Imagine for a second the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is like an NFL game. You’re three days out from a 38-17 finish where your favorite team simply dominated their opponent. Then, on a Wednesday, you find out the victory has been stripped. Why? Your favorite team got called for a 10-yard holding penalty, after the fact, that officials feel altered the outcome of the entire game.
You’d find that hard to swallow, right? So imagine how Kevin Harvickand his legion of fans feel after the driver got hit with an L-1 penalty following his victory at Texas Motor Speedway last Sunday. His No. 4 Ford was found to have an illegal spoiler, measuring outside of tolerance with its placement designed to increase downforce. The sanctioning body hit hard for a playoff contender violating the rulebook; Harvick lost 40 points, his crew chief Rodney Childers got fined $75,000 while both Childers and car chief Robert “Cheddar” Smith will sit out the final two weekends of the season.
Most importantly, Harvick’s automatic Championship 4 bid was stripped. That means a four-driver field likely comprised of Joey Logano, Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. suddenly looks wide open. Only Logano, by virtue of his Martinsville win is guaranteed to battle for the title at Homestead-Miami Speedway next weekend.
The new point standings leave Harvick fourth, three points in front of teammate Kurt Busch for the final spot on the championship grid. Chase Elliott sits 17 points back while Aric Almirola (-35) and Clint Bowyer (-51) are probably still in must-win scenarios.
Harvick himself has kept his comments to a minimum, keeping it short with reporters in a Friday press conference. Instead, he’s letting the driving to the talking. Winning the pole for Sunday’s race, a victory here would still leave him in title contention.
Either way, some damage has been done to the reputation of Stewart-Haas Racing. They’ve been the dominant team all year with Harvick at the forefront; his career-best eight wins lead the Cup Series. How many of those, critics wonder, were accomplished with an illegal car that may have snuck under the nose of NASCAR officials?
Crew chief Childers has fought back hard on that assessment and the penalty itself. While SHR chose not to appeal, he insisted the spoiler made little, if any, difference as to whether Harvick’s car won at Texas.
Problem is, some people won’t stop and sift through the details. What they see is a surface-level news story; Harvick was caught cheating after his win. So now, if he goes on to earn the title, will that mean there’s an asterisk attached? Replacement crew chief Tony Gibson is one of the best in the business; the No. 4 team still has a great chance to win it all.
No matter what, it’s not a good look for NASCAR after a long list of negative news stories throughout the 2018 season. Finding out your title favorite’s a cheater and announcing the penalty a full three days after the race isn’t exactly the recipe to please a depleting fan base.
The sport promises changes for 2019. How about a way to figure out if a winning car is illegal before fans wake up the day after?
Time: 2:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: ISM Raceway (Phoenix)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Kyle Busch
Busch didn’t win at Texas but could be the biggest benefactor from all this penalty drama. Kevin Harvick’s drop in the standings makes him the points leader despite an underwhelming performance this round. Runs of fourth and 17th leave him 28 points above the cutline heading to a Phoenix track where he ran second in the spring.
A clean, steady race will be what earns Busch a trip to Homestead. His Toyota has been a step behind the Fords as of late but you can’t count the 2015 Cup champion out.
Who’s at the Back: Daniel Suarez
It’s been a tough week for Suarez, who officially lost his No. 19 Toyota ride at Joe Gibbs Racing next season (more on that in a minute). It’s a move that’s been known for a while but I’m sure hearing those words made official didn’t make it any easier.
The lame duck is now limping to the finish line while finalizing 2019 plans elsewhere. Finishing 28th at Texas after wall damage, he’s now gone 12 races without a top-5 finish and failed to lead a single lap since Pocono way back in July.
NASCAR announced Friday it’s pursuing a merger with International Speedway Corporation. ISC is already 75 percent owned by the France family and is the company under which many of the NASCAR tracks operate. Approximately half of the 36-race Cup schedule is run at ISC tracks which include Daytona International Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway, Darlington Raceway and Martinsville Speedway, among others. Once the company is 100 percent owned by the Frances they then plan to merge it with NASCAR in a move that officially puts both parts under one umbrella. The Frances claim they will remain the long-term owners of that new entity for the foreseeable future, once again downplaying rumors of a potential sale.
Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn are coming to Joe Gibbs Racing next season. The move, announced this week, officially ousts Daniel Suarez and puts the duo in charge of the No. 19 Toyota. Sponsorship was not officially announced but it’s expected Bass Pro Shops will stick with Truex as well. The reigning champion was looking for a home after his Furniture Row Racing team announced they’ll close down at season’s end due to lack of funding.
Ross Chastain has a new home in the XFINITY Series next season. Chastain announced Friday he’s been signed by Chip Ganassi Racing to run a full season in their No. 42 Chevrolet. Sponsorship will come from DC Solar, among others as Chastain looks to build upon his limited schedule in the car. A three-race audition in the car this summer produced a win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway along with a second-place finish the following week. Owner Ganassi also hopes to field a second, full-time entry for young John Hunter Nemechek next season as well.
The grandson of Dale Earnhardt will have an opportunity with a top-tier team next season. Jeffrey Earnhardt has been signed to drive nine XFINITY Series events with Joe Gibbs Racing. Sponsorship will come from Xtreme Concepts, Inc. as the younger Earnhardt will have the best NASCAR opportunity of his career. Driving for years with underfunded equipment he has yet to earn a top-10 finish in either Cup or XFINITY despite 141 career starts.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Playoff points for Kevin Harvick, more than any other driver this season. Without that bonus, he’d sit 48 points behind Kurt Busch entering Phoenix and need a win to advance to the Championship 4.
Top-5 finishes for seven-time MENCS champ Jimmie Johnson since the start of the 2017 season. From 2002-16, the fewest top-5 finishes Johnson ever had in a single season was six way back in his rookie year of '02.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
It’s hard to bet against pole sitter Kevin Harvick. He’s angry, focused and sits on the pole at a track where he’s won a NASCAR best nine times. If that’s not a recipe for success for him, well, I’m not quite sure what is.
Kyle Busch is a clear second although I think he’ll play it safe on Sunday, aiming more for a top-10 finish that ensures he’ll advance to Homestead. If you’re looking to make a bigger splash, I’d actually go with Chase Elliott. Second in this race last fall, he’s never finished lower than 12th at Phoenix in five career starts. A win gets him that Championship 4 bid and you can bet the No. 9 team will get aggressive on pit strategy to sneak up front.
Ryan Newman snuck by his competition for a surprise win at Phoenix a year and a half ago. He’s got four straight top-20 finishes here and led 23 laps in the spring en route to an 11th-place result. He’s a nice filler pick for a daily fantasy roster where a lower salary can get you a better crop of drivers elsewhere.
Kyle Larson hasn’t had the results at Phoenix the last three races but he’s also led 69 laps during that stretch. An engine failure last fall derailed what otherwise might have been a winning car; a spin this spring derailed a front-row starting effort. At some point, Lady Luck will finally shine back down on him and when it does... the fantasy world better watch out.
In all likelihood, there are just two races left in the NASCAR career of Matt Kenseth. His 2018 performance as a limited fill-in running Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 6 Ford has been underwhelming. But Kenseth is the defending winner of this race and has led 117 laps in the last two fall Phoenix events. With nothing to lose, you never know...
Another sneaky play for a cheap salary is Bubba Wallace. While a disappointing 28th in the spring he drives for a team in Richard Petty Motorsports that’s had some success here. They were top 10 in this race last fall with Aric Almirola and this short track often lends itself to a surprise underdog performance.
What Vegas Thinks*
Kevin Harvick: 7/4
Kyle Busch: 4/1
Martin Truex Jr.: 7/1
Chase Elliott: 7/1
Brad Keselowski: 10/1
Kyle Larson: 10/1
LONGSHOT PICK: Ryan Newman 150/1
*Odds courtesy of oddschecker.com
What I Think
Kevin Harvick makes a mockery of Wednesday and the field, leading 250 laps en route to victory. Despite his initial slide back to the field, it’s the Big Three and Joey Logano traveling to Homestead for a shot at the title.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.