Familiar woes, late contact ruin Harvick's night
September 01, 2014, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com
RELATED: Play NASCAR Fantasy Live | Sign up for RaceView today
HAMPTON, Ga. -- It's difficult to tell what exact color a dark cat is when approaching it at close to 200 mph, but for Kevin Harvick, it may as well have been bad-luck black.
Short of walking under a ladder on the way to driver intros or eating peanuts in the car, Harvick couldn't have had a more telling omen that Sunday night would not be a normal one than the cat that ran in front of his car within the opening 20 laps of the Oral-B USA 500. Besides the squirrel that emerged near the track's apron a handful of laps later, fans nearly needed a roster to keep track of the race's growing wildlife preserve.
"That was a cat. The cat ran across the backstretch," Harvick said after his early close call. "That would have been a big mess."
The planets seemed to be in alignment for a convincing weekend sweep at Atlanta Motor Speedway after claiming the Coors Light Pole Award in Friday qualifying, then romping to victory in Saturday night's NASCAR Nationwide Series race. But come Sunday night, by now familiar problems on pit road surfaced and Harvick's forward progress was stemmed. The setbacks put his Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 Chevrolet in position for havoc on the race's next-to-last restart, which left his car damaged and relegated him to a unpalatable 19th-place finish as the last driver on the lead lap.
In what's become a season dotted with ominous signs along the way, it marked the third time this season that Harvick has led the most laps without winning the race.
"Our cars are really fast and doing all the things we need to do but we lost control every time we came to pit road tonight," Harvick said.
After losing ground on pit road on a regular basis to the Joe Gibbs Racing duo of Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth and their well-oiled crew and high-whirring air guns, Harvick said mid-race that he was tired of relaying the same message over his team radio, but that the pit service was "absolutely unacceptable." By the time the race was forced to overtime, circumstances again conspired to foil his shot at a third win of the season.
Harvick lined up fourth for the first attempt at a green-white-checkered finish right behind two drivers that gambled with two tires for the final restart -- race leader Kenseth and second-place Paul Menard. When the green dropped, Menard lost grip fast right in front of Harvick, who tried to work the high line around his former teammate. But as he inched up, he made contact with Joey Logano's fast-closing Ford and both cars slapped the wall.
"We knew they were going to get a bad restart," Harvick said. "I got on the outside of the 27 (Menard) as soon as I could. I tried to time it to where I could get on the outside of him but he kept coming up and, I think, the 22 (Logano) was still on our outside and it just got crazy there and we all wrecked. I think we all could have given each other more room but we just wrecked. It's just everybody going as hard as they could at the end. You can't control all the circumstances out there like tonight."
Harvick's status for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs didn't change after Sunday night, but the gremlins that kept one of the best-performing teams out of Victory Lane again have clearly taken a toll. His two regular-season wins (Phoenix, Darlington) secured his spot in the postseason by springtime, but Harvick has come oh-so-close to amassing more wins, finishing second five times -- six, if you count the non-points NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race.
Harvick made it clear that the team needs to fix its issues to regroup and return to a championship caliber before the Chase begins Sept. 14 at Chicagoland Speedway, all the while hoping that unforeseen adversity -- wayward cats included -- manages to find another target.
"Well, you just have to ride through it and do the best that you can," Harvick said. "You can't control all the circumstances like tonight. It's just unfortunate for everybody on our Jimmy John's Chevy that everything went the way that it did, but what do you do?"