NASCAR play­off curve­ball

3 ti­tle-race slots avail­able af­ter Har­vick penalty

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Ellen J. Hor­row

The Mon­ster En­ergy NASCAR Cup Series play­offs re­ceived a huge jolt when of­fi­cials an­nounced mas­sive penal­ties to driver Kevin Har­vick and his No. 4 Stew­art-Haas Rac­ing team.

Har­vick had dom­i­nated the play­off race at Texas Mo­tor Speed­way on Sun­day, and his vic­tory served as guar­an­teed ad­mis­sion to be among the fi­nal four driv­ers who will con­test the cham­pi­onship Nov. 18 at Homestead-Mi­ami Speed­way.

And then it didn’t.

NASCAR swept that guar­an­tee away af­ter a thor­ough in­spec­tion of Har­vick’s Ford at its Re­search and De­vel­op­ment Cen­ter, stan­dard for the win­ning car af­ter ev­ery race, re­vealed that a part of his car was re­con­fig­ured to give him an ad­van­tage at Texas. In­spec­tors at the R&D Cen­ter found an il­le­gal spoiler that they be­lieve pro­duced an aero­dy­namic ad­van­tage for Har­vick when he drove through the turns at Texas.

The penal­ties is­sued Wed­nes­day were costly and dras­ti­cally al­tered the state of play in the Round of 8, not just for Har­vick but the six other driv­ers who are hop­ing to land a berth in the cham­pi­onship round. Joey Logano clinched his spot with a vic­tory at Martinsville Speed­way in the first race of the third round two weeks ago.

Although Har­vick tech­ni­cally gets to keep his win at Texas, he was stripped of the abil­ity to use it to lock him­self into the cham­pi­onship race. And while that was the big­gest and most ob­vi­ous set­back, NASCAR tacked on ad­di­tional penal­ties to the No. 4 team. Har­vick was docked 40 points, which dropped him from the top of the play­off stand­ings to fourth, just three points above the cut­line.

He will also lose the ex­per­tise of the two most im­por­tant mem­bers of his No. 4. team as NASCAR sus­pended crew chief Rod­ney Childers and car chief Robert Smith for two races — Sun­day’s Can-Am 500 at ISM Race­way near Phoenix (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC) and the cham­pi­onship race at Homestead. Childers was also fined $75,000.

All of that could spell dis­as­ter for Har­vick’s bid to add a sec­ond cham­pi­onship to the one he claimed in 2014. Yet for fans of the No. 4 team, there is a small sil­ver lin­ing: the lo­ca­tion of Sun­day’s race.

If there is one track on the Cup sched­ule where Har­vick should feel con­fi­dent about over­com­ing ad­ver­sity, it’s ISM Race­way. No driver, ac­tive or re­tired, has had more suc­cess in Phoenix than Har­vick.

The Bak­ers­field, Cal­i­for­nia, na­tive has nine Cup wins at the 1-mile track, in- clud­ing seven in his last 12 races. He has pro­duced top-five fin­ishes in 15 of 31 Cup races in Phoenix, and his av­er­age fin­ish is 9.5, tied with Dale Earn­hardt Sr. for best among all driv­ers with at least six starts. And no one has led more laps in the desert. Har­vick’s 1,522 laps led dwarfs his next clos­est com­peti­tor, Jim­mie John­son with 990.

So Har­vick knows how to win in Phoenix. He cel­e­brated in vic­tory lane this spring, but more im­por­tant, he took the check­ered flag in the 2014 play­off race.

Head­ing into that con­test, Har­vick was last among the eight re­main­ing play­off driv­ers in the stand­ings af­ter a dis­as­trous third-round opener at Martinsville, and while he sal­vaged quite a few points with a run­ner-up fin­ish in Texas, he came to Phoenix in a must­win sit­u­a­tion. Har­vick not only won that race, he dom­i­nated, lead­ing 264 of 312 laps. That vic­tory pro­pelled him to Homestead, where he won again to clinch his first cham­pi­onship.

The six other play­off driv­ers bat­tling for a spot in the fi­nal four know Har­vick will be a fac­tor on Sun­day with or with­out his crew chief and car chief. They might even be more wor­ried, know­ing that Har­vick will be more laser fo­cused on win­ning now that he no longer has a guar­an­teed spot in the cham­pi­onship race.

For Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Chase El­liott and Har­vick’s Stew­art-Haas Rac­ing team­mates Kurt Busch, Ar- ic Almirola and Clint Bowyer, an ex­tra path has opened to Homestead. Three Cham­pi­onship 4 berths will be on the line at Phoenix in­stead of two. But they will still have to catch Har­vick on the track.

Play­off stand­ings

Through Race No. 8 at Texas x-clinched berth in Cham­pi­onship 4

1. Kyle Busch ....................................... 4,128

2. Martin Truex Jr. ............................. 4,125

x- 3. Joey Logano ............................... 4,119

4. Kevin Har­vick ................................. 4,103

5. Kurt Busch ...................................... 4,100

6. Chase El­liott ................................... 4,086

7. Aric Almirola .................................. 4,068

8. Clint Bowyer .................................. 4,052

KEVIN HAR­VICK BY ADAM HAGY/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Kevin Har­vick’s No. 4 car failed in­spec­tion so he lost his au­to­matic berth into the Cham­pi­onship 4.

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