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.

Corey LaJoie learning in his week with Chase Elliott’s team

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Spending this week with Hendrick Motorsports has proved eye-opening for Corey LaJoie.

He will pilot Chase Elliott’s No. 9 car today at World Wide Technology Raceway after NASCAR suspended Elliott one race for wrecking Denny Hamlin during last week’s Coca-Cola 600. This gives LaJoie the chance to drive in the best equipment of his career.

MORE: Corey LaJoie not giving up on his dream 

MORE: Details for Sunday’s Cup race

Working with Elliott’s team also has given LaJoie an inside look as to what makes Hendrick Motorsports so successful.

“I thought that I knew what we didn’t have at Spire Motorsports, but I had no idea,” said LaJoie, who starts 30th after tagging the wall during his qualifying lap. “There’s tools that those guys have, intellectual properties specific to Hendrick Motorsports, that even some of the other teams don’t have.

“But the biggest thing that I noticed was just the people and the attitude of the pursuit of perfection. All the key partner teams across all the (manufacturers) all have the same data, but (Hendrick Motorsports has) an unbelievable way of delegating, taking, compacting and making it just digestible – whether it’s for a driver, an engineer, a crew chief.

“I think the fact that they have four incredibly strong teams individually raises the tide for those guys because when you’re sitting in the simulator and William Byron ran a 33.20 (seconds for a lap) … if you’re running a 33.35 with the same setup, you know you have a tenth-and-a-half under your butt and you have to go find it. And then when I go run a 33.20, William next time is going to want to run a 33.19.

“There’s always a consistently raised watermark on the driver’s end. There’s always a consistently raised watermark on the crew chiefs in trying to build the best setups, and the engineers trying to find the best strategies.

“The inner-team competition is one of the biggest things, and I think there are several teams that have that … the healthy ones are certainly evident. But it’s just the overall structure. We have a Hawkeye (camera-based inspection stations used by NASCAR at the track) … all the things that do the same stuff that Hendrick Motorsports has, but the depth of people, collective focus of the goal and the mission is noticeable and evident. It’s a different world.”

It would be easy for LaJoie to be overwhelmed in this situation. His career has been marked with underfunded rides and trying to make the most of his equipment. He’s having his best season in Cup this year. LaJoie ranks 19th in points heading into today’s race.

LaJoie acknowledges the opportunity he has, but he also can’t let it alter his focus.

“It’s been a wild week,” he said. “I can get all sentimental … (about) my dad subbing in for Ricky Craven in 1998 (for Hendrick Motorsports) and all that sort of stuff. But at the end of the day, when I sit in that thing, I don’t know that NAPA is on it, or the No. 9 is on it.

“I’m going to drive it like I have been driving the No. 7 Chevy and putting that thing 19th in points. It’s been a super fun, successful year so far, and we have a lot of work left to do and things to accomplish over there.”

When he returns to his Spire Motorsports ride after today’s race, LaJoie admits this weekend’s experience with Elliott’s team will help him with his own team.

“How I prepare, how I’m going to engage with my team at Spire Motorsports going forward is going to change,” LaJoie said. “I think I’m going to be able to come in there and just apply and share some of the things I’ve learned over the course of the week with (crew chief Ryan) Sparks and the No. 77 team, as well, and I think we’re all going to be stronger for it.”

Dr. Diandra: Is 2023 the season for a Ricky Stenhouse Jr. redemption?

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Coming into 2022, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had two career Cup Series wins in 364 starts. But both wins — and his career-high 13th-place season finish — happened back in 2017.

Stenhouse was unceremoniously dropped by Roush Fenway Racing in 2020 and landed with JTG Daugherty Racing. He made the news every now and then at a superspeedway but could be counted upon to head up season-ending lists of drivers involved in the most accidents. In the years Stenhouse hasn’t been at the top of the list, he’s been near the top.

DNFs and accidents have plagued Stenhouse throughout his NASCAR career. Jack Roush went so far as to park the Mississippi native in his early days in the Xfinity Series because he tore up so much equipment.

Stenhouse redeemed himself, going on to win two Xfinity championships.

From the way his 2023 season has started, it looks as though Stenhouse might be on a similar mission of redemption this year in the Cup Series.

Finishing races

Stenhouse started the 2023 season in the best possible way – winning the Daytona 500. But drivers from less-funded teams who win early superspeedway races usually settle to the bottom of the rankings by now.

Stenhouse hasn’t. He ranks 13th heading into Sunday’s race at World Wide Technology Raceway.

Standings aren’t as good a ruler this year as they usually are because of drivers missing races and teams incurring penalties. But Stenhouse’s statistics back up his ranking.

Stenhouse has finished every race this year on track, as opposed to in the garage or on the hook. Only Ryan Blaney and Corey LaJoie have achieved the same distinction.

In 11 of those 14 races, Stenhouse finished on the lead lap. That’s the same number of lead-lap finishes as William Byron. Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. are tied for most races finished on the lead lap with 13 each.

This time last year, Stenhouse had already racked up seven of the series-leading 18 caution-causing incidents he would be involved in for the season. Runner-up Chase Elliott had 15 incidents.

Going into Gateway this year, Stenhouse has been involved in only two accidents (Talladega and Charlotte) and had a tire go out at Darlington.

Approaching his career best

I compare three years in Stenhouse’s career in the table below: the 2017 season — his best to date — along with last year and the 14 races run so far this year.

A table comparing loop data stats for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. showing his path to redemption

Stenhouse’s current average finishing position of 13.5 ties with Christopher Bell for sixth best in the Cup Series. That’s 9.3 positions better than Stenhouse’s 2022 average. He’s even beating his 2017 average by 3.6 positions.

Qualifying results are down a bit from 2017 — but remember that those numbers are from the days when NASCAR allowed multiple practice sessions. Stenhouse is only two positions worse relative to 2017, but 7.6 positions better than last year when it comes to establishing his spot on the starting grid.

Stenhouse’s average running position is comparable to 2017 and 2.8 positions better than 2022. He ranks 20th among full-time Cup Series drivers in average running position. Although it’s an improvement, it’s still more than double William Byron’s series-leading 9.1 average running position this year.

More interesting is the difference between Stenhouse’s average running position his average finishing position. Some drivers run better than they finish. Stenhouse is doing the opposite.

In 2017, Stenhouse finished about 1.4 positions better than he ran. This year, he’s gaining an average of about five positions from where he runs.

One might argue this gain results from the plethora of late-race incidents this year that have removed drivers in the front of the field from contention. But Stenhouse deserves credit for putting himself in a position to benefit from those events.

Stenhouse’s green-flag speed rank is 11th among full-time Cup Series drivers. His 15.3 average, however, is 1.7 positions worse than 10th-place Kyle Busch. Still, it’s impressive that JTG Daugherty is right there in the mix with much better-funded teams. William Byron again has the best average green-flag speed rank at 7.9.

Consistently strong finishes

It’s not uncommon for a mid-pack driver to win a superspeedway race. But Stenhouse’s Daytona 500 win appears to be something more. The table below summarizes his wins and finishes for the same three years.

A table comparing finishes for 2017, 2022 and 2023 showing Ricky Stenhouse Jr's redemption attemptsThe difference between last year and this year is striking.

In 2022, Stenhouse finished in the top 20 in 12 of 36 races. He’s already matched that mark this year. He earns top-20 finishes 85.7% of the time in 2023 compared to 33.3% last year. Top-20 finishes aren’t the same as contending for a championship. But they’re a first step.

Stenhouse finished 2017 with nine top-10 races. With about 60% of the season remaining, he’s already earned five top-10 finishes this year.

What’s changed? The Next Gen car is one factor, but it didn’t make much difference for Stenhouse last year. I would point instead to Stenhouse’s reunion with Mike Kelley as his crew chief.

Kelley co-piloted both of Stenhouse’s Xfinity championships in 2011 and ’12. Although Kelley worked with Stenhouse and previous crew chief Brian Pattie since 2020, this is the first year Kelley is back up on the pit box.

Together, they’re basically halfway to matching Stenhouse’s best year.

And another step closer to redemption.

Portland Xfinity race results, driver points

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Cole Custer went from fourth to first on the overtime restart when the top three cars made contact and went on to win Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Portland International Raceway. Custer is the 10th different winner in 13 races this season.

MORE: Portland Xfinity race results

MORE: Driver points after Portland Xfinity race

JR Motorsports took the next three spots: Justin Allgaier placed second, Sam Mayer was third and Josh Berry was fourth. Austin Hill completed the top five.

John Hunter Nemechek remains the points leader after 13 races. He has a 14-point lead on Hill. Nemechek leads Allgaier by 44 points.

Cole Custer wins Xfinity race at Portland in overtime

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Cole Custer held off Justin Allgaier at the finish to win Saturday’s Xfinity Series race in overtime at Portland International Raceway. It is Custer’s first victory of the season.

JR Motorsports placed second, third and fourth with Allgaier, Sam Mayer and Josh Berry. Austin Hill finished fifth.

MORE: Race results, driver points

Custer went from fourth to first on the overtime restart when Parker Kligerman, who restarted third, attempted to pass Allgaier, who was leading. Sheldon Creed was on the outside of Allgaier. All three cars made contact entering Turn 1, allowing Custer to slip by. Creed finished seventh. Kligerman placed 14th.

Custer won the second stage when John Hunter Nemechek made contact with Creed’s car while racing for the lead on the final lap of the stage. The contact spun Creed and Custer inched by Nemechek at the line.

Early in the final stage, Creed gained revenge with contact that spun Nemechek, who went on to finish 10th. A few laps later, Nemechek and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Sammy Smith had issues. Smith spun Nemechek. After getting back around, Nemechek quickly caught Smith and turned into Smith’s car, damaging it.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Sheldon Creed

STAGE 2 WINNER: Cole Custer

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Despite the contact on the overtime restart, runner-up Justin Allgaier managed to score his fourth consecutive top-three finish. … Sam Mayer’s third-place finish is his best on a road course. … Austin Hill’s fifth-place finish gives him four consecutive top-five results.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Daniel Hemric finished 33rd after a fire in his car. … Riley Herbst placed 32nd after an engine issue. After opening the season with six top 10s in a row, Herbst has gone seven races in a row without a top 10.

NEXT: The series competes June 10 at Sonoma Raceway (8 p.m. ET on FS1).