MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Kevin Harvick has picked his way through traffic before at Martinsville Speedway, never when the stakes were so high.
A poor qualifying effort has Harvick starting 33rd, behind all the other title contenders, in Sunday’s race on the Virginia short track. Because the rest of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field is starting in the top 13, Harvick won’t have much time to avoid being lapped.
His Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet was considerably faster on Saturday — he was fastest in the final practice of the weekend — so crew chief Rodney Childers didn’t seem too concerned about race day.
“Just gotta roll with it at this point,” said Childers. “In the spring we went back to 30th three different times and drove back to the top-five like it wasn’t nothing, so you’ve just got to have a good car and drive up there.”
There’s no margin for error as the third round of the Chase begins Sunday. There are eight drivers remaining from a field that started with 16 but has gone through two rounds of cuts after every three races.
Now the Chase hits the critical stretch — races at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix — and winners earn an automatic berth into the finale. NASCAR will crown the champion on Nov. 16 at Homestead, where the final four will race for the title. The winner will be the highest finisher of the four eligible drivers.
It will take either victories or consistency to make it to Homestead, and Harvick will have to hustle on Sunday. Although he drove from 36th to third in 2010, this marks just the seventh time in 27 career starts he has started outside the top 20 at Martinsville.
Qualifying had really been a strong point for the No. 4 team all season, too, as fast cars had led Harvick to a series-best eight poles.
But Childers said he was off Friday with the car, and sent Harvick out too early in the first round of qualifying.
“I just screwed up. I thought maybe the track would be good early, and it was horrible,” Childers said. On Harvick’s second attempt, he hit the wall, but Childers said the car sustained minimal damage.
Harvick won at Martinsville in April 2011 and has driven from the back of the field at various times. Still, in 131 Cup races at Martinsville, drivers who have started outside the top 20 have won just six times. Kurt Busch won in March from 22nd, and only one Martinsville winner has ever started worse than 24th.
Childers said they’ll be patient.
“It’s not that big a deal unless something stupid happens on the race track or something stupid happens on pit road,” Childers said. “If you’ve got a car that’s just as good as the leader you don’t have to worry about (being lapped). They’ve got the same traffic to go through that you’ve got to go through, so it all comes down to getting the car right (in practice) and you won’t have any of that to worry about.”
PAYBACKS?: The racing at Martinsville, a 0.526-mile paper-clip-shaped track with tight corners, can often create situations where paybacks are delivered for past incidents. And, they can be made to look like racing incidents and not intentional.
The Chase drivers all know that going into Sunday.
“Martinsville, it builds a lot of drama anyway because it’s tough on brakes, you’re trying to outbreak other competitors, the double-file restarts (are tough),” said eight-time and defending winner Jeff Gordon.
“You take any animosity that’s been built up over the season into that race and that is certainly a place that people feel like that they can play payback. If there are some guys out there doing that, I just hope I’m not on their list.”