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Sunday October 24th, 2021 12:50PM

Harvick out to stop earliest playoff elimination of career

By Jenna Fryer-AP Auto Racing Writer
  Contact Editor

CONCORD, N.C. (AP) — This is it for Kevin Harvick, a winner of nine races just last year and now on the verge of his earliest career playoff knockout. The steadiest guy in the garage is winless this season — he's on a 38-race losing streak — and needs a big day at Charlotte Motor Speedway to avoid playoff elimination.

Harvick has made it through the second round of the playoffs every year since the elimination format started in 2014, the year he won his only Cup title. Harvick is such a solid bet to be a contender because he's always in the hunt, always among the leaders, and he's advanced to the championship round in five of seven seasons.

And yet he heads to the infield road course at Charlotte on Sunday ranked ninth in the standings, the first driver below the cutline. The field will be trimmed from 12 to eight after this race, and Harvick lags nine points below the final transfer position.

Harvick, the same guy who slammed his helmet in rage after on-track shenanigans with reigning champion Chase Elliott cost him a win last month, was surreally serene headed into the make-or-break race.

“I’m kind of a creature of habit, do the same things on a weekly basis, and it’s just another race,” Harvick said. "I know that sounds cliché and boring and all the things that come with that, but you just have to go out there and do what you do, the best you can, and see where it falls.”

It's been a bad year at Stewart-Haas Racing and Harvick and the No. 4 team are the biggest losers. They dominated all the way up until the third-round finale last season and this year have been fairly mediocre.

His eight top-fives and 21 top-10s are the lowest since 2012, but even in that uncharacteristically off year Harvick still won one race. Harvick's best shot was at Bristol in the first-round finale but Elliott, angry at Harvick over another on-track incident, intentionally slowed Harvick to help Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kyle Larson catch Harvick and steal the win.

The second round has been OK — Harvick was ninth at Las Vegas, and he was running eighth on Monday when Talladega was called for rain — but that's not good enough. Harvick, Christopher Bell of Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick teammates William Byron and Alex Bowman are all below the cutline going into the hybrid track that uses both the road course and oval at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Denny Hamlin is the only driver locked into the third round and Harvick doesn't need a win to advance. It's tight right ahead of him and Kyle Busch and Elliott are tied for the final two spots, only nine points ahead of Harvick. Ryan Blaney, in sixth, only has a 15-point cushion.

A top-five for Harvick coupled with a disaster for any of the other three might be enough to get Harvick through to the round of eight.

“I've had a lot worse seasons, I know that for sure,” said Harvick, a 20-year veteran who turns 46 in December. “I've lived through a whole bunch that are way worse than this one.”

The 2001 season is top of Harvick's mind, his rookie year when he was called up the week after Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash in the season-opening Daytona 500. Harvick ran both the Cup and then-Busch Series that season, a grueling 68 races that ended with NASCAR's second-tier championship.

Harvick, a young hothead and former high school wrestler from Bakersfield, California, replaced Earnhardt and became something of a savior for a Richard Childress Racing team that could have collapsed. When the adrenaline and emotions finally found the checkered flag, the team fell flat in a miserable 2002 season.

“I personally have been through some pretty tough years and this one has just been a struggle because (we've) had to work so hard to get everything that we have," Harvick said.

“We also have learned a lot about the other side of the fence, as far as having to dig your heels in and do things that you haven’t had to do. Whether you like it or not, the race is coming up next week, and you’re gonna have to participate whether your car is slow or fast and you got to figure out how to make the most out of that.”

WHAT ABOUT ELLIOTT?

Harvick sure sounded as if he's at peace with his fate headed into Sunday and if there's any lingering hard feelings against Elliott a full three weeks after their dustup at Bristol, Harvick hasn't tipped his hand.

The consensus seemed to be that Harvick, someway, somehow, would find a way to derail Elliott's bid for a second consecutive title as payback for Bristol. Charlotte is as big a stage as any for Harvick to exact his revenge, as Elliott is the two-time defending winner.

The track layout is a 2.28-mile, 17-turn circuit that uses both the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course as well as a portion of its oval. It's been a challenging circuit since Speedway Motorsports created the course and all three previous runnings have been marred by both comical mistakes and sloppy driving.

Perfect place for Harvick to ruin Elliott's day, right?

Hamlin, the driver Harvick once messed with headed onto the track for practice just because Hamlin criticized Harvick's team, doesn't think anything will happen. Not at Charlotte or anywhere else.

“You look back at the (Bristol) incident and I don't know how you blame anyone for anything. It was a racing thing,” Hamlin said, dismissing the fact that Harvick has never been known as someone to back down.

