Ryan: Meet him in Miami? Kevin Harvick makes big push to title berth

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Maybe nobody wants to talk about this amidst rear-window violations, drivers “racing too hard” and installing betting windows adjacent to the garage stalls.

But can we discuss how much clearer the playoff picture seems a third of the way through the season for at least one contender?

The chances of Kevin Harvick winning the 2018 Cup championship have become exponentially greater over the last two months. The odds still are probably less than 50-50, but it is creeping up quickly toward one in four.

Wait, you say, that would mean the Stewart-Haas Racing driver is on the verge of being a lock for the four-driver championship finale Nov. 18 at Homestead-Miami Speedway?

If Harvick stays on this pace, or just close to approximating it, the answer is yes.

Absolutely.

Just look at last year’s series champion.

When he scored his second win of the season at Kansas Speedway on May 13, 2017, Martin Truex Jr. had 15 playoff points.

After winning Saturday night at Kansas for his fifth victory this year, Harvick has 24 playoff points (and would have 31 if his Las Vegas Motor Speedway stage win sweep weren’t nullified by a rear-window penalty).

It took Truex until the 18th race to amass that many playoff points (he went from 21 to 28 points with his July 8, 2017 sweep of Kentucky Speedway). He entered the playoffs with a 53-point bulge (the maximum possible in a race is 60) and added 16 to the total over the six races before the Round of 8. It made for a virtual walkover to Miami.

That cushion mattered because it allowed Furniture Row Racing to spend several weeks preparing the No. 78 Toyota that carried Truex to a victory (and the championship) in the Nov. 19 finale.

After opening the Round of 12 with a victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Oct. 8, 2017, Truex’s team could turn the bulk of its attention to the championship race. It would have taken an epic collapse to blow a 69-point lead through Martinsville Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway.

At his current pace, there is a solid chance Harvick could have an even bigger playoff points total entering the Round of 8 this year.

Crew chief Rodney Childers is among the best in Cup (along with Cole Pearn for Truex) at using simulations to set up a car.

Give Childers that much time to build a supersonic No. 4 Ford for Harvick at Miami, where he won in 2014 and has finished second, third and fourth since. It’s abundantly obvious whom the heavy favorite would be in this year’s championship.

It might seem absurd to suggest that after 12 of 36 races, Harvick is a surefire bet for Miami in a playoff system with three elimination rounds and points resets.

But one of the nuances about the stage racing/playoff points structure (and an improvement because it rewards seasonlong performance) is that it neutralizes some of the randomness.

Harvick might be on the cusp of carving out some impressive immediate history by notching two three-race winning streaks in one season.

But in the long game, he is setting himself for an even greater slice of significance.

(Thanks for indulging us. We can now return to discussing myriad topics unconnected to the somehow undercovered story of this year’s championship battle.)


William Byron said he was “thankful to be walking” after the fiery wreck at Kansas Speedway, which had us thinking.

Does it seem as if there have been an inordinate amount of heavy wrecks at this 1.5-mile speedway?

–Dale Jarrett sustained the worst concussion of his career there (with effects that lasted several years afterward) in the Sept. 30, 2001 debut race.

Sterling Marlin broke his neck and missed the last seven races of the season after a vicious crash on Sept. 29, 2002.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered a concussion in a wicked Turn 1 wreck during an August 2012 test session.

–The cars of Kyle Busch and Joey Logano got crumpled in an April 21, 2013 crash (damage that was similar to what Byron sustained last Saturday night).

–Last year, Aric Almirola missed seven races after suffering a compression fracture in a violent impact that left Danica Patrick shaken.

Most of this is likely just happenstance and not a byproduct of track design (though Kansas is among the last of the “real” triovals, lacking the dogleg of many 1.5-mile layouts).

But it is curious that Kansas has established a reputation as perhaps the most treacherous and unforgiving 1.5-mile track for wrecks (particularly when Texas and Charlotte often are mentioned most often when this category arises).


Based on his in-race radio chatter and brief comments afterward, Matt Kenseth surely had steeled himself for the possibility that his debut weekend would be as challenging as it was. His cautious outlook about his return to Roush Fenway Racing underscored that Kenseth understood the scale of the undertaking.

But the 2003 series champion already made his presence felt in his first competition meetings with the team last week, and he’s been given the full support of team owner Jack Roush to effect changes he feels are needed to return the No. 6 Ford to top-caliber results.

