“It’s hard to fathom,” Kurt Busch said.
“It’s insane,” Martin Truex Jr. echoed a moment later.
While both former champions missed the cut for the 2020 Championship 4, it’s not their own playoff pursuits ending that they’re talking about.
No, they’re referring to regular-season champion Kevin Harvick being left out of the final four drivers to compete for this year’s NASCAR Cup Series title next Sunday at Phoenix Raceway (3 p.m. ET, NBC/NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
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The nine-time 2020 winner was eliminated from postseason contention after the Round of 8 finale in Sunday’s Xfinity 500, finishing 17th at Martinsville Speedway — his fourth finish outside the top 10 in the final five races leading up to next weekend’s title decider.
“It didn’t go our way. We fought for everything we had and it just came up short,” said Harvick, who will now fight for a fifth-place finish to the season, easily his best from a statistical standpoint. “You have to put them together three weeks at a time and it comes down to one race and it came down to one race for us tonight and came up short. … We had a great year.”
Harvick entered the race second in the playoff standings with a 42-point advantage, but the first among those not locked in via win. Fellow Round of 8 contender Chase Elliott ended up winning the race from below the cutline, which ultimately gave Harvick the boot.
The day was filled with trouble for the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford.
Early in Stage 2, Matt Kenseth’s No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet made contact with Harvick’s ride and knocked the valve stem off the left-rear wheel, causing the tire to lose air. Harvick was then forced to pit from 25th on Lap 180 under green, with the unscheduled stop putting him two laps down.
The 2014 champ then scratched, scraped and clawed his way back through the field over the course of the remaining 300-plus laps, working to get the free pass and snag positions back spot by spot. Harvick managed to get back on the pace by Lap 401 and eventually snuck his way into the top 10.
Unable to compete for the win, he was essentially battling Brad Keselowski for the final spot, separated by a single or a handful of points as the race neared completion. In need of one point coming to the checkered, Harvick attempted to push the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota of longtime frenemy Kyle Busch out of the way to gain one more point — he held the tiebreaker over Keselowski — but instead spun himself and Busch and was saddled with the 17th-place result and a now less pleasant trip out west to the desert later this week.
The playoffs started with a bang for Harvick, knocking out two wins in the Round of 16 at Darlington Raceway and Bristol Motor Speedway and continuing to rack up bonus points. Phoenix Raceway — his best track, with nine wins — seemed a certainty. A Championship 4 without 2020’s best regular-season driver is, as Kurt Busch indicated, unfathomable.
Welcome to the NASCAR Playoffs, where anything can — and we now know will — happen.
“Never expected that out of the 4 team,” said Busch, Harvick’s former SHR teammate. “Rodney Childers is a genius crew chief. Kevin Harvick is like a surgeon when it comes to gaining points. It shows you the level of competition and how everything is important. … Never expected the 4 to have the trouble that he did. It shows you how tough this really is.”
The 2020 Championship 4 features Elliott, Keselowski, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin.
The fact it won’t include Harvick was certainly a gut punch to Harvick Nation, but “Happy,” as comedically sardonic as ever, won’t be sulking for too long, with nine trophies from this season to admire on his mantel.
“No,” Harvick said, “I’ve been punched in the gut a lot harder.”