JOLIET, Ill. — Why should it be easy?
It wasn’t Sunday for Kevin Harvick, crew chief Rodney Childers and the rest of their team after a pit decision failed and was compounded when Harvick could not get his lap back because there were so few cautions.
The result was a 20th-place finish.
Harvick heads to New Hampshire tied for 12th — the final transfer spot for the second round — with Austin Dillon. With Jimmie Johnson likely facing a 10-point penalty, that would make it a three-way tie for 12th.
Of course, last year, Harvick wrecked when his tire went down after contact with Johnson in this race and then ran out of fuel as he was on the way to winning at New Hampshire. That forced him to win at Dover to advance. He did and made it all the way to the championship round for a second consecutive year.
The situation isn’t quite that dire this time, but the team can’t afford to have many issues or mistakes next week.
At least nothing like what happened Sunday.
Problems started early for Harvick and his team.
NASCAR ruled the team made a body modification before the race, sending Harvick, who was to have started fourth, to the rear of the field.
He was 10th by the 20th lap and moved his way to eighth before pitting on Lap 48.
With Harvick on pit road, the caution came out for a tire that rolled across pit road into the infield grass. In the middle of a four-tire stop, the team changed only two tires before sending Harvick off in hopes of beating leader Martin Truex Jr., who was on the track, across the start/finish line. Harvick’s pit stall was the stall behind the extended start/finish line.
Harvick failed to beat Truex to the line by a couple of feet and was trapped a lap down.
However, had Harvick changed four tires and fallen a lap down, he could have regained the lap by using the wave around when the rest of the field that had yet to stop pitted. That’s what Chase contenders Austin Dillon, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson, Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth did – all would finish ahead of Harvick.
Harvick came back in during that caution to change the other two tires and remained a lap down.
In a race that has averaged about six cautions the past four years, there were four cautions Sunday. Although Harvick ran much of the race as the first car a lap down, each time the yellow flag waved, Harvick found himself out of that spot despite having one of the faster cars.
The few cautions and needing to get tires each time all but forced Harvick to pit with the field and not take the wave around to get his lap back. The one time the team had that option came when the caution waved on Lap 193. Childers and Harvick discussed their options with Harvick having run only 17 laps on his tires.
“I have no clue,’’ Harvick said on the radio about what to do.
Childers called for Harvick to pit for new tires.
After the race, Childers radioed Harvick: “Guess I should have pitted one lap later and we’d been all right. All day you were fast.’’
But that speed was wasted when they couldn’t get back on the lead lap.
Harvick did not answer questions from reporters after the race. Childers could not be reached after the race, but Greg Zipadelli, vice president of competition at Stewart-Haas Racing and a former champion crew chief, said the team must look ahead.
“It was kind of an unusual day with the way the cautions fell, we usually have more,’’ Zipadelli said. “We go on to Loudon and work harder this week.
“We’ve had good cars all year, we’ve had fast cars all year, so there’s no reason to panic.’’