Kevin Harvick won last Sunday and is onto the second round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs as a result of the victory at Darlington. But, will any of his teammates join him?
SHR trio of other drivers are squarely on the bubble. Aric Almirola was ninth in last Sunday’s Southern 500 for his third top 12 of the year at Darlington. These are his best finishes there. But, he’s also in a tie with Clint Bowyer for the final transfer spot to the Round of 12 too. Bowyer, finished 10th. Almirola has two top 10 finishes in his last five, Bowyer has three.
Their rookie teammate of Cole Custer is right behind them at -3. He finished 12th on Sunday. They’re fighting among each other now for the final few spots onto the next round. Bowyer, saw this coming.
“There’s no question that it’s both,” Bowyer said on if it’s an advantage or disadvantage to have all four SHR cars in the postseason. “I’m super-proud of everybody, all the men and women at Stewart-Haas Racing. What an accomplishment. All four cars. A group of pretty special people.
“I’m going to tell you, Stewart-Haas runs as lean as any organization I’ve ever been a part of and arguably as lean as anybody we race against, and certainly as lean as anybody who’s sharing four cars in the playoffs, I can promise you that. I’m proud of that. That means you’ve got the right people put in place and they’re all pulling on the rope in the same direction. That’s how we got here.
“We cannot lose sight of that but, make no mistake, there’s probably going to be a time within probably this first round you may have to be fighting one of your own for a position to go on to the next round within these playoffs. There are real-life scenarios that are going to be there, as well.”
Now, it’s to Richmond. Bowyer has four straight top 10s there. Almirola was fifth in 2018 but has not top 10s in his other three starts there with SHR. Custer, is a rookie.
“I really enjoy Richmond,” Almirola said. “It’s a tough track, but it’s in Smithfield’s backyard and would mean the world to lock ourselves in to the next round there.”
For Bowyer, he’s keeping it simple this week.
“It’s pretty simple – you win Richmond Saturday night and don’t worry about a thing until the next round,” said Bowyer, who is making his third consecutive and ninth career playoff appearance in 2020. “Anything less and you are going to lay awake a lot of nights.”
A strong run Saturday night is key if Bowyer hopes to advance beyond the Round of 16, which began Sunday night at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway.
“You don’t want your season’s hopes and dreams coming down to Bristol, where anything can and probably will happen,” Bowyer said. “You want to get your work done this weekend in Richmond. Nobody wants to go to Bristol knowing they have to have a great finish to advance to the next round. I love Bristol, but that race is going to be wild and I’d prefer we be in really good shape before we get there. I’d like to win Richmond Saturday night, then go watch all the other guys sweat it out in Bristol.”
It’s going to be tough to get all three by. Richmond is different in itself to get right.
“I would say Richmond is one of the most challenging racetracks we go to for managing your tires throughout the run,” Almirola continued. “The first 10, 15 or 20 laps of the run can make you feel like Superman roaring through the field, but you will pay a major penalty for that by lap 40. It makes it fun because, when we show up to Richmond, it really is about managing tire fall-off and making sure your car stays consistent throughout the run as the tires fall off.”
Bowyer has a realistic chance of getting that victory at Richmond and enjoying a pressure-free weekend at Bristol. He has two Cup Series wins, five top-fives and 16 top-10s in 28 starts at the three-quarter-mile Richmond oval. Bowyer also earned a NASCAR Xfinity Series victory there in 2007. Bowyer has earned top-10 finishes in the last four Cup Series races at Richmond.
“Past success doesn’t mean you can just show up and good things happen,” he said. “We have to go there with the mindset that we need to be mistake free and do everything we need to do to run well. I have said, if we can avoid making mistakes, this team can go a lot of rounds in these playoffs.”