Kevin Harvick put on a clinic this past weekend in Michigan. He led 92 Laps on Saturday and 90 more on Sunday. It didn’t matter where he started. He came from third in race No. 1 and 20th for the second race of the twinbill. Still, he found his way to victory lane on both days.
Now, Harvick has six wins on the season, most out of anyone, and 35 playoff points as he won three of the four stages too. That puts him 137 points up on the field in the overall points standings, which if he can hang on for four more races, he will get an additional 15 playoff points for the distinction of being the regular season champion.
He’d enter the postseason with 50 playoff points. That mixed with nine straight top five finishes right now in his No. 4 Ford would make him one of the favorites to land in the Championship 4 this November in Phoenix.
That has one driver feeling the pressure.
“There’s a lot to be said about Playoff points,” said Martin Truex Jr. “We definitely don’t have near as many as we would like to have or are used to having.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s a lot less comfortable, especially as you get through the rounds without having those points to fall back on. Again, we’ll have to wait and see. 2015 we only won one race all season, found our way to the final four by being consistent.
“What I like about what we’ve done lately is be consistent. We’ve had cars capable of winning four, five, six races this year. Things just haven’t worked out for us. We’ve made some small mistakes here and there as well. Just try to clean that stuff up, continue to find little things to make us more competitive.
“Again, I feel like we’re strong. I feel like we’re right there. This sport is tough. There’s a lot of good competition out there. We got to get better and we’re working hard to do it.
“Our goal for the next couple races is obviously going to be to try to get some more of those (playoff points).”
But, to get his wins in Michigan this past weekend, Harvick had a hot rod on the straightaways. No one could catch him.
That was by design. While he said his car wasn’t as good on Sunday as Saturday, he still got the job done. This car was built for big tracks and it’s why it will likely retire 3-for-3 as it won the Brickyard 400 too back in July.
Denny Hamlin had the second best car all weekend. He said he felt like he had a second place car on Saturday, but a late pit stop cost him a chance of doing that. On Sunday, he did come home runner-up to Harvick.
“I thought we were kind of a second-place car,” Hamlin said following Saturday’s race. “Once (Kevin Harvick) was leading there, we were able to stay pretty close to him. He was just so much faster down the straightaway than we were. I’m not sure that we would have been able to do much with him. We were certainly fast in the corners and we were just kind of a second-place car. My crew chief (Chris Gabehart) was concerned about loose lug nuts there around lap 130 when the caution came out so he wanted to come and take tires and work on the car and make sure the lug nuts were tight. That set us back and put us probably 11th or 12th in line. We could only muster coming back to sixth.”
Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney probably had the third and fourth best cars as they finished 2-4 on Saturday and 1-2 on Sunday, but Keselowski got out of control on a restart and took them both out.
“I just lost it,” Keselowski told NBC Sports. “It‘s my fault. I feel really bad for my teammate, Ryan Blaney. He didn‘t deserve that. I just came off of Turn 4 and the 4 car (Kevin Harvick) was behind me and he gave me a push and I swear I went into the corner like 20 miles an hour faster than I had been all day and got past the 11 (Denny Hamlin) and I went to get underneath the 12 and I just slipped.”
Blaney explained both he and Keselowski had showcased good speed throughout the race before the incident.
“It‘s just unfortunate for the whole Penske organization,” Blaney said. “… We were so fast. We had to battle back from having to pit again and got to 10th for the second stage and then got the lead. I was like, ‘All right, we can finally go back at it,’ and just got together there. That‘s unfortunate, but it‘s not gonna carry over. Things happen. Mistakes happen. It‘s just a shame both of us got taken out.”
That allowed Martin Truex Jr. to sneak in and finish third both days after overcoming early mistakes in both races too. Saturday, was a cut tire from contact with Tyler Reddick and Sunday a wrong setup.
“Yeah, you know, quite a bit different,” Truex said of his two days. “I think when we talked yesterday after running third, feeling like our car was really strong all day, we went and messed it up. We tried a few things, tried to get better. Clearly was worse.
