NASCAR Cup Series

Little Sympathy – Supposedly, But No Change Warranted After Dominant Harvick Misses Championship 4

By: Ashley McCubbin

Kevin Harvick put together quite the memorable season with nine wins, 20 top-five’s, 26 top-10’s and an average finish of 7.3. However, he will not be one of the drivers as part of the Championship 4 at Phoenix Raceway this weekend. Not that he’s earned any sympathy from his fellow competitors in the process, though.

“I honestly as a competitor don’t have many feelings for others. I don’t mean that in a mean way or anything like that. I do outside of the car. But when I’m competing, it’s about my team,” Joey Logano said. “I’ve talked to you guys about sports. But my team is about winning for me, my sponsors, the hundreds of thousands of people that have an impact on making our car go fast one way or another. That’s what it’s about to me.

“Yeah, I mean, obviously you can put yourself in his shoes and say you won this many races, not being in it is surprising. I can only imagine the frustration of that situation. But it is the Playoffs, it is what it is at this point.”

The self-centered thoughts were also echoed by Logano’s competition in Chase Elliott, feeling it was “unproductive” to wonder about Harvick, but rather wanting to “put emphasis on the things that are going to make us go fast.”

The selfish feeling shared by the drivers come as no surprise, though, as competitors are known for solely focusing on themselves. There could also be a feeling of relief, in knowing that he won’t be someone they have to compete against for the title with his record this year and past record at Phoenix Raceway.

“I imagine they’re pretty glad that they don’t have to race him and that’s a track that we know he’ll show up at and he may very well change the complexity of the championship race at some point in Phoenix,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. shared. “He could still play a role in it, one way or another, but I’m certain that they’re thankful one way or another that they don’t have to compete against him for the championship at that track.”

Nigel Kinrade Photography

Brad Keselowski, though, has been where Harvick is currently right now – winning six races in 2014 to not be eligible for the championship.

“It’s a helpless feeling. It’s a frustrating feeling. But it’s what the format is. It’s what we all signed up for,” he commented. “So I do feel those sympathies for him. In a selfish way I’m glad that I won’t have to compete against him this Sunday in the sense of for the championship, but certainly for the race win I expect him to be a large factor.”

Out of the four, though, Denny Hamlin is the only who has reached out to the past series champion and for good reason. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver was his main competition this year for those victories, with the No. 11 visiting victory lane on eight occasions. It was mostly thought through the regular season the title would come down to these two head-to-head.

“I’s unfortunate that we weren’t able to go head to head and things like that, even though we will, it’s just different,” he commented. “Most of the year we kind of looked at it’s head to head, me and him, right. I think obviously in my mind he was deserving of racing for a championship but didn’t earn it because of the system, right. He had a couple mediocre finishes, not races but just finishes, and it didn’t allow him to move on, even though he’s put together just an unbelievable season.

“We’ve had those conversations, and certainly I’m not going to view if we win it any different whether he was in or out I guess you could say. I feel proud that we made it, and this is a great accomplishment for our team, and we’re obviously very worthy of the championship if we do get it done.”

While the sympathy may be small, though, it has caused a stir amongst NASCAR Nation with some asking for the series to revert back to the previous full-season long system of determining a champion, or perhaps the original Chase format where 10 races decided it instead of broken down rounds.

These cries were only heightened when Denny Hamlin made the comment that “making the Championship 4 is the goal, winning the championship is the gravy” earlier in the week. Shouldn’t the focus always be on the title ahead of them? Well, perhaps some people misunderstood the entire philosophy from the Virginia native, as he clarified it that titles will always mean more than a Championship 4 on Thursday.

“I think the titles will always mean more because it’s, okay, not only did you get to the Final Four, you also beat your competition, so it will always hold a little bit higher regard. But certainly I believe that there’s validity in saying that a Championship 4 appearance is a successful season,” he commented. “I know that it’s our goal for our 11 car when we put on the chalkboard of what we need to get done this year, it’s always make it to the Final Four. It’s never win a championship. It used to be win a championship because you had to put all those other pieces of the puzzle together to win a championship because it was a 35‑, 36‑week body of work.

John Harrelson | Nigel Kinrade Photography

“When you get to the Final Four, it means, okay, you’re in the top 16, you’ve made it through the rounds, and you’ve put yourself‑‑ it’s more of, to me, an idea of your season and how it’s gone. When I look at the Final Four, every one of these guys are worthy. I don’t think anyone faked their way through these playoffs when it comes to the competition that we’re going to be up against. It’s a very worthy four, but certainly I think that our goal is always to make the Final Four. It’s never to actually win the championship. That’s just a very hard goal, considering it’s just one race and there’s so many X factors that‑‑ you have to be perfect.”

The Championship 4 importance is something that Keselowski backs up, even while not wanting “to undermine winning the championship,” due to the level of accomplishment it is. He says it comes up in discussions when surrounding contracts team budgets, a driver generally making 30 to 45 percent of that.

“If you quantify how important the Final Four is, using that same analogy, you kind of follow the money and almost all the major team owners have lent credence to that in the driver contracts, whether that be bonus structures or whatever it might be. I think that’s really intentional,” he explained. “I think the car owners are answering that for us. And the car owners kind of roll downhill from the sponsors. So the sponsors are answering as well. And the sponsors of course play off of ratings and attendance and things of that nature, specifically what kind of ROI they’re seeing in their media numbers, so the media kind of has answered that question.

“And as you guys know as members of the media, based off your own metrics that you have, the fans react pretty strongly to it, that’s why there’s such a great turnout here on sessions like this, because everyone is looking for great content to share with those fans because it’s probably going to be consumed at a fairly high level. Long story short, I think we all have our own sense of how important it is to make the Final Four and how significant it is to our sport across the different stakeholders, and I’m right in line with that.”

It’s a conversation his competition was quickly ready to deflate, though, as Logano asked what people question most when a driver retires – how many championships, or how many appearances in the finals.

“I take some pride in saying we made it to the Championship 4 this many times. That’s great. It shows a body of work throughout the year. I know it comes down to one race, it’s all or nothing. I get that,” he added. “But the trophy is what it’s about.

“I ask this question all the time: Anyone remember who finished second last year? I don’t. I honestly have no clue who finished second last year, or third or fourth, or even who was it in. I know I wasn’t in it, that’s what I know. When I look at it that way, it’s about the championship. It’s about the big trophy. That’s all anybody remembers. Everybody remembers Kyle Busch won, that’s all I remember.”

Despite the debates that have been had in the days since Martinsville Speedway, all the competitors and commentators have agreed on one thing – the format should not be changed. As Dale Earnhardt Jr. alluded to, “Kevin had three races, everybody had three races, and it just didn’t work out, and he had the benefit of all those bonus points.”

“I didn’t walk away from Martinsville saying that’s messed up, that’s wrong Kevin Harvick is not in the championship,” he added. “I saw the three races play out in front of me, I saw the points change throughout these three races, and I saw him in the situation that he was as that race started to unfold, and the final laps, and it is what it is. It’s extremely unfortunate, but I think he had every opportunity to make it and it didn’t work out.”

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