Sunday, November 13, 2016
Driver needs victory to avoid elimination from NASCAR playoffs
Kevin Harvick has been backed into a corner before in NASCAR’s elimination-style playoffs. Put Harvick in a must-win situation, and he’s proven repeatedly he can deliver.
So here he is, again, at Phoenix International Raceway in need of a victory to continue his bid for a second Sprint Cup championship. If he is stressed, you can’t tell. Harvick sat relaxed on the wall along pit road with the cavalier attitude of a driver who isn’t at all worried about winning Sunday. He’ll start sixth in the field.
“We just have to control the things that we can control, try and put ourselves in position to where we usually do and see where it all falls,” Harvick said. “What I like about it is the sense of the unknown, the competition, the effort, the thought and everything that goes into that is intriguing for me.
“From a team standpoint, to see where everybody is at and how they approach it, is fun to me and I like to see people performing and working at that level.”
Harvick has been in this position before at Phoenix, in 2014 when the elimination format debuted. He deserved to be in the championship race but had to win at Phoenix to qualify.
He did win — he routed the field, actually — then won again the next week to claim his first career Cup title. He’s also been in must-win situations in earlier rounds of the Chase.
Harvick has a stellar record at Phoenix, where he’s an eight-time Cup winner. He’s won five of his last six visits to this desert race track — four since he joined Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014 — and his only defeat was last November, when he led 143 laps but wound up second in a rain-shortened race.
That defeat, by Mother Nature, has Harvick confident the odds of winning over and over again won’t turn against him Sunday.
“You know, we dominated the end of that race and wound up losing it to rain,” he said. “They are a lot easier to lose than they are to win.”
Although he joked that his success at Phoenix was born after a trip to Disney World: “I have magic ... I found this magic wand, and I wave it here,” he finds it “silly” that so many people assume he’s an automatic winner Sunday.
Only the statistics back up the predictions of a Harvick win at Phoenix. He’s won six of the last eight races and has barely been contested. Harvick has led an astounding 1,016 laps in that span and has generally forced drivers to believe they are racing for second before they even arrive at the track.
The only driver Harvick believes is in the same league as he is at Phoenix is Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is sidelined with a concussion and hasn’t raced since July.
That’s not a slight on his competition, and he knows he’s racing five other drivers Sunday for one of two slots in next weekend’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Of the five Chase contenders in this third round of the playoffs, only Joey Logano has never won at Phoenix.
But only Kurt Busch, Harvick’s teammate at Stewart-Haas, is in the same precarious position. Both of them need to win on Sunday to advance, and if neither gets to victory lane, SHR will not have a car in the finale. And, because of the current points situation, it’s virtually impossible for both SHR drivers to advance.