KANSAS CITY, Kan.
There were clouds over the Kansas Speedway throughout the weekend.
As the teams in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series gathered for the fifth race of the Chase, there were clouds in the sky and then the metaphorical type on the horizon. The sky-bound clouds cleared up by the time of Sunday’s race, but that dark one known as Talladega Superspeedway never went away.
Unless you were Kevin Harvick.
Chase contenders were looking to avoid a trip to the Alabama track with advancement from the Round of 12 still hanging in the balance. It was Harvick who emerged from the bottom of the points heap and took a convincing win to sew up the automatic bye.
The driver of the Stewart-Haas Racing Chevy can now head south knowing that he’s already advanced to the Round of 8 before the green drops on 500 unpredictable miles at NASCAR’s scariest behemoth.
Harvick joins fellow Chevy driver Jimmie Johnson of Hendrick Motorsports, the winner in Charlotte, as one of two drivers immune to the spooky quirks of Talladega.
They merely have to leave in good physical shape — never a guarantee at the 2.66-mile track — to continue to the Round of 8 that starts in Martinsville, Va., the following week.
Teams have occasionally been given nicknames, particularly pit crews, in the course of NASCAR events. Harvick’s team, led by Rodney Childers, might just as well be known as the “Backs Against the Wall Gang.”
In three years of the Chase, they have never failed to advance, including the 2014 championship season. Needing a victory once again to move forward, Harvick got the job done in Kansas by beating Carl Edwards on the final re-start. In previous years, he advanced with a must-win victory in Phoenix and again last year in Dover.
There’s no secret, said Harvick. Race to win each week, wherever you are in the standings. After all, he pointed out, to win a championship at the Homestead-Miami Speedway in the final round likely requires a victory, and a team might as well be prepared.
“I have no idea where we were in the points or how many we were behind,” said Harvick, whose engine failed in Charlotte, dropping him to the bottom of the standings. “The only thing we talked about was trying to figure out how to win this race, and if we didn’t win this race, what we needed to do at Talladega.
“I think for us it’s always about reaching for something to motivate us,” Harvick continued. “If it’s having to win a race, going to a racetrack you haven’t won at, whatever, rebounding from a bad week. We’ve been fortunate to be on the good side of this deal for three years now.”
The team’s motivation, said Childers, begins with Harvick.
“It feeds down through him as far as being confident and being determined and working hard,” said Childers. “That comes down through me, then our shop foreman, our car chief.
“We’re just fortunate to have a lot of guys that won’t quit,” he continued. “They don’t take ‘No’ for an answer. They don’t care how many hours they work. They don’t care what they have to do. They just try to make it happen. It’s cool to be in that environment and be around people like that. It’s something that we all hope that we can do sometime in our lifetime.”
Perhaps it was the changing conditions at the track on the outskirts of Kansas City that made life difficult for some of the other Chase contenders. Half of the 12 contenders flirted with disaster and one, Chase Elliott, ran into it.
Elliott had problems with both rear tires, which dropped him to 31st. After contending for a win with 100 laps to go and leading four laps, Elliott found himself needing a victory at Talladega to advance. Hendrick Motorsports has gotten faster as a result of taking a new approach to the rear axle set-ups and perhaps that was the issue for Elliott, who suffered the initial problem after a pit stop.
The worst-case scenario — a bad error — belonged to Brad Keselowski, who cut it too close with a pass of Denny Hamlin in Turn 4, lost the rear of his Team Penske Ford and got rammed by the following Toyota. The Penske Fords have not been quick enough throughout the Chase. Keselowski may be as determined and motivated as Harvick, but didn’t have the equipment to press the issue in Kansas and his frustration showed after his DNF.
”I want to race my guts out and go for wins,” Keselowski said. “I don’t want to points race. I don’t care what the damn format is, I am going to give it my best.”
Others who seemingly wilted under warm temperatures on the sunny day included Matt Kenseth, who led a race-high 116 laps before glancing off the wall while wrestling with changing track conditions brought on by the sunshine. It altered his handling for the worse after hitting the wall. Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin, victim of a blown engine in Charlotte, fell behind with a front splitter issue, then suffered yet another pit road penalty — a problem throughout the season.
A second straight dodgy performance in his Toyota by Martin Truex Jr. has slowed the momentum of the Furniture Row Racing. There was a problem fueling the car, which added an extra pit stop, but the big issue was the lack of blinding speed that has led to four victories earlier this season.
Are the Toyotas wilting after dominating the regular season and the Round of 16? At this point, two Chevy drivers are locked in for the Round of 8 and the favorite headed into Talladega is Ford man Keselowski, winner of the last two restrictor plate races and a driver who seems to thrive on the pressure of the multi-car drafts.