For months, everyone tried to pencil Kevin Harvick into the Championship 4 at Phoenix Raceway. It seemed like a logical thing to do, considering how Harvick was tearing through the NASCAR Cup Series, gobbling up wins and playoff points with ease.
Harvick won the regular-season championship. He led the series with seven wins and entered the postseason with a record of 57 bonus points. The Round of 16 and the Round of 12 seemed like formalities.
Well, now the Round of 8 is over, and the championship field set. Incredibly, Harvick is not among the four drivers left standing.
After adding two more wins to his total, Harvick and the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team had it all come crashing down, no pun intended, at Texas and Martinsville. Harvick missed advancing by eight points, and seemed to be the only one not bemoaning his situation afterward.
“We had a great year,” said Harvick. “Like I said earlier, (championships) aren’t won the same way that Earnhardt and Petty did. You have to put together a few weeks, and we didn’t put together these last few weeks like we needed to and just came up short.”
Some will try to argue that the format is broken or unfair. Neither of those is true. Like any playoff, it is hard, and it doesn’t allow any mulligans when it’s three races at a time. Nothing is guaranteed, not even for the team who whipped everyone most of the season.
In today’s NASCAR playoffs, a team must perfect winning, consistency, and getting hot when it matters. Harvick crashed from the lead in Texas and finished 16th. His team struggled with his Ford’s balance at Martinsville, then fell behind because of a flat tire, and Harvick was left trying to knock a fellow driver out of the way for point, only to wreck himself and finish 17th, even further outside a transfer spot.
“It’s hard to fathom,” Kurt Busch said of Harvick’s elimination. “I never expected that out of the No. 4 team. Rodney Childers is a genius crew chief, Kevin Harvick is like a surgeon when it comes to gaining points. It shows you the level of competition, how everything is important… It shows you how tough this really is.”
When Brian France implemented the elimination format in NASCAR, the goal was to make racing like stick and ball sports. France longed for Game 7 moments and excitement, not a driver locking up the title a few weeks early and fans turning their televisions to football.
In no other sport does the regular-season champion or best team get a pass into the championship. Harvick didn’t, but his bonus points all but gave him a bye in the first round and made life much more comfortable in the second round. But when the field weeds out the extras and the hangers-on, the harder it gets, and a team must continue to perform at a high level.
It has been seven years since the elimination format was implemented, and the fourth year with playoff points. Harvick is the first regular-season champion not to make the Championship 4.
When Martin Truex Jr. was told that Harvick didn’t advance, his reaction was, “that’s insane. The amount of bonus points they started the playoffs with, to not make it is crazy.”
Auto racing might be the cruelest sport, with one winner and 39 other losers every week. Harvick caught bad breaks with the track being wet in Texas and an ill-handling car and flat tire at Martinsville. Unfortunately, it happens. Sports are full of heartbreaks. No team or driver is owed anything, no matter how it looked back in May, June, or July.
Make peace with the format. It is not producing fluke contenders or champions. All four drivers who will compete for the championship next week have won multiple races this season and were in the top seven in points at the end of the regular season. If you were to go back and look at the drivers who made it to the final race over the last few seasons, they too were deserving in one way or another, even if they weren’t the ones making most of the season’s headlines.
“They wanted a Game 7 moment,” said Denny Hamlin. “The only issues I have is that you can’t ignore the first eight innings, and myself and Harvick have dominated for most of the season, but it’s a three-race schedule. Heard him say in his interview that these championships are a little different than what they used to be. They come down to one race. It’s not a full body of work for your whole season anymore. As far as excitement, sure, we had some excitement this week, and we got the guy with nine wins not in the final four somehow.”
Hamlin has a point about a season’s worth of work. To officially compete for the championship now, a driver must survive nine weeks in the postseason to get to the 10th week where the title is up for grabs. But the body of work in the previous 35 weeks will matter when it comes to where those eight points for Harvick could have come.
Yes, it is what a team does throughout the year that matters because every position matters; every stage point or win goes a long way. There is no more riding through the summer months waiting for the playoffs because you locked yourself in with an early victory.
Harvick knew being eliminated was a possibility. When he was asked questions about Phoenix or the championship throughout the season, he was quick to bring the conversation back to it being about one weekend at a time. Sunday night, he also admitted it was a possibility because of how his team has performed at Martinsville in the past (he hasn’t led a lap since 2016 and finished 15th there earlier this year).
“That’s the system that we work in,” said Harvick. “It’s obviously skewed more towards entertainment than the whole year, so it’s exciting to watch and has that format that goes with it, and you take them as they come, and we race within the system that they give us and do our best.
“It just didn’t work out for us. The last three weeks didn’t go exactly how we needed them to, and you’ve got to be right when you get to this Round of 8.”
What happened to Harvick at Martinsville is the reason why NASCAR still runs the races even when things seemed all buttoned up. Harvick had a 42-point buffer he and his team couldn’t protect while others rose to the occasion.
It was hard to fathom Harvick being eliminated, which is why everyone said he wouldn’t and couldn’t be. It was crazy that he started the playoffs with a considerable lead in bonus points and still couldn’t protect his gap. The playoffs are entertaining for various reasons.
Take that pencil and erase Harvick’s name from the final four, because only the strongest of the strong survive in this format.