A disastrous start to the latest round of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chase play-offs at Martinsville Speedway has left Kevin Harvick at the bottom of the points standings among the eight remaining title contenders - and he knows who to blame.
Harvick had started the Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500 from 33rd place on Sunday afternoon but had worked his way into the top ten when suddenly he was hit by Matt Kenseth, and the #4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet sustained major damage to the oil cooler and radiator.
"I definitely thought that we had worked our way into where we needed to be, in a good position, and wound up back in the fence," he said. "Everybody was so worried about us starting in the back and we wrecked at the front. Unfortunate."
The SHR crew were able to get the car back out on track albeit multiple laps off the lead, ostensibly to make up a couple of extra positions. However it was soon clear that Harvick had another target in mind as well, with Kenseth soon reporting that Harvick had 'brake tested' him "four or five times", adding: "He's trying to knock my radiator out."
After the race, Harvick made a veiled threat to Kenseth that the matter was not over with. "“Yeah, he won't win this championship," said a still-furious Harvick, clearly holding Kenseth fully to blame for putting his Chase hopes on the critical list. "If we don't, he won't."
"I don't blame him for feeling that way honestly," responded Kenseth, who was also involved in a post-race brawl earlier this month at Charlotte with another Chase contender, Brad Keselowski. "It was a mistake. He was an innocent bystander and was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"I totally understand how he feels and I totally understand why he would say that," Kenseth added. "I totally get it. He knows it was a mistake too, but that doesn't really help him. I don't really blame him. He got taken out of the race for being in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Despite the accident, Kenseth went on to finish the race in sixth place after the Joe Gibbs Racing team was able to fix the #20 and get it back out on track without losing a lap - no mean feat at the half-mile oval, the shortest track that the Cup drivers race on all year.
"We didn't run the way we wanted to run today," he admitted. "[But] we still finished respectably with all the stuff that happened. Like I said, we didn't run great today, but they made some good calls and did the right things at the end and finished strong."
Kenseth's JGR team mate and fellow Chase contender Denny Hamlin also had a good day at the office. Without sharing any of Kenseth's dramas, Hamlin was able to lead for 68 laps during the 500-lap event and finished in eighth place to keep himself firmly in the running for a spot in the final four line-up that will race for the 2014 title at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 16.
However, Hamlin had been hoping for even better: "We're running better than what we're finishing. Other guys like Newman are finishing better than they're running. That's part of the deal, you've got to do it for all 500 laps and we just didn't have a very good car once the track went shaded there and we came in first and came out fourth on a slow stop. I couldn't recover from that.
"It's hard because you've got guys that go laps down in the course of the race and get enough lucky dogs and then 50 laps on their tires and they want to stay out," he added. "Just bottlenecks the field up and we all got the short end of last restart stick again. Just sucked at the end and we can't finish where we're running."
Kenseth is currently in fourth place in the championship standings, with Hamlin two points further back, but they're both within seven of Jeff Gordon who currently tops the table making it much too tightly-packed to even start thinking who will make it through to the winner-takes-all final next month.
With non-Chase contender Dale Earnhardt Jr. pipping his team mate Gordon to the win, no one is yet assured a spot in the final four, but it does mean that at least two of the spots will now be decided on the points standings.
"It helps all aspects of that and it opens up the door now for the points side of things," said Hamlin. "[But] eighth place just isn't going to cut it. I hate to be down on it because we did have a good solid day going, but it's frustrating when you don't get that good finish on that last restart."
And the points situation doesn't help Harvick, who is currently bottom of the standings among the eight Chase drivers. However, as Brad Keselowski demonstrated last week at Talladega when he secured a last-gasp transfer to the third round of the Chase with victory at the superspeedway, Harvick can still make it through if he wins at either Texas or Phoenix which would automatically secure him in the title decider.
"The good thing about this format is you have two more weeks and two race tracks that we can win on," Harvick agreed. And that hope alone may ensure that any thoughts of retribution against Matt Kenseth will likely have to wait for at least a couple of weeks until Homestead, by which time the fire might have gone out of Harvick's anger. Or then again, maybe not.
Sprint Cup Series championship - Chase standings
1. (+6) Jeff Gordon 4044pts
2. (+1) Ryan Newman 4041pts (-3pts)
3. (-2) Joey Logano 4040pts (-4pts)
4. (+1) Matt Kenseth 4039pts (-5pts)
5. (-1) Denny Hamlin 4037pts (-7pts)
6. (--) Carl Edwards 4024pts (-20pts)
7. (+1) Brad Keselowski 4013pts (-31pts)
8. (-6) Kevin Harvick 4011pts (-33pts)
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