“At the start of the race we were pretty far off. Had to, much like yesterday, really battle all day long. Towards the first two stages, we were pretty far off. Kept making adjustments. James and the guys did a good job of doing that. Was able to work our way up through there on restarts, ultimately have a shot there.
“Running second after the restart, started getting really tight. Just really chased the balance of the car all day long. Never could get it where we needed it.”
Kyle Busch got duel top fives in what he said was the best car he’s had at Michigan while Joey Logano was the next best car.
“We come to Michigan not normally looking for top-five days, but this has been a good two days,” Busch said following Sunday’s race. “Hopefully we can keep some momentum rolling here and get ready to go next week and turn right and turn left. Yesterday and today, the car drove great. The best driving car I’ve had here at Michigan.”
It was the same race track, same distance, same drivers, same ones up front, but Sunday’s race would look a bit different than Saturday’s due to varying conditions.
“I would say yes just because we had more rubber on the racetrack, it was about eight degrees warmer when we started the race today,’ Harvick said on if the 2-mile track was different on Sunday than Saturday. “The PJ1 was a little further up the racetrack and running well.
“They did a really good job with the racetrack this weekend of making that third line usable.”
Harvick, also started 20th on Sunday, not third like he did on Saturday. Hamlin, came from 15th. So, the clean air advantage that they had all race a day prior, well it was gone. So, adjustments had to be made to their cars for dirtier air at the start of Sunday’s race.
“Just took us a little bit longer to get to the front than what it did yesterday,” said Hamlin on Sunday. “Obviously starting up there helped.
“Yeah, we geared up our car a little bit more towards the end of this race versus the beginning. It kind of showed up that way. We did a good job of adjusting. Once we got to the front, we were able to show the speed we had. We had the speed pretty much all race, but we were kind of mired back between third and sixth.”
Speaking of the track, it got rave reviews this weekend.
“Yeah, well, I think NASCAR did a really good job of making that third lane available so you had options as a driver to move your car around and really make things happen,” Harvick said. “I think getting that third lane right with the PJ1 really made Michigan and the race here, especially with this rules package, just way better from a driver standpoint. We’re getting close to having the races that everybody wants here. I thought today was a good race, and I think having multiple lanes is really what it’s all about.”
Truex also agreed with this too.
“Yeah, I would agree with that. I think it’s definitely a good step. We’ve seen a lot of passes for position today. And again, we had three good grooves on the racetrack where you could make some speed. I definitely thought it was a good race, and Michigan is a challenging place to put on good racing because the speeds are so high. Definitely thought it was a good day for everyone there, and it was a fun race, as well.”
Part of that was the choose cone which drivers were happy to have this weekend. It allowed you to control your own destiny on restarts.
“Well, the best thing about it is they had a race with it yesterday with the Truck Series, made a lot of adjustments or a few adjustments this morning to the process, and I thought it went well today,” Harvick said of the choose cone. “You know, I think it definitely gave some guys a chance that were kind of buried eighth or ninth, and I think the 9 car was one of those and wound up racing for the win.
“So definitely a lot to think about right there and definitely some processes that you have to go through, but you can take a chance and gain some track position. So I thought it went well and did exactly what everybody thought it would do.”
Truex, said he felt is went okay but wasn’t sure how much it altered the race.
“It was okay,” said the third place finisher. “I mean, it was interesting for sure to see kind of how it all played out there. I don’t know that it changed the race a whole lot, but it was interesting for sure. We’ll see how it plays out — we seen a lot of guys pick the outside, but a few guys were able to get the lead from the bottom, as well. Pretty interesting how it worked out, and definitely learned some stuff for tomorrow.”
“Yeah, there were parts I liked and there were parts I didn’t like,” the second place finisher said. “I’m kind of agnostic to be honest. I thought at the front, it seemed to be a little fun, something kind of different. It’s one of those things where I think it’s just — when you eat chocolate you want vanilla sometimes; it felt different and different was kind of fun. There was other parts where I was kind of a little questioning about it. Overall I’m kind of neutral on it.”
