NASCAR

HAR­VICK ON A MIS­SION TO SI­LENCE HIS CRIT­ICS AF­TER IL­LE­GAL-CAR PENALTY

The State (Sunday) - - Sports - BY JENNA FRYER

AVON­DALE, ARIZ.

The mood in the desert is tense headed into the fi­nal elim­i­na­tion race be­fore NASCAR’S cham­pi­onship, a ti­tle Kevin Har­vick is de­ter­mined to win.

The 2014 cham­pion is on a mis­sion to lead his Stew­art-haas Rac­ing team into the ti­tle race, prove they hon­estly are the best group in the garage and that a wave of ad­ver­sity can­not un­ravel their suc­cess. NASCAR said the No. 4 team cheated in last week­end’s vic­tory at Texas by build­ing their own spoiler and pass­ing it off as one sup­plied by the re­quired ven­dor. The pun­ish­ment was se­vere and put Har­vick in dan­ger of not qual­i­fy­ing for the cham­pi­onship.

But the road to the fi­nal four goes through ISM Race­way out­side of Phoenix. It’s a track where Har­vick has won nine times pre­vi­ously, in­clud­ing this year – a week af­ter a dif­fer­ent No. 4 Ford was found to be il­le­gal fol­low­ing a vic­tory. This track was crit­i­cal in Har­vick’s run to his first ti­tle four years ago when he had to win, and did, at Phoenix to ad­vance to the cham­pi­onship round.

A win isn’t re­quired Sun­day, and Har­vick needs only to avoid any on-track is­sues to se­cure his ticket at Homestead­mi­ami Speedway.

Only a quiet Sun­day drive is not Har­vick’s style.

He ar­rived in Phoenix with­out his crew chief and car chief, both sus­pended for the fi­nal two races of the sea­son. The berth he’d earned into the fi­nal four by win­ning last week at Texas had been stripped away as pun­ish­ment by NASCAR. His team has been branded a cheat.

The sit­u­a­tion is less than ideal, and Har­vick is dis­in­ter­ested in dis­cussing the penalty or the plight of his race team. He’s in­stead let­ting his per­for­mance speak for it­self.

He went out and won the pole.

Then he was fastest in both of Satur­day’s prac­tices.

It’s quite clear Har­vick came to Ari­zona with ev­ery in­ten­tion of rolling over the com­pe­ti­tion on his way to Homestead. The penalty is old news to him and he’s not look­ing back.

“I show up and do the best that I can,” Har­vick said. “The best thing that shows up are re­sults on the race track. I drive and try to do the best that I can and we go from there.”

He’s one of seven driv­ers rac­ing Sun­day for three re­main­ing spots in the fi­nale. Only Joey Logano is locked in – and it is no co­in­ci­dence he’s the most re­laxed play­off driver right now – and all three of Har­vick’s team­mates are vy­ing for slots. The penalty is­sued Wed­nes­day against Har­vick not only cost him his au­to­matic berth to Homestead but the points de­duc­tion left him only three points above the cut­line.

Lurk­ing right be­hind him is team­mate Kurt Busch, who rec­og­nized the op­por­tu­nity Har­vick’s penalty opened for the last driver to win the Cup ti­tle in a Ford.

“This week with the penalty, it’s like we won two stages with­out even fir­ing up the en­gine on our car,” said Busch, cham­pion in 2004 in the first year of NASCAR’S play­off sys­tem. “Now we’re equal and the job now is to get stage one, stage two and to see how things pan out for the end of the race. We know our job is go­ing to be tough, but we just have to go af­ter it.”

While Har­vick was lay­ing the ground­work for a rout on Sun­day, his com­pe­ti­tion was pre­par­ing for an in­tense push for those fi­nal three berths. Among the driv­ers who haven’t qual­i­fied for Homestead are Kyle Busch and reign­ing se­ries cham­pion Martin Truex Jr., who stood by his car and watched as it took his team four tries to pass pre-qual­i­fy­ing in­spec­tion. Kyle Busch, Truex and Har­vick were NASCAR’S so-called Big Three this year as they dom­i­nated the reg­u­lar sea­son yet none are guar­an­teed to race for the ti­tle.

So it left Logano as the only re­laxed driver and feel­ing mighty con­fi­dent about his ti­tle chances.

“When the play­offs started, I kind of felt like we were an un­der­dog,” Logano said. “The last six or seven weeks we’ve led a lot more laps, we’ve won a lot of stages, won a race, was fast at Kansas, was fast at Texas and you know what? I think we’re the fa­vorite now to win.”

Logano bumped Truex out of his way in the fi­nal turn at Martinsville Speedway two weeks ago to win.

Kevin Har­vick

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