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Sprint Cup championship brings out verbal warfare

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It wouldn’t be the championship contenders press conference without drivers throwing barbs at one another all in attempt to get an edge.

Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

If the adage is true that the Sprint Cup championship can be won or lost by playing mind games before an engine has even been fired, then it should be no surprise which driver fired the opening salvo in the contender press conference.

Staring blankly ahead with Denny Hamlin to his immediate right and Joey Logano and Ryan Newman on his left, Kevin Harvick wasted little time beginning the verbal warfare Wednesday night in the ballroom of a Miami area hotel.

When the group was collectively asked how teammates may factor in the championship finale Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Harvick answered for Logano, who had served as the wingman for teammate Brad Keselowski last month at Talladega Superspeedway. Keselowski needed a win to avoid playoff elimination.

"I thought you were going to say you were going to send Brad out to be a moving chicane like you were at Talladega," Harvick said.

That Harvick deployed Machiavellian tactics fits the role he's been cast in throughout this season's Chase for the Sprint Cup. Just two weeks ago Harvick sneaked behind and pushed Brad Keselowski towards an irate Jeff Gordon, setting off a brawl on pit road. The shove became sensationalized on social media via the hashtag "Harvicking."

When asked if he was merely joking with Logano or maybe trying to rattle the guy most view as his stiffest competitor, Harvick didn't relent.

"I told him that after Talladega, ‘That karma will catch up with you, buddy,'" Harvick said. "So he knows I wasn't joking."

Logano laughed and brushed off Harvick's attempt at subterfuge both in the group session and later in a breakout with reporters. The 25-year-old even jokingly referenced a comment he made a few years back about how Harvick's wife, DeLana, "wears the firesuit in the family."

"With him, you never know what he's going to say, so I just go with it," Logano said. "I think it's fun. I thought it was a good one.

"The funny thing is, I now drive the Shell (sponsored) car and that's funny because DeLana has that suit so I need to get that suit from her so Brittany (Logano's fiancé) can wear that. I'll ask him. Maybe I should ask DeLana, I guess."

Even less of a surprise than the actual trash talking is its utilization, as it has become common place when the title contenders gather to meet the media.

In 2010 Harvick and Jimmie Johnson besieged Hamlin, who came into Homestead as the points leader. Having thrown away a significant portion of his advantage the previous week due to poor pit strategy, Hamlin was already shaken. The constant barrage by Harvick and Johnson only seemed to unnerve Hamlin more.

The following year Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart entered the finale with Edwards leading by a mere three points. Feeling he had little to lose, Stewart laid the smack on thick.

"You can come visit my trophy in Vegas when you come out there (for the awards banquet)," Stewart told Edwards.

"He's got the talking part figured out," Edwards said. "Problem is, you haven't led the points yet this year, have you?"

Stewart's response: "They say there are talkers and doers. I've done this twice."

While entertaining and providing plenty of media fodder, does trying to psyche out the competition have any impact on Sunday? Feelings amongst those involved are mixed. Those on the offensive believe in its effectiveness. Whereas those on the defense dismiss the notion what someone says can help decide the championship.

Hamlin is adamant the mind games Johnson and Harvick played mattered little when behind the wheel. The reason he didn't win the championship in 2010 was not due to anything said in days before, but because of poor performance and nothing else.

"I didn't fall for (that stuff)," Hamlin said. "I just ran like shit. That was the bottom line. We qualified bad (37th) and everything was just bad that weekend (he spun 25 laps into the race)," Hamlin said.

Not surprisingly, Harvick disagrees.

"As soon as I got off the plane today it was like a switch flipped," Harvick said. "You're focused on what you need to do and how you need to do that. The first day of racing for the championship is today."

That Harvick singled out Logano is not happenstance. Not when you consider the two are the title favorites, far faster with a much higher level of consistency than either Hamlin or Newman. And taking into account this is Logano's first time in this situation, Harvick pounced.

"Joey is the new guy, he's the young guy and obviously, he's got a great shot at the championship," Hamlin said. "Everyone is going to look for every advantage they can get.

"You knew Kevin was going to have a little fun out there."