Ryan: Meet him in Miami? Kevin Harvick makes big push to title berth

Nate Ryan
NBC Sports

Maybe nobody wants to talk about this amidst rear-window violations, drivers “racing too hard” and installing betting windows adjacent to the garage stalls.

But can we discuss how much clearer the playoff picture seems a third of the way through the season for at least one contender?

The chances of Kevin Harvick winning the 2018 Cup championship have become exponentially greater over the last two months. The odds still are probably less than 50-50, but it is creeping up quickly toward one in four.

Wait, you say, that would mean the Stewart-Haas Racing driver is on the verge of being a lock for the four-driver championship finale Nov. 18 at Homestead-Miami Speedway?

If Harvick stays on this pace, or just close to approximating it, the answer is yes.

Absolutely.

Just look at last year’s series champion.

When he scored his second win of the season at Kansas Speedway on May 13, 2017, Martin Truex Jr. had 15 playoff points.

After winning Saturday night at Kansas for his fifth victory this year, Harvick has 24 playoff points (and would have 31 if his Las Vegas Motor Speedway stage win sweep weren’t nullified by a rear-window penalty).

It took Truex until the 18th race to amass that many playoff points (he went from 21 to 28 points with his July 8, 2017 sweep of Kentucky Speedway). He entered the playoffs with a 53-point bulge (the maximum possible in a race is 60) and added 16 to the total over the six races before the Round of 8. It made for a virtual walkover to Miami.

That cushion mattered because it allowed Furniture Row Racing to spend several weeks preparing the No. 78 Toyota that carried Truex to a victory (and the championship) in the Nov. 19 finale.

After opening the Round of 12 with a victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Oct. 8, 2017, Truex’s team could turn the bulk of its attention to the championship race. It would have taken an epic collapse to blow a 69-point lead through Martinsville Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway.

At his current pace, there is a solid chance Harvick could have an even bigger playoff points total entering the Round of 8 this year.

Crew chief Rodney Childers is among the best in Cup (along with Cole Pearn for Truex) at using simulations to set up a car.

Give Childers that much time to build a supersonic No. 4 Ford for Harvick at Miami, where he won in 2014 and has finished second, third and fourth since. It’s abundantly obvious whom the heavy favorite would be in this year’s championship.

It might seem absurd to suggest that after 12 of 36 races, Harvick is a surefire bet for Miami in a playoff system with three elimination rounds and points resets.

But one of the nuances about the stage racing/playoff points structure (and an improvement because it rewards seasonlong performance) is that it neutralizes some of the randomness.

Harvick might be on the cusp of carving out some impressive immediate history by notching two three-race winning streaks in one season.

But in the long game, he is setting himself for an even greater slice of significance.

(Thanks for indulging us. We can now return to discussing myriad topics unconnected to the somehow undercovered story of this year’s championship battle.)

William Byron said he was “thankful to be walking” after the fiery wreck at Kansas Speedway, which had us thinking.

Does it seem as if there have been an inordinate amount of heavy wrecks at this 1.5-mile speedway?

–Dale Jarrett sustained the worst concussion of his career there (with effects that lasted several years afterward) in the Sept. 30, 2001 debut race.

Sterling Marlin broke his neck and missed the last seven races of the season after a vicious crash on Sept. 29, 2002.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered a concussion in a wicked Turn 1 wreck during an August 2012 test session.

–The cars of Kyle Busch and Joey Logano got crumpled in an April 21, 2013 crash (damage that was similar to what Byron sustained last Saturday night).

–Last year, Aric Almirola missed seven races after suffering a compression fracture in a violent impact that left Danica Patrick shaken.

Most of this is likely just happenstance and not a byproduct of track design (though Kansas is among the last of the “real” triovals, lacking the dogleg of many 1.5-mile layouts).

But it is curious that Kansas has established a reputation as perhaps the most treacherous and unforgiving 1.5-mile track for wrecks (particularly when Texas and Charlotte often are mentioned most often when this category arises).

Based on his in-race radio chatter and brief comments afterward, Matt Kenseth surely had steeled himself for the possibility that his debut weekend would be as challenging as it was. His cautious outlook about his return to Roush Fenway Racing underscored that Kenseth understood the scale of the undertaking.

But the 2003 series champion already made his presence felt in his first competition meetings with the team last week, and he’s been given the full support of team owner Jack Roush to effect changes he feels are needed to return the No. 6 Ford to top-caliber results.

Kenseth probably won’t stomach running outside the top 25 on a consistent basis for more than a couple of races, but it’s reasonable to expect his patience for witnessing demonstrable improvements will last through at least the Coca-Cola 600.

Of the five rear-window penalties this season, the manufacturer breakdown is two Fords, two Chevrolets and one ToyotaDaniel Suarez at Dover.

The top three Toyotas in the standings haven’t been penalized, while two of the top three Fords (Harvick and Clint Bowyer) and the top Chevrolet (Larson) have been dinged.

This might provide context to why Denny Hamlin (seventh in the standings behind Joe Gibbs Racing teammate and points leader Kyle Busch and just ahead of fellow Camry driver Truex in eighth) grew animated on his team radio during the Kansas race, noting that “Larson’s roof is pushed in 2 feet! Two feet, his roof is pushed in!”

While the next rear-window penalty might draw harsher punishment from NASCAR … it also might draw a round of louder sniping from peers.

The loss of Larson’s playoff point from his second stage victory at Kansas raises the question of whether NASCAR should award playoff points to the next eligible contender after penalties.

In this instance, that would be Harvick. He also finished second in the first stage to Ryan Blaney, so his rivals are fortunate that Harvick doesn’t enter Charlotte Motor Speedway with an even bigger playoff points bulge.

Between the penalties to Harvick and Larson, that’s eight playoff points that have “disappeared” into the ether this season in Cup.

Remember the shove that Blaney delivered to Harvick last fall after the Martinsville Speedway race?

Maybe those embers still were smoldering when Blaney made this comment about falling from third to fifth on a restart with 25 laps remaining Saturday: “I got about spun out in (turns) 1 and 2 on the restart, getting sucked around.”

Without naming him, that was an obvious reference to Harvick using the outside to side-draft off Blaney and into the lead over Larson.

Six laps later, Blaney would crash with Larson and finish 37th after leading 54 laps and winning the first stage.

It wasn’t the first time the Team Penske driver has failed to close out a win with a strong car. He led a race-high 118 laps at the Daytona 500, 100 laps at Bristol Motor Speedway and 145 at Martinsville, and he also crashed at Talladega Superspeedway after contending for the victory. He’s led the most laps (418) among winless drivers in 2018.

Some of those were on the driver, some were just circumstantial. But even though he took full blame for the Kansas incident with Larson, it’s natural to wonder if Blaney holds Harvick partly responsible for putting him in that position.

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