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.

Cup playoff race at Talladega to resume at 2 p.m. ET Monday on NBCSN

Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images
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Let’s try this again.

Stage 1 was finished when rain came Sunday and prevented the Cup playoff race from continuing at Talladega Superspeedway. NBCSN’s coverage begins at 2 p.m. ET today. The engines will be fired at 2:02 p.m.

Fifty-seven of 188 laps have been completed. The race will resume with stage 2. That stage will end at Lap 110.

The wunderground.com forecast calls for partly cloudy skies with a high of 72 degrees and 0% chance of rain when the race resumes. There is no chance of rain in the afternoon.

William Byron, who won stage 1, was the leader when the race was stopped Sunday. He is followed by Joey Logano, Alex Bowman, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Brad Keselowski.

Matt Crafton has replaced Paul Menard in the No. 21 car and will take over driving duties when the race resumes.

After the race was stopped, Chevrolet summoned its drivers, crew chiefs and competition directors to a meeting that lasted about 25 minutes. Chevrolet has been adamant about its teams working together at Talladega and Daytona since the April race at Talladega. Chevrolet has won the past two races at those tracks with Elliott winning at Talladega in April and Justin Haley winning at Daytona in July.

Asked about Chevy’s tactics, Jimmie Johnson told NBC Sports: “Every year the sport changes. It doesn’t matter if it’s how we race each other on track or how strategies play out. The sport is ever-evolving and you’ve got to be on your toes and ready to adjust or the sport is going to pass you up.”

 

Rain postpones Cup race at Talladega until Monday at 2 p.m. ET on NBCSN

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The Cup Series playoff race at Talladega has been postponed due to rain. The race will resume Monday at 2 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

The race was put under a rain delay after the completion of Stage 1.

57 of 188 laps have been completed. The race is not official until the end of Stage 2 (Lap 110).

William Byron won the first stage.

The top 10 is Byron, Joey Logano, Alex Bowman, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson, Jimmie Johnson, Daniel Suarez, Kurt Busch and Ryan Blaney.

Blocking a key issue at Talladega for drivers

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — The question isn’t who to race with at Talladega, manufacturers have dictated that, but it is where to race.

Run at the front and hope the wreck is behind? Run at the back and hope to avoid the carnage?

The package used at Talladega and Daytona this season punches such a big hole that drivers say the closing rate between cars is quicker than before. That gives cars trying to block less time to make their move. Be late and it can lead to a wreck.

As it has at Talladega and Daytona this year.

“There’s been many evolutions in racing and blocking is one for me that I’ve had to evolve with, but blocking is a part of our sport now on a weekly basis,” Kevin Harvick said. “It’s not just here. I mean, you see it at the mile-and-a-half race tracks. 

“You’re just going to have wrecks blocking. Sometimes you’re going to make a bad move. It’s just something that’s a little bit newer in the pace of the car that’s approaching you and the style of block and how you throw it, but we’re going to wreck from a block because it’s just become part of what we do.”

Three wrecks this year at Talladega and Daytona can be traced to blocking at the front of the field.

“When you have the smaller spoiler, you’re able to get in front of them, that lead car would get the push before that (trailing) car would actually get to the back bumper of the lead car,” Joey Logano said. “Now, it seems like the trailing car can get to the back bumper and then some (with the larger spoiler), so the blocks have to be quicker and have to be precise. Even once you block them it doesn’t mean it’s over because now they’re still on your bumper and they’re pushing you around. It’s more challenging from that standpoint.”

The late April race at Talladega debuted this package and saw a crash at the front of the field early in the event. Bubba Wallace was third when he and Ryan Blaney, running second, got out of shape and triggered a crash that damaged six cars. Wallace said the accident was a result of “the amount of runs and the force of it. All I was trying to do was just some wreck avoidance.”

The Daytona race in July saw two crashes that started at the front of the field because of blocking.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was leading when he was late on a block on Kurt Busch and they made contact, spinning Stenhouse.

Late in the race, Austin Dillon, in the lead, blocked as Clint Bowyer went low to try pass. They made contact, triggering an 18-car crash.

Dillon notes that blocking is a part of speedway racing.

“You’re going to do it,” he said. “Somebody has got a run at you at the end of the race. There’s not much else you can do. You can give up certain times of the race, but if it’s a last-lap situation you’re going to be held accountable for the actions you make and you’re going to feel bad if you go home not making the block that could win you the race … or you’re going to feel bad if you’re wrecked. I’ve been on both sides of it. It’s speedway racing. That’s all I have to say about it.”

Blocking, to Ryan Newman, is nothing new.

“What was it ’08 when (Tony) Stewart won blocking Regan Smith?” Newman said of the fall 2008 Talladega race where Smith crossed the finish line first but Stewart was given the win because Smith went below the yellow line. “Stewart got the win and blocked Regan and everything was fine. Here we are 11 years later still talking about the same thing. Does it do any good to talk about it?”

Harvick was encouraged how NASCAR reacted at the end of Saturday’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series race. NASCAR penalized leader Johnny Sauter for forcing Riley Herbst below the yellow line on the final lap. Spencer Boyd was declared the winner.

“I can’t stand blocking,” Harvick said. “We didn’t use to penalize the blockers  very much. It was always the guy that was trying to make the move. So, you know, the guy had a lane … Johnny was trying to win the race. You can’t blame for him for trying to block. I like when the blockers get called. I don’t like it for Johnny Sauter. You’ve got to have a lane to race.”

 

Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega: Start time, lineup and more

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One of the first things Kyle Larson said after winning last weekend at Dover was that “everybody in this playoff field is going to be stressing at Talladega … except me.”

Talladega is here and it’s time for many drivers to stress. Except Larson, of course.

The playoff standings could be jumbled by the time the 500-mile journey at Talladega Superspeedway ends. Who will be collected in a crash? Who will get through the carnage and contend for the win?

Here is all the info for today’s race:

(All times are Eastern)

START: Edward Graham, assistant VP of Operation Christmas Child for Samaritan’s Purse, will give the command to start engines at 1:48 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 2:03 p.m.

PRERACE: The Cup garage opens at 10 a.m. Driver/crew chief meeting is at noon. Driver introductions are at 1:15 p.m. The invocation will be given at 1:41 p.m. by Dr. Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas. The National Anthem will be performed at 1:42 p.m. by the 313th United States Army Band out of Birmingham, Alabama.

DISTANCE: The race is 188 laps (500.08 miles) around the 2.66-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 55. Stage 2 ends on Lap 110.

TV/RADIO: NBC will televise the race at 2 p.m. Coverage begins with NASCAR America at 1 p.m. on NBC. Countdown to Green follows at 1:30 p.m. on NBC, leading into race coverage. Motor Racing Network’s radio broadcast begins at 1 p.m. and also can be heard on mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry MRN’s broadcast.

STREAMING ONLINE: Click here for NBC’s live stream of the race.

FORECAST: Wunderground.com forecasts mostly cloudy conditions with a temperature of 68 degrees and a 0% chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Chase Elliott led a 1-2-3 Chevrolet sweep in late April, finishing ahead of Alex Bowman and Ryan Preece. Aric Almirola won this playoff race a year ago, giving Ford a 1-2-3 sweep with Clint Bowyer second and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. third. 

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the starting lineup.