It was a picture-post card autumn day in America’s Heartland for both fans and a couple of Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship contenders at Kansas Speedway on Sunday. But on the final green flag pit stop of the Hollywood Casino 400, things got cold and dark for two of the top contenders.
On that late-afternoon pitting sequence, which began with 54 laps to go in the 267-lap race, goofiness resulted in pass-through penalties to drivers who started the day second and third in points and kind of comfortably above the cutline as the Chase nears yet another cutoff event under its elimination-format playoff.
As a result, both defending champion Kevin Harvick and fellow Chevrolet driver Martin Truex Jr. will head to the final race of the the three-event Contender Round portion of the Chase needing to avoid trouble – if not notching a victory – at almost-always troublesome Talladega Superspeedway next weekend.
Harvick was penalized when a fueling can bounced out of his pit stall.
The defending series champion, who had led 21 laps and was a major threat to get the victory, fell off the lead lap and finished 16th.
He dropped from second in points to fifth and will head to plate-racing Talladega for the final race of the Contender Round just seven points ahead of the cutoff in his attempt to make the Eliminator 8 Round.
Harvick, nicknamed “Happy," wasn’t terribly sad after Kansas.
“We are lucky to come out of it as good as we did with our Budweiser/Jimmy John’s team,” the Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet driver said. “We didn’t have a great weekend. A lot of things falling on and off and now we’ve got to go to Talladega and have a good week. All-in-all it could have been a lot worse and everybody kept digging.”
Harvick’s late-race problems were not confined to a bouncing fuel can. He also had a broken gear shift lever and wasn’t that fun?
“It was just really hard to shift from second to third (gear) just because there was nothing to grab onto for leverage,” Harvick said. “But in the end the car vibrated all day I’m lucky something else didn’t break.”
Then there was Truex Jr. of one-car team Furniture Row Racing. Third in points when the day began, he ran near the leaders until that fateful pit stop. Leaving his pit box was a tire. The penalty was the same and by the time he completed his pass-through, he was off the lead lap and headed for Talladega sitting on the eighth-place bubble.
"It was a tough day," Truex said. "We were in good shape before the penalty. We fought hard on the car all day and got much better right when we got the penalty. We were fast at the end, but not enough time to get back up there. This Chase format is tough, really tough. It will be a battle next week in Talladega."
A very tough battle, too. Truex has never won a plate race. He has had just two top-five finishes in 42 starts at plate tracks.
If things don’t go his way next week, it won’t be because of a lack of positive attitude on the part of his team.
"We're still alive," crew chief Cole Pearn radioed Truex after he took the checkered flag. "Considering what happened today I guess it could have been worse. We're still on the plus side heading to Talladega."