Two middle-aged men will turn 40 by the end of the year, still in the midst of their NASCAR prime in a sport that rewards age and experience. Two drivers, who have combined for seven wins this season between them along with 2,500 laps led. Both could have laid claim to this year’s championship and no one would have batted an eyebrow.
Instead, only one man makes it out of round 1 in the second year of NASCAR’s “tournament style” Chase format. The other? Scratching his head and searching for some golden horseshoe the other one seems to have stolen away.
It was Kevin Harvick who once accused six-time champion Jimmie Johnsonof having such a golden horseshoe stuck up... well, you know, some area underneath his back. For years, Harvick’s pain was Johnson’s gain; he was third in the Chase in both 2010 and ’13, watching bids for victory and more points go to waste while Johnson took the title both years. It seemed poor luck was destined to dog Harvick at Richard Childress Racing, bad pit strategy and faulty lugnuts leaving him on the outside looking in as the driver who just couldn’t get over the hump.
Heck, even finally winning a title, achieving the goal last year with new employer Stewart-Haas Racing did little to change Harvick’s luck. Ten runner-up finishes have littered a season filled with “might-have-beens,” culminating with perhaps the most disastrous two-week stretch of his career. This year’s first Chase race at Chicagoland ended with a hit to the outside wall, a tire rub turned treacherous after contact with Johnson on a restart. The next week, Harvick and Co. ran out of fuel unexpectedly while leading, letting a dominant car at New Hampshire go to waste. It was Harvick who entered Dover’s Monster Mile desperate, winless there at a place where Johnson has reset the entire record book.
Johnson, armed with a 27-point cushion was supposed to waltz into round 2 with a victory. Instead? Harvick pounded the competition to shreds, leading 355 of 400 laps and never leaving the outcome in doubt. It was Johnson reeling from the bad luck blues, a leaky $5 rear axle seal causing a part failure that left the No. 48 team sitting 20th. The shocking result came at a track where he’s dominated; instead, the “D” in Dover stood for “disaster.”
Amazing how one race can change the course of NASCAR history. Suddenly, Harvick’s goal of back-to-back titles gets revived, avoiding the dubious distinction of having the most disappointing “Chase elimination” in the brief history of the format. And for Johnson? He no longer can be considered the prohibitive favorite each year, sandbagging during the “regular season” only to sock it to any potential rival come Chase time. The No. 48 team has won just one title the last five years, suffering through mechanical failures twice that cost them along with ugly wrecks and uncharacteristic mistakes in the postseason. Johnson, nearing that age 40 mark knows his window is closing for title number seven and is realistic about his luck balancing out.
“I’ve had mechanicals take me out of championships growing up that led to success for myself and I'm sure helped me with a championship or two,” Johnson said Sunday. “It's just part of racing. You can't take anything for granted.”
That’s a lesson Harvick learned early in his career, Dale Earnhardt Sr.’sreplacement that never fully realized his potential for over a decade while Johnson dominated. Now, the racing Gods are turning the tide, potentially at the expense of Johnson’s pursuit of a record eight titles.
What a difference a few broken parts can make. Through the Gears we go…
FIRST GEAR: Harvick’s Heroics Save The Season
Harvick’s Dover performance has reestablished his No. 4 team as title favorites. So far this Chase, he’s led 581 of 967 laps, been in position to win each week, and qualified on the front row twice in three weeks. Sunday’s race was never really in doubt, a sign of superior confidence within the team after two weeks of disappointment that would have broken the will of most inside the garage.
“It's just the nature of this team and what they do,” Harvick said shortly after the team chanted how they “believe” in Victory Lane. “The character of it is deep, and they all believe in each other.”
Looking ahead, Harvick has top-10 finishes at each of the next three races, a resume that should easily launch him into round 3. Then, we have Phoenix during that semifinal round, a place where Harvick hasn’t lost a race since 2013. A win there launches him into Homestead automatically, a race where he’s the defending champ. It’s hard to bet against the No. 4 team now; as long as they avoid beating themselves, they’ll be hard to conquer.
SECOND GEAR: What’s Up At Hendrick?
For the second straight year Hendrick Motorsports is floundering when it matters most. After a strong start to the season, Jimmie Johnson winning four times in the first dozen races, the No. 48 team is now on the outside looking in on the championship. Joining him is Kasey Kahne, part of a No. 5 group that has underachieved and never even qualified for this year’s playoff. Rumors abound new crew chief Keith Rodden is headed for a reshuffling there following the season.
More surprising has been the performance of Dale Earnhardt Jr., running out of fuel at New Hampshire with new crew chief Greg Ives. For much of Dover, Earnhardt was on the edge of making it inside the round of 12 and it took an aggressive move on the final restart to advance. Powering through on the outside, Earnhardt blasted past Jamie McMurray and finished one spot ahead of the No. 1 car, leaving the two tied for the final spot. Earnhardt may have advanced based on the tiebreaker but the up-and-down performance leaves many skeptical about his title chances despite a track, Talladega, coming up that should favor the No. 88.
“We lost a little speed over the summer,” he admitted. “We've just got to get a little bit of luck and not ruin it for ourselves.”
Only Jeff Gordon has paced himself correctly out of the Hendrick camp, avoiding any major mishaps and advancing despite not having strong speed (the No. 24 team has just three top-5 finishes all year). But if HMS doesn’t make major adjustments over the next three weeks the strength of the playoff field may leave both Gordon and Earnhardt out of the running, creating a shocking final eight without the organization that’s won six of the last nine NASCAR Cup titles.
THIRD GEAR: Joe Gibbs Racing Remains Big Winners
It wasn’t the best of days at Dover for Joe Gibbs Racing. Denny Hamlin got busted for speeding on pit road twice, suffered through handling woes and was lucky simply to finish inside the lead lap. Matt Kenseth’s team made a gutsy call for the No. 20 car to stay out on old tires, briefly gaining him track position in the short run but killing his speed down the stretch. Kyle Busch ran runner-up and still made the round of 12 by the skin of his teeth based on others’ strong performances.
All that being said, JGR still advanced all four of its Toyotas into the “Contender Round,” what NASCAR has labeled the next phase of its Chase format. With fourth driver Carl Edwards winning at Charlotte back in May, combined with the recent strength of Kenseth (he had the most points in round 1), chances for them to keep their perfect record remain high. Denny Hamlin, a winner at Loudon earlier in the postseason, has a Talladega victory from 2014 to hang his hat on. Add in Kansas, where Kyle Busch’s No. 18 showed winning speed from fill-in Erik Jones, and it seems like a Talladega wreck would be the only obstacle positioned to slow down this foursome from bulldozing all competition not named Harvick.
Of course, HMS had this same scenario and wound up advancing just one of its four drivers into the round of eight. Anything can still happen but JGR as a whole proved the last three weeks their summer was no fluke; they can now be labeled the strongest organization, top-to-bottom within the Cup Series right now.
FOURTH GEAR: Monster No More
Dover was once known as the Monster Mile for its penchant to turn racecars into mangled messes. So why the clean races nowadays? Only a handful of accidents littered this 400-mile event and just two drivers, rookies Brett Moffitt and Jeb Burton, failed to finish due to wrecks. Only one other, Landon Cassill DNF’d due to mechanical failure, a sign of durability this one-mile oval is suddenly powerless to stop.
What’s the problem? Drivers will tell you it’s a combination of speed, tires, and the current handling package. What we’ve seen in recent years is a one-groove racetrack, one that’s near-impossible to pass on yet a race where drivers have enough grip to keep from spinning out through Dover’s treacherous turns. A low-downforce, lower-speed version of the rules in 2016 could change that but it would also be in NASCAR’s interest to hold extensive tire testing here. Without the drama of the Chase, the race would easily rank as the worst all season and still resembled a single-file parade with little passing and major frustration brewing from top teams.
Why is that important? Dover, unlike most other tracks on the circuit is an independent without the deep pockets to keep races funded during a prolonged slump in competition (and fans in the stands). Losing a date here for NASCAR, still looking to make an impact in major markets throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, would be a blow during a time where its popularity nationally is dwindling. Once one of the sport’s unique tracks, changes need to be made to ensure Miles The Monster is roaring again.
Sam Hornish Jr., a ho-hum 20th at Dover remains tight-lipped about his plans for 2016. A lack of sponsorship, forcing Richard Petty Motorsports co-owner Andy Murstein to spend millions out of his own pocket leaves Hornish in a precarious position despite showing small signs of improvement as of late... Aric Almirola has just three top-5 finishes all year. Two of them have now come at the Monster Mile (fifth Sunday)... Michael Waltrip Racing will partner with Premium Motorsports to run the 2016 Daytona 500 with owner/driver Michael Waltrip. It makes you wonder whether Waltrip will still find a way to keep MWR open in a limited fashion in 2016 and beyond, perhaps as a one-car operation until he wants to retire from Cup competition. Waltrip, a two-time Daytona 500 winner still runs the plate races in addition to his current role as a NASCAR analyst.
— 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.
Photos by ASP Inc.