JOLIET, Ill. (AP) — Nonplussed by Joe Gibbs Racing’s red-hot ride into NASCAR’s playoffs, Kevin Harvick confidently predicted they wouldn’t get in his way of a second consecutive championship.
“We’re going to pound them into the ground,” Harvick said of JGR’s four-car title push.
Instead, it’s Harvick who is on the ropes after the opening race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Contact with Jimmie Johnson led to a blown tire for Harvick that caused him to crash and finish 42nd Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, where he had a brief post-race scuffle with Johnson.
Denny Hamlin, meanwhile, won the race for Gibbs and earned an automatic berth into the second round of the playoffs.
Hamlin declined to comment on the irony of Harvick’s situation.
“I’m not going to get into a verbal thing,” he said. “We’re one race in. It didn’t work out well for him today.”
No, it didn’t, and Harvick is last in the 16-driver Chase field with two races before four drivers are eliminated. He minced no words when asked what he needs to do either next week at New Hampshire or Oct. 4 at Dover.
“We’ve just got to go win one of these next two races,” Harvick said.
He has one career victory, in 2006, at New Hampshire and is winless at Dover. But he led 163 laps at the last two New Hampshire races and earned a pair of third-place finishes, and he led 314 laps in the last two Dover races and was second there in June.
“This Chase, the way it is, it can be taken away from you in a week, it doesn’t matter if it’s the first week or last week,” said Harvick crew chief Rodney Childers. “You just have to go race the next two and see how it works out and go from there.”
NEAR FIGHT: The contact between Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson on a restart led to a post-race confrontation in the motorhome lot between a pair of drivers who have known each other since their early days racing in California.
It was also expected by Johnson, who knew Harvick was going to be angry with him over the situation. Asked after the race if he planned to speak with the defending champion, Johnson seemed to forecast what was ahead.
“Hopefully he’ll want to talk. There’s no telling what he’ll want to do,” said the six-time champion.
Johnson waited outside of Harvick’s motorhome to talk, but Harvick was looking for a confrontation as soon as he came out the door. He shoved Johnson with a closed fist before someone stepped between the two, and after Johnson pointed his finger at Harvick, he had to be held back from getting at Johnson a second time.
Harvick’s wife, DeLana, exited a waiting car to walk over to the bickering drivers and Harvick eventually retreated to the backseat of the car as Johnson walked away.
Harvick’s trouble began when he and Johnson were third and fourth on a restart and contact created a tire rub for Harvick. Two laps later, the tire blew and Harvick was in the wall.
He felt the contact could have been avoided.
“I just held my ground and he just slammed into my door like I wasn’t even there,” Harvick said.
Johnson’s version was that he got a push from behind from Joey Logano that sent him down to the apron. As he tried to get back on the track, he made contact with Harvick.
“I assumed he would try to find it as my fault. I just simply needed a lane to get back on the racetrack,” said Johnson. “He was trying to pin me down and I’ve got to get back up or else there would be a hell of a mess in Turn 1.”
IT’S JGR, AS EXPECTED: Joe Gibbs Racing began the Chase as the heavy favorite to give Toyota its first Cup championship, and its drivers delivered Sunday.
Hamlin rallied from a spin on lap 2 that dropped him a lap down to win the race. Carl Edwards also fell a lap down when he was flagged for speeding and finished second.
Matt Kenseth finished fourth and Kyle Busch, after leading 121 laps, finished ninth.
After one race in the Chase, the top of the points standings are all JGR: Kenseth is the leader, followed by Hamlin, Edwards and then Busch.
“A total team effort in the end,” Gibbs said.
JGR has now won three consecutive Cup races and nine of the last 12. The team also celebrated an Xfinity Series win Saturday at Chicagoland with Busch.
WORDS OF ENCOURAGEMENT: Denny Hamlin tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee four days before the regular season finale, but vowed to preserve through the injury and drive his way into the championship race.
He overcame an awful starting position Sunday, a spin on the second lap of the race, and then used a gutsy call not to pit during the final caution to win the race. He went three-wide on the restart with five laps remaining to take the lead and earn the berth into the second round of the Chase.
After the race, he revealed he’d received a mid-race pep talk via text message from good friend Michael Jordan.
Jordan and Hamlin became friends in Charlotte, North Carolina, where Jordan owns the NBA’s Hornets and Hamlin is a courtside season ticket holder. Jordan attended the championship race last year and cheered Hamlin on from pit road.
“He texted me on Wednesday, he said he was in Monte Carlo,” Hamlin said. “He says, ‘I know you’re about to head into the playoffs. I just want you to know I’ve never admitted to anybody that anyone is better than me at anything my whole life. But if you win this race this weekend, I will admit that you’re a better driver than I am.’
“So the first thing I’m going to do is text him and say, ‘Admit it, I’m better than you, and I want everyone to know.’ “