Kenseth probably won’t stomach running outside the top 25 on a consistent basis for more than a couple of races, but it’s reasonable to expect his patience for witnessing demonstrable improvements will last through at least the Coca-Cola 600.


Of the five rear-window penalties this season, the manufacturer breakdown is two Fords, two Chevrolets and one ToyotaDaniel Suarez at Dover.

The top three Toyotas in the standings haven’t been penalized, while two of the top three Fords (Harvick and Clint Bowyer) and the top Chevrolet (Larson) have been dinged.

This might provide context to why Denny Hamlin (seventh in the standings behind Joe Gibbs Racing teammate and points leader Kyle Busch and just ahead of fellow Camry driver Truex in eighth) grew animated on his team radio during the Kansas race, noting that “Larson’s roof is pushed in 2 feet! Two feet, his roof is pushed in!”

While the next rear-window penalty might draw harsher punishment from NASCAR … it also might draw a round of louder sniping from peers.


The loss of Larson’s playoff point from his second stage victory at Kansas raises the question of whether NASCAR should award playoff points to the next eligible contender after penalties.

In this instance, that would be Harvick. He also finished second in the first stage to Ryan Blaney, so his rivals are fortunate that Harvick doesn’t enter Charlotte Motor Speedway with an even bigger playoff points bulge.

Between the penalties to Harvick and Larson, that’s eight playoff points that have “disappeared” into the ether this season in Cup.


Remember the shove that Blaney delivered to Harvick last fall after the Martinsville Speedway race?

Maybe those embers still were smoldering when Blaney made this comment about falling from third to fifth on a restart with 25 laps remaining Saturday: “I got about spun out in (turns) 1 and 2 on the restart, getting sucked around.”

Without naming him, that was an obvious reference to Harvick using the outside to side-draft off Blaney and into the lead over Larson.

Six laps later, Blaney would crash with Larson and finish 37th after leading 54 laps and winning the first stage.

It wasn’t the first time the Team Penske driver has failed to close out a win with a strong car. He led a race-high 118 laps at the Daytona 500, 100 laps at Bristol Motor Speedway and 145 at Martinsville, and he also crashed at Talladega Superspeedway after contending for the victory. He’s led the most laps (418) among winless drivers in 2018.

Some of those were on the driver, some were just circumstantial. But even though he took full blame for the Kansas incident with Larson, it’s natural to wonder if Blaney holds Harvick partly responsible for putting him in that position.

Friday 5: Pressure builds for teams heading into Coca-Cola 600

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After all the fun and games of the All-Star Race, the focus returns this weekend to points and playoff spots.

Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 marks the halfway point in the 26-race regular season. With only six winners this season, there’s the chance that a number of playoff spots could be claimed by points.

That increases the pressure on those fighting for those positions.

Jimmie Johnson enters the weekend 16th in the points, the final transfer spot to the playoffs. He leads Ryan Newman by eight points, Austin Dillon by 11 and Coca-Cola 600 pole-sitter William Byron by 15.

Ryan Newman is eight points out of a playoff spot. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

“The biggest thing is we need to get to victory lane,” Newman said after qualifying 18th Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “If you don’t get to victory lane, you don’t really have a chance.

“You’ve got to be a winner going into the last 10. Just pointing your way in doesn’t entertain me. If we do, great, and we come into a streak and progress in the last 10 (races), then even better. I really want to have that win and that momentum going into those last 10.”

Newman finished second for the championship in 2014 despite going winless that season. Since then, every driver racing for the championship in Miami has had at least one win that season. 

Some teams already are feeling that playoff pressure.

“It’s been a grind now for a couple of weeks for us,” said Dillon, the 2017 Coca-Cola 600 champion. “Hopefully, we can get a win, but it’s going to come down to points.

“I’ve been scratching and clawing every week. That’s where you hear some frustration from because you just want all you can get. When it comes down to it – and that last race happens – you’re going to want as many points as possible on your side.”

2. A fresh outlook 

Kyle Larson has been hitting the gym this season and working with Josh Wise, marking a new routine for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver.

Wise, a former driver, now serves as the driver performance manager for Ganassi and for some of the younger drivers driving for JR Motorsports and GMS Racing.

Larson, who won last weekend’s All-Star Race, admits he’s not been one for workouts that much before this season.

“(Josh) would always still send information to me on pre-race stuff and things like that and I didn’t take it as serious as I needed to,” said Larson, who will start Sunday’s race 25th. “I kind of felt guilty about that. This year I’ve gotten into a good routine where I drop (son) Owen off at school and then I go to the shop and I work out.

