Kevin Harvick's fate was not sealed one week ago today, but his season was derailed in the short 40 laps of incredibly irresponsible running under wet conditions at the beginning of last weekend's race at Texas Motor Speedway. Cars on slicks do not drive well on wet tracks as is, but moisture is particularly punishing when it bonds with the PJ1 grip compound that the track had added in an attempt to salvage its poor racing over the past decade. On lap 30, Harvick tried to dive into the inside line, coated in the compound, from the lead of the race. The car slid up, as Harvick described conditions "Like ice," and he flew into the wall.
Harvick would recover to finish 16th in that race, but his inability to get back into the top ten before "Stage points," the new-as-of-2018 points given out during two scheduled intra-race cautions, were awarded, and he missed out on the potential for 20 points that he could have potentially earned if he had led the race.
NASCAR finally threw a yellow for moisture on track a few laps later, and the race was delayed three full days before it was completed on Wednesday. Harvick still came away from the race with a comfortable lead, 41 points over the cut line, but he understood that the cut line could just as easily move if someone outside of it won the race at Martinsville.
A huge development for Kevin Harvick!
He went two laps down after contact with Matt Kenseth. A caution, though, helped him and put him back to just one lap down. #NASCARPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/Ry13EQ9aye
— #NASCARPlayoffs on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) November 1, 2020
Harvick's race was derailed early today, too. Struggles in the early run cost him points in stage 1, and contact with Matt Kenseth further back in the sent him two full laps down with 350 laps to go. A quick caution got him back to just one lap down, but the next few green flag runs were long enough for someone else to get lapped ahead of him, keeping him from the free wave-around granted to the last car on the lead lap during every yellow. He finally got back into position with about 75 laps to go, while a speeding penalty sent Brad Keselowski back to the same point from the top five.
Keselowski, however, had scored stage points at the end of stage 2. Harvick, again, did not.
All of Keselowski, Harvick, and Hamlin were close to each other in a battle for what was in reality the lead in championship points for the round. However, with Joey Logano already having won a race and both Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. in position to grab a win of their own, that cut line was going to very quickly move from fourth in points to second. All three knew this, and their intense final charges were with the understanding that just two of the three would make the playoff.
At the front of the field, Martin Truex Jr. struggled with a vibration on a restart and would be forced to pit shortly after Chase Elliott passed him for the race lead. Truex would fall out of contention, while Elliott would win the race. The cut line had officially moved to second in points.
With fifteen laps left, Hamlin was fading while Keselowski was charging. Keselowski had moved all the way up to fourth while Harvick had passed Hamlin, leaving Hamlin and Keselowski tied on points and Kevin Harvick one behind. Harvick had been struggling to pass the #21 of Matt DiBenedetto, a teammate of Keselowski's by affiliation, earlier in the run, and was well behind Kyle Busch, a teammate of Hamlin, when he finally cleared the car. Hamlin, meanwhile, had teammates Erik Jones and Martin Truex Jr. directly behind him on track, with Truex laps down but Jones a direct threat to Hamlin on track.
The two successfully held back any other competition for Hamlin's position, including Harvick teammate Cole Custer, and resisted the temptation to pass him when they had the opportunity. Hamlin would have been secure even if Harvick had gained one more point. Keselowski, however, was still vulnerable.
This is what Harvick understood as the laps wound down and he finally reached the rear bumper of Kyle Busch. His teammates, Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer, sat between them, and a simple intentional mistake by either would immediately grant the best driver and team of the season a spot in the Championship Four. His Stewart-Haas Racing team knew, however, that NASCAR had penalized those exact kinds of team orders years ago, going as far as to take teams out of the playoff entirely. Both Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing and Keselowski's Penske Racing were generally within the parameters of acceptable team orders when they tasked their non-contending affiliated drivers with either defending their teammate's rear or going on offense by impeding the progress of a charging rival, but SHR could not simply make the position available to Harvick and go into Phoenix with a shot at a title.
Instead, Harvick needed to do it himself. He saw the window coming out of turn 4 on the final lap, still in reach of Kyle Busch's bumper. His team likely knew from 2014 that the series has no real problem with aggressive, even intentionally disruptive, driving by a driver pushing past a non-contender in the final race before the championship. Harvick had no other choice; He chose to wreck Busch, knowing that if he did so successfully he would make the field and knock out Keselowski on a tiebreaker.
— #NASCARPlayoffs on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) November 1, 2020
Harvick spun out as he spun Busch, and, instead of finishing one position short of the cutoff line and forcing NASCAR to make a decision on the validity of the move, he found himself stalled on the front stretch. For all of these reasons, Harvick was eliminated.
He ends his season almost certain to finish fifth in the championship, with the overwhelming bank of playoff points built over nine wins and 20t op fives in 35 races that was not enough to guarantee his advancement now likely to be enough to easily ensure he finishes fifth. His championship-level season will not end with a championship.
Instead, your championship four will be Chase Elliott, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, and Brad Keselowski. Logano and Keselowski each have a title of their own already, but both Elliott and Hamlin do not. Hamlin has notably been the second-best driver of the year, particularly fast during a Summer stretch where he and Harvick seemed to be the only threats to win any given race, while Elliott has come on particularly strong over the last nine races after a relatively poor year for his Hendrick Motorsports team. Logano and Keselowski, Penske teammates, each represent Ford, while Hamlin runs a Toyota for JGR and Elliott runs a Chevrolet for HMS. Stewart-Haas Racing, who put four drivers in this year's 16-car playoff field, will not field a car in the Championship Four.
The race will be run at Phoenix, a flat 1-mile track that will be hosting its first-ever championship weekend. Since this elimination format began in its first form in 2014, the series champion has always won the final race.
Notably, Phoenix is by far Harvick's best track. He has won there nine times. A tenth will paint NASCAR's current championship format in a uniquely unflattering light.
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