For the second straight year Kevin Harvick appeared to have a car capable of winning the Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway. Yet for the second straight year, Harvick left with a finish that will require him to overcome a deficit to avoid elimination.
Harvick's promising day unraveled when a caution came out as he was on pit road in the middle of a four-tire stop. The No. 4 team called an audible and went with just two tires in order to keep Harvick on the lead lap, but he narrowly missed beating eventual winner Martin Truex Jr. to the start/finish, which then trapped Harvick a lap down.
Had crew chief Rodney Childers not changed strategy and stayed with giving Harvick four tires, the driver could have taken the wave-around when the remaining cars pitted. That's the strategy several Chase drivers utilized, including Kyle Larson, who would later recoup the lost track position and race his way into the top five.
Harvick and Childers were counting on another caution soon falling and getting that lap back via the free pass rule. But a lack of cautions (there were only four all afternoon) squelched that plan and Harvick finished 20th, one lap down.
Immediately after the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400 concluded, Childers lamented the set of circumstances that worked against the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team: "Guess I should have pitted one lap later and we'd been all right. All day you were fast," Childers radioed Harvick.
Neither Harvick nor Childers spoke with reporters postrace.
Just how much speed Harvick had in his Chevrolet was apparent the moment the green flag waved. Starting 38th after a penalty for unapproved adjustments before the race, Harvick charged to 10th within 20 laps. He was running eighth when he pitted on Lap 48, the stop where he lost a lap.
Harvick is tied with Austin Dillon for the 12th and final position to transfer to the Chase's second round with two Round 1 events remaining. The four lowest-ranked drivers are eliminated every three races, and a driver can earn automatic advancement with a victory.
"I have confidence we can dig ourselves out of the hole, but it's not a good feeling getting into the hole to begin with," SHR co-owner Gene Haas told SB Nation. "Especially when it's something silly like when a caution comes out and we happen to be on the wrong side of the start/finish line, that's a tough one."
Harvick's current predicament is similar to the one he faced leaving Chicago a year ago when he crashed and finished 42nd. He recovered by winning two weeks later at Dover International Speedway to automatically qualify for the next round.
Although Harvick isn't facing the same points deficit, he has little margin for error next week at New Hampshire Motor Speedway or on Oct. 2 at Dover.
"We've had good cars all year, we've had fast cars all year, so there's no reason to panic," said Greg Zipadelli, SHR vice president of competition. "... Overall, big picture, we need to go to [New Hampshire] and Dover and race our guts out."