports figure and celebrated champion whose fiercely competitive nature has placed him among the greatest athletes of all time. His presence at NASCAR’s top level will further strengthen the competition, excitement and momentum growing around our sport. We wish Michael and his team tremendous success.”

Jordan told The Charlotte Observer on Monday that the deal came together in about 10 days because of the chance to hire Wallace.

“When (Hamlin) told me there was a possibility of getting Bubba Wallace, I’m saying, ‘OK, this is perfect!’” Jordan told The Observer. “If I’m getting involved in NASCAR, then get a Black driver (with) a Black owner.”

For all that Jordan can bring to NASCAR, Daugherty knows that the competition can prove challenging.

“I’m sure he’s committed to next season and we’ll see how that goes and if it goes well, you go beyond that,” Daugherty said. “He had a (Superbike) team for a long time and loved that. He understands it’s a different business model. He’s at the point in his life, he’s like Roger Penske and Rick Hendrick and those guys to where it’s really not a detriment to him financially if he’s not making money. We’ll have to see how much he can stomach because it’s an interesting business model for sure.”

Jordan told The Observer he’s in it to win.

“If I’m investing, if I’m a participant, then I want to win! I don’t want to be out there to be just another car,” Jordan said.

Daugherty looks forward to seeing Jordan, Hamlin and Wallace at the track.

“I think it’s a pretty dynamic trio with Michael, Denny and Bubba,” Daugherty said. “They’re going to be like rock stars.”

Daugherty also looks forward to something else next year.

“Look forward to racing against those guys,” he said, “and trying to kick their butts.”

Germain Racing sells charter, will exit sport at end of season

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Germain Racing car owner Bob Germain announced Monday that he has sold the team’s charter and will end the team after this season.

The charter was purchased by a new team that will have Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan as owners and Bubba Wallace as the driver.

Germain said in a statement that the No. 13 team will continue the rest of the season with Ty Dillon as driver.

“Being an owner in NASCAR for the last 16 years has been a thrilling and rewarding adventure,” Germain said in a statement. “From winning two NASCAR Truck Series championships in 2006 and 2010 to competing at the highest level of motorsports in the Cup Series for the last 12 seasons, I have experienced the highs and lows of our sport. I’m extremely proud of what Germain Racing has accomplished at every level and I will be transitioning out of ownership with many memories and friendships. I appreciate the interest and offers made over the last couple of weeks and I am excited to see how the sport continues to grow in the future.

“Thank you to GEICO for their loyalty to Germain Racing for over a decade. It has been a great source of pride for our team to represent their brand on the track. Doug Barnette with Player Management International has facilitated our GEICO relationship since the beginning and I truly appreciate his efforts. Finally, to my employees: building a team camaraderie and creating a family atmosphere has been a highlight of this journey. I will miss each of you.”

Germain pondered a sale when GEICO decided not to renew its contract after this season with the team.  GEICO is one of NASCAR’s Premier Partners, joining Busch Beer, Coca-Cola and Xfinity.

Dillon spoke in late August about the challenges facing single-car teams in Cup.

“The model is very tough right now for single-car teams,” he said. “I’m hoping that NASCAR is going to change it and help on it. But it needs to change for one-car teams to be more successful that haven’t already been at the top level of the sport or have an incredible amount of money to leapfrog into the top spot. If you don’t have three or four teams to spread the wealth with big name sponsors and a lot of money behind the effort, it’s just not a model that’s going to survive long term.”

Hamlin acknowledged the challenge a one-car team can have.

“I do believe that the (ownership) model will hopefully get better,” Hamlin said before last weekend’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway. “Do I think it’s fixed? No, I think there is still some work to be done to make the model a viable business. You want a business that everyone wants to be a part of, not the ones that are fleeting. Certainly, I think NASCAR is trying it’s best to make the teams a little more healthy. I think that outlook toward the future is what’s interesting to me.”

Germain Racing is the second team to sell its charter since August. Leavine Family Racing announced it had sold its charter on Aug. 4. Spire Motorsports purchased it and will be a two-car team in 2021.