“Define winning or losing,” Hamlin said. “Some people leave spats better than how they came into them.”

ODDS AND ENDS

Elliott is the 23/10 favorite to win the Roval, according to FanDuel. ... A third consecutive win at Charlotte would be an eighth road course victory for Elliott, tying him with Tony Stewart for second-most in NASCAR history. Jeff Gordon is the all-time winningest driver on road courses with nine victories. ... In three starts on the Charlotte road course, Elliott has not finished lower than sixth. ... Daniel Craig, two days after the opening of his fifth and final James Bond film “No Time to Die” opened in wide release, will be the honorary starter. ... The race marks the 750th career Cup start for Harvick.

WDUN will carry live PRN Radio coverage of Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series Bank of America 400 from the Charlotte Motor Speedway infield road course, at 1 pm on 102.9 FM, AM 550 and streaming live on AccessWDUN.

NASCAR Cup Series
Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course - Concord, NC
Bank of America 400 - October 10, 2021

Sunday's Starting Line Up

Pos    Car    Driver    Team    Time    Speed
1.    11    Denny Hamlin (P)    FedEx Office Toyota    0.000    0.000
2.    2    Brad Keselowski (P)    Wurth Ford    0.000    0.000
3.    22    Joey Logano (P)    Shell Pennzoil Ford    0.000    0.000
4.    20    Christopher Bell (P)    Irwin Trade Strong Toyota    0.000    0.000
5.    19    Martin Truex, Jr. (P)    Bass Pro Shops Toyota    0.000    0.000
6.    12    Ryan Blaney (P)    DEX Imaging Ford    0.000    0.000
7.    4    Kevin Harvick (P)    Mobil 1 Ford    0.000    0.000
8.    9    Chase Elliott (P)    NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet    0.000    0.000
9.    18    Kyle Busch (P)    M&M's Toyota    0.000    0.000
10.    5    Kyle Larson (P)    HendrickCars.com Chevrolet    0.000    0.000
11.    24    William Byron (P)    Valvoline Chevrolet    0.000    0.000
12.    48    Alex Bowman (P)    Ally x Charlotte FC Chevrolet    0.000    0.000
13.    1    Kurt Busch    Monster Energy Chevrolet    0.000    0.000
14.    3    Austin Dillon     Chevrolet    0.000    0.000
15.    23    Bubba Wallace    Door Dash Toyota    0.000    0.000
16.    17    Chris Buescher    Fastenal Ford    0.000    0.000
17.    43    Erik Jones    Power to the Patients Chevrolet    0.000    0.000
18.    47    Ricky Stenhouse Jr.    Kroger/Cottonelle Chevrolet    0.000    0.000
19.    34    Michael McDowell    Love's Travel Stops Ford    0.000    0.000
20.    38    Anthony Alfredo #    CITGARD Ford    0.000    0.000
21.    10    Aric Almirola    Ford Warriors in Pink Ford    0.000    0.000
22.    14    Chase Briscoe #    Ford Performance Racing     0.000    0.000
23.    41    Cole Custer    Autodesk/HaasTooling.com Ford    0.000    0.000
24.    6    Ryan Newman    Castrol Ford    0.000    0.000
25.    99    Daniel Suarez    CommScope Chevrolet    0.000    0.000
26.    7    Corey LaJoie    Schluter Systems Chevrolet    0.000    0.000
27.    42    Ross Chastain    Clover Chevrolet    0.000    0.000
28.    00    Quin Houff    NC Sports HOF/Bos Klein Chevrolet    0.000    0.000
29.    8    Tyler Reddick    Lenovo Chevrolet    0.000    0.000
30.    21    Matt DiBenedetto    Menards/Duracell Ford    0.000    0.000
31.    37    Ryan Preece    Kleenex Chevrolet    0.000    0.000
32.    51    Cody Ware(i)    Nurtec ODT Chevrolet    0.000    0.000
33.    16    A.J. Allmendinger(i)     Chevrolet    0.000    0.000
34.    53    Garrett Smithley(i)     Ford    0.000    0.000
35.    78    Scott Heckert    Bremont Chronometers Ford    0.000    0.000
36.    52    Joey Hand     Ford    0.000    0.000
37.    15    Josh Bilicki(i)     Chevrolet    0.000    0.000
38.    77    Justin Haley(i)    Bon Secours and Swamp Rabbits Chevrolet    0.000    0.000
39.    66    Timmy Hill(i)    Crash Claims R Us Toyota    0.000    0.000

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