By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
Kevin Harvick, and his crew chief Rodney Childers have brought arguably the fastest cars to the track week-in and week-out since they were first paired at Stewart-Haas Racing over two years ago. The duo has already won a championship together, they’ve collected nine victories along the way, and they’ve already clinched a place in this year’s Chase by winning in Phoenix last week.
Yet even with how much they’ve already accomplished, the team has fallen flat in several race-clinching scenarios over the past couple of seasons. Sunday’s Auto Club 400 was no exception.
Harvick led a race-high 142 laps, and looked to be cruising to his second victory of 2016, that is until Kyle Busch cut a tire in the closing laps to bring out the yellow flag. This forced an overtime finish, where Harvick and Childers were once again schooled by six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champions Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus.
When the green flag came out, Johnson knifed his way to the bottom of the track and was able to maneuver around Harvick. Johnson would pull away over the final lap to win the race.
“I got a great run off of turn two down the back (stretch) and at that point I thought I had a good shot at it,” Johnson recalled the final restart of the race. “I cleared him in (turns) three and four and just had to bring it back at that point. We had our best at the last there and really strong on the short run which wasn’t necessarily our strong suit earlier in the day. (Crew Chief) Chad (Knaus) made some great adjustments there to get me tuned up for that dash at the end.”
This is the second time this year that Harvick has led the most laps in an event, yet failed to go on to win the race. It’s also the 12th time that Harvick has led the most laps in a race since 2014, yet didn’t get the victory. Harvick wasn’t stressing about that after Sunday’s race. Harvick said he was basically a sitting duck on the final restart due to a lack of grip.
“That was the worst (the car) has taken off (today) on restarts, but we weren’t very good on restarts for four or five laps unless we were all by ourselves,” Harvick said. “The No. 48 was able to hang with us and we just weren’t able to drive it in like I needed to, just didn’t’ have the front tires turning and the back wouldn’t grip. Still a good day for us, just have to thank everybody from Jimmy John’s and Busch. We will keep at it.”
Harvick seemingly found solace in having the field whipped for the majority of the afternoon.
“They just had us beat for a couple of laps,” Harvick explained. “That was even worse than it was the previous restarts. I don’t know. We just had a really good car today with our Jimmy John’s Chevrolet. It would just take us five or six laps to get going. That was worst case scenario for us.”
Harvick has led a ton of laps over the last two-plus seasons, 4,844 to be exact, but it seems that if there is a Kryptonite for the No. 4 team, it’s Johnson and his No. 48 team. Sunday marked the eighth time since the start of the 2014 season that Harvick has finished second to Johnson. Johnson and Knaus were also the masterminds of a pit strategy that knocked Harvick out of the lead late in the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta a few weeks ago. Johnson won that race, while Harvick who led a race-high 133 laps finished a disappointing sixth.
Harvick is trying to cement his legacy as the greatest driver in the sport today, but it’s kind of hard to be the undisputed best when you’re beaten so often by a six-time champion. Harvick has made it be known that Johnson is the driver he most wants to beat. A few seasons ago he admitted that the password to his voicemail is 4848 as a daily reminder that he needs to finish ahead of his rival. You have to wonder how hard of a hit Sunday’s finish is to Harvick’s psyche, and how many more lost opportunities he can endure before he finally mentally breaks.
Image: Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty Images