CHICAGO (AP) — It didn’t take Kevin Harvick long to start needling the drivers standing in his way of a second consecutive title.
The reigning Sprint Cup champion has heard all the hype surrounding Joe Gibbs Racing, which closed out the regular season with eight wins in the final 11 races. Harvick, with 10 second-place finishes this year, isn’t at all concerned with the JGR group.
As the 16 drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship gathered Thursday to discuss the upcoming playoffs, Harvick dismissed any notion that he’s got some work to do to catch up to the Gibbs group.
“I wouