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.