If you notice, we’re talking about the same drivers week in and week out now. It’s down to these six I feel for the championship.
There’s no question, Harvick and Hamlin are the ones to beat for this championship. But, three other drivers are saying not so far. I think the fight to get into the Championship 4 this year is going to be intense.
Harvick and Hamlin are only separated by six playoff points (35-29). Where this is a big deal is, if neither win in the Round of 8, the final spot to Phoenix will come down to this. But, if one of them wins, they’re distancing themselves from everyone else that they certainly will skate by.
But, the three driver race behind is intense.
Keselowski has 21 playoff points and three wins. Since we began racing again on May 17, the Penske driver has a top 11 finish in all but three races, one of which was Sunday. But, Keselowski was battling for the lead when he crashed too. So, he’s not going anywhere.
Neither is Truex Jr. He’s scored a top three finish in five of the last six races. Combined, this foursome has won 14 of the 18 races run during the pandemic. If you throw in Joey Logano’s two wins back in the spring, five drivers have accounted for 16 wins in 22 races. Plus, Logano is heating up again with a top five in three of his last five starts of the season.
This is the group to beat.
Busch is starting to heat up with three top five finishes this year, but he’s also not on either and has just one victory in his last 44 starts overall. Can he catch up to them? He’s only scored one playoff point all year, so if Busch is going to make a playoff run, he’s likely going to have to win in each round starting in the Round of 12.
Other than that, I can’t say that I trust anyone else right now.
Where has Hendrick Motorsports gone?
Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman jumped out of the gates hot. Elliott, won in the second Charlotte race and had a span between Darlington to Bristol to where he could have won every race. Still, from Fontana in March to Homestead on June 21, Elliott had eight top eight finishes, six in the top five, in a 10 race span. But, over the last 10 races, Elliott has just one top five overall.
Bowman, should have won in Vegas. He did win a week later in Fontana. He finished runner-up in the first race back on May 17 at Darlington. Over the last 17 races, Bowman has just four top 10 finishes, none of which in the top five. Five of his last seven finishes have seen him come home 19th or worse.
That leaves two drivers vying for a wildcard spot in William Byron and Jimmie Johnson. Byron, leads Johnson by 26 points for the final position into the postseason.
Byron, has no top five finishes all year and no finish better than 10th in his last seven starts.
Johnson, has no top 10 finishes in his last 10 tries and no finish better than 10th since early June.
HMS won 12 stages early this year, 11 of which in the first 19 stages, but over the last 26 stages, they have just one win, that came back in June in Martinsville.
HMS went 7-12-14-21 on Saturday and 9-11-12-36 on Sunday at Michigan. They’re backing their ways into the playoffs right now.
If not for two races at Daytona, this playoff battle would likely be done. William Byron holds a 26 point advantage over 17th place Erik Jones. With how the playoff bubble drivers are running, barring a wild unexpected turn of events in Daytona next Sunday and/or on Aug. 29, I think the 16 current playoff drivers will remain.
Aric Almirola saw his top 10 streak end on Saturday but pick back up on Sunday. He’s +158. Kyle Busch scored a top six both days and is now +140. His brother Kurt Busch finished 10th both races and is +137.
The next grouping is Clint Bowyer and Matt DiBenedetto. Bowyer, went from +43 entering the weekend to +60. DiBenedetto also gained 17 points himself in going +40 to +57. Unless we get two new winners, these guys are likely set.
That leaves Byron who get a 14th and 12th place finish this weekend. His gap was cut by Erik Jones who scored 22 stage points this weekend, but his 27th place finish negated that gain.
Tyler Reddick was only 18th and 24th respectively and sits -26, as does Jimmie Johnson who also is -26 after an uneventful weekend of 12th and 11th place finishes. Reddick and Johnson also scored zero stage points. Byron totaled five.