“I think before it was hard for me to find that routine to get the motivation to do it. This year I feel like I’ve gotten that routine. It’s made it a lot easier and I’ve actually enjoyed it and noticed a little bit of a difference. I think just the way our sport has gone, more drivers are working out. You don’t want somebody to get an advantage or an edge on you. I feel like I’m just more prepared and confident now going to the track.”

3. Who is No. 1?

Joe Gibbs Racing has won the most races this season (seven). Team Penske won the most recent points race (Brad Keselowski at Kansas).

So which one is the strongest?

It might be another team.

I honestly feel right now the Hendrick cars are the best cars,” Keselowski said Thursday. “I feel like they really came on strong over the last two or three weeks and had some nice updates to their stuff, so I would expect them to be the ones to beat this weekend.”

He said that before Hendrick’s William Byron won the pole for the 600.

Kyle Busch also sees a difference in Hendrick Motorsports.

I think Hendrick has certainly found some speed,” he said. “They’re certainly getting better. They’re waking up. They’ve come to play a bit more lately.

“As far as the (Team) Penske group goes, they don’t really qualify well but they always race well. Then you look at the (Stewart-Haas Racing) cars and they qualify well and they’ll race well typically. It seems like the SHR cars are trimmed out a little bit more than some of the rest of us. They get more speed out of their cars but maybe they don’t have it for the long haul. Where it seems like the (Joe Gibbs Racing) cars are kind of a compromise.

“We might not qualify on the pole or be the best in qualifying, but we’ll race well. I wouldn’t call it middle of the road, but I feel like we’re in a position to win each week.”

4. More blocking?

In the most recent points race (at Kansas), Erik Jones upset Clint Bowyer with a block on the last lap. It was a big move from Jones who came down the track to block Bowyer and then moved up as Bowyer tried to go on the outside. That it was the last lap made it easier to understand Jones’ move.

Still, as the battles intensify, especially during restarts, more blocks are to be thrown. Did Jones’ block show others that they can be bolder in keeping a competitor behind?

“I didn’t even think twice about it when I saw it from my perspective,” Denny Hamlin said. “The person who gets blocked always makes it a bigger deal than what it really is. I think the other competitors probably don’t think anything about it to be honest with you.

“We all throw blocks at certain times and sometimes they’re not as dramatic. Sometimes … somebody would come up on you and you would just choose to run their lane and block them that way. It’s a less dramatic way of doing it but certainly one where you cut from high lane to low lane or whatever it might be, you are counting on the person either checking up or you are counting on them to lose enough air that they’re going to lose their car. That’s the whole reason you do it in the first place.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. described Jones’ block as “normal.”

“You can get mad about it, but we all do it, so you can’t get mad at somebody just because they do it to you. We throw blocks on each other all the time.

“Kyle Busch threw a block on me. I told (the spotter), ‘Hey, make sure he knows that later on in the race I’m not going to lift and he might end up in the fence.’ That’s just part of this package. The better track position you can keep yourself in, the better the car drives. … Obviously, at the end of the race, I think anything goes.”

5. An Olympian effort

Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 will be the first for rookie Daniel Hemric.

He’ll rely on some training he got a few years ago from Olympic speed skating champion Dan Jansen.

In 2016, Hemric and Tyler Reddick were teammates at Brad Keselowski Racing in the Truck Series. Keselowski heard Jansen tell his story of overcoming defeat to win gold in his fourth Olympics.

Jansen entered his second Olympics as the favorite in the 500- and 1,000-meter races in the 1988 Games at Calgary. His sister died of leukemia hours before his 500-meter race. Jansen fell in that race. He later fell with a lap to go in the 1,000-meter race.

He failed to medal in the 1992 Games in Albertville and finally won gold in 1994 in Lillehammer in the 1,000-meter race.

After hearing Jansen speak, Keselowski approached the former Olympic champion.

“We just asked each other questions,” Keselowski said. “What did you do for this, how did you handle that? Different athletes compare notes. Some of that crosses over. A lot of it doesn’t, that’s OK. The crossover there I thought was very interesting. I wanted to apply it to our team. What he said made a lot of sense, and I thought it was something we were missing.”

Hemric had the chance to train with Jansen.

“We would do a really hard workout and get our heart rate extremely high, up in the 190s, 200 range, if not more, and have to get off that and do some hand-eye coordination stuff,” Hemric said. “Then as soon as that’s over, your heart rate is as high as it can be and you’re breathing heavy, closing your eyes and think about qualifying a lap, think about a green-white-checkered restart, putting yourself in those moments, thinking about what you would do and how you would do it. Being able to bring your heart rate down in those moments, seeing your heart, imagine seeing your heart slow down, all those things to get your body calm.”

Those are lessons Hemric continues to practice and says will help him in his first Coca-Cola 600.

“A lot of times in our sport it gets focused solely on the physical endurance part of it,” Hemric said. “The mental side in my opinion is going to be the most crucial. When you talk to other guys that have ran this race for the first time they’ve always said that when the first thing goes and they get tired, it’s their mind.

“That’s a long time to keep yourself mentally in the game. I’ve always kind of trained and had my own mental things that I do to visualize and think about those moments late in the race. It’s something I’ve had a lot of success with in the past. I’ve got to credit Dan Jansen. I’ve kept a lot of those methods in my training regimen and a lot of that was mental.”

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Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman ‘clear the air’ about All-Star incident

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CONCORD, N.C. — Five days after Clint Bowyer threw several punches at Ryan Newman as Newman sat in his car after the All-Star Race, the two sat side by side during an autograph session at a Bass Pro Shops near Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Bowyer was upset with Newman for contact that led to Bowyer crashing after last weekend’s race. After Bowyer drove to pit road, he ran to Newman’s car while still wearing his helmet — earning a rebuke from his team owner for not removing his helmet. After reaching Newman’s car, Bowyer unleashed a number of punches.

Both drivers talked this week before they got to the autograph session.

“It was good to have a conversation about it,” Bowyer said Thursday night after qualifying eighth at Charlotte Motor Speedway for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600. “At the end of the day there were a lot of things that escalated very fast and obviously got out of hand.

“There’s one thing I can always promise you about something like that and it is unfortunate, and you hate having things like that happen, (but) that’s probably the best attended autograph session at Bass Pro Shops that I’ve had in a long, long time.

“Obviously I don’t want to do that every weekend. At the end of the day we all love this sport, we are all passionate about this sport and every now and then that shows a little brighter.”

Bowyer was asked if he thought Newman would retaliate.

“I don’t know,” Bowyer said. “Hopefully it’s behind us. We both have a little better understanding of how it escalated into that and you’ve just got to get stuff like that behind you.”

Newman said it was good to talk to Bowyer about what happened.

“It was good to kind of clear the air,” Newman said. “It is what it is. It’s the past. Just something you always remember. You learn about somebody in a situation like that.”

Newman was asked if he’ll race Bowyer differently.

“I try to race everybody the same way and that’s hard because that’s what I get paid to do,” said Newman, who qualified 18th for the Coca-Cola 600. “I try to give-and-take when I came. The way it works anymore with stage points, especially in the All-Star race, you don’t give and take. You take.”

Starting lineup for the Coca-Cola 600

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William Byron will start first and Aric Almirola will start second for Sunday’s 60th running of the Coca-Cola 600.

Byron, 21, is the youngest pole-sitter in the race’s history.

The top five is completed by defending race winner Kyle Busch, 2017 race winner Austin Dillon and two-time 600 winner Kevin Harvick.

Click here for the starting lineup.

William Byron wins pole for Coca-Cola 600

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CONCORD, N.C. —  William Byron won the pole for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Byron claimed the top spot with a qualifying speed of 183.424 mph. At the age of 21, he’s the youngest Coca-Cola 600 pole-sitter.

It’s Byron’s second career Cup pole, joining his pole in this year’s Daytona 500.

He beat out Aric Almirola (183.069 mph), Kyle Busch (182.933), Austin Dillon (182.766) and Kevin Harvick (182.741).

“This is awesome, a dream come true,” Byron told FS1. “Obviously, I grew up in Charlotte so I came to this race every year. It’s a dream come true to qualify on the pole next to Hendrick Motorsports across the street over there. … Can’t think of a better way to start the weekend.”

Byron has qualified on the front row five time this year and four times in the last seven races.

The pole is the 12th for Hendrick Motorsports in the 600, which leads all teams.

Busch has qualified in the top three for the last three 600s.

Corey LaJoie‘s No. 32 Ford failed pre-qualifying inspection twice, resulting in the ejection of an engineer.

Click here for qualifying results.