LOUDON, N.H. — Yes, even Dick Vitale has endorsed NASCAR’s new tournament-style bracket to crown a champion.
Just win and advance, baby!
Time for a T.O.
Sure, winning races earn a driver an automatic berth into the next round, decided after every three races, before the final four drivers are left to duke it out for the Sprint Cup championship in the finale at Homestead.
But piling up points can get a driver to Homestead even without a win.
Kevin Harvick would love to add at least a third win to a solid season for him at Stewart-Haas Racing. Harvick, though, would trade wins for his first career Cup championship as long as he’s consistent enough over the first nine Chase for the Sprint Cup championship races to be in the mix at the end.
“All you’ve got to do is be the first car out of the four cars to finish the race at Homestead,” Harvick said. “You don’t necessarily even have to win a race to win the championship.”
Harvick has been in the hunt to win plenty of races this season. His six poles this year matched his total for his entire career entering this season and he’s second behind only Brad Keselowski with 1,265 laps led. He was wins at Darlington and Phoenix and was fifth in the Chase opener last week at Chicagoland.
In a championship showdown that many believe will boil down to Team Penske vs. Hendrick Motorsports, Harvick could be a spoiler to watch. He doesn’t plan to gamble down the stretch to win a championship.
“I think the whole winning thing is really overrated,” he said. “Obviously you want to win. You want to win every week, and you show up to try to win, but you can’t take any unnecessary chances, and that is kind of the box that the point system puts you in.”
Like his July race at New Hampshire, for example.
With two early wins, Harvick was already locked into the Chase, and could afford to take a win-or-bust mentality the rest of the season. When the race needed a green-white-checkered finish, Harvick lined up second on the final restart. He ran out of fuel as the field took the green flag and coasted to finish 30th. Not this time around.
“The short-term risk versus reward is not there this time of year,” Harvick said. “No matter what they tell you about the new system, it’s not all about winning.”
Stewart-Haas Racing gave Harvick the crew from Tony Stewart’s 2011 championship in a move to strengthen Harvick’s title chances in his first year with the team.
Harvick had been critical of the No. 4 team’s pit stops this season and said it had to be addressed for him to have a shot in the Chase. He was pleased with the crew at Chicagoland.
“We had a lot of situations where we came in leading and went out leading,” he said. “That’s really what you’re looking for.”
Here are some things to know about Sunday’s race at New Hampshire.
ON TO THE NEXT ROUND: Brad Keselowski has a spot in the next round of the Chase. So will Sunday’s winner (provided there’s a driver out there who can dethrone NASCAR’s hottest driver). But not all is lost for some of the other Chase drivers. If a Chase driver other than Keselowski wins, any driver with at least a 45-point lead on the 10th-highest winless Chase driver would advance to the next round. If a non-Chase driver or Keselowski wins, a driver can clinch with a 45-point lead over the 11th-highest winless driver. Got it?
REMEMBER ME? Every now and then, Jimmie Johnson goes through his version of a slump, which would usually be considered a hot streak for mere mortal drivers. The six-time champion hasn’t won since June 15 at Michigan and was 12th in the Chase opener at Chicagoland.
Johnson even admits the No. 48 Chevrolet has been “lukewarm” in the later part of the season, and his Hendrick Motorsports team has been “working our guts out” to find more speed and become a dominant car.
“It’s not the best mood,” Johnson said. “We hold ourselves to a higher standard and expect to operate at a higher level.”
While he’s sixth in the points race, and Keselowski has cemented himself as the driver to beat, Johnson is headed into comfortable territory before the Chase cutoff. He finished 42nd at New Hampshire in the first race because of tire woes, but does have three wins at the track. He starts sixth Sunday.
Up next, a stop at Dover, his favorite track. Johnson led 272 of 400 laps in June and won his track-record ninth Dover race.
OH, BABY! Clint Bowyer’s wife, Lorra, is expecting the couple’s first child any day now. Bowyer, who has two wins at New Hampshire, has Truck Series champion Matt Crafton on standby. Crafton did not practice in Bowyer’s No. 15 Toyota. Crafton would be used again next week at Dover, if needed.
GO-GO GORDON: Jeff Gordon is driving like a championship contender, and talking like one, too. Gordon, a three-time winner this season, is coming off consecutive runner-up finishes. Of course, both times he placed second to Keselowski.
But Gordon hasn’t been shy in expressing his belief the No. 24 Chevrolet has what it takes to win a fifth championship — and first in the Chase era. While some drivers complained about bad cars, big slumps, or chasing Bad Brad, Gordon basically said, just bring it.
“We definitely have what it takes to beat him,” Gordon said. “Do we have the best car out there? I’m not so sure we do. But is our team strong enough to win this race? Absolutely.”
Gordon does have three wins at New Hampshire, but none since 1998. He’s the only driver to start every race at New Hampshire.
VENTURINI TO THE BOOTH: Wendy Venturini will make her co-anchor debut in the Performance Racing Network booth for the Sprint Cup Series race at New Hampshire. Venturini’s stint as co-anchor is the first time a woman has co-anchored a Sprint Cup radio broadcast. She’s been a pit reporter for all three of NASCAR’s national series and an analyst since 2004 for SPEED and FOX Sports 1.
Custer youngest winner at 16: Cole Custer is the youngest winner in a NASCAR national series race at 16, taking the checkered flag at New Hampshire in just his seventh career Truck Series start.
Custer dominated early and pulled away late off the final restart Saturday to win at 16 years, 7 months, 28 days.
Custer set a track record of 131.897 mph to win the pole. He led 148 of the 175 laps.
Darrell Wallace Jr., Matt Crafton, Johnny Sauter and John Nemechek complete the top five.
Last November in Phoenix, Erik Jones was the youngest winner in truck series history, winning at 17 years, 4 months on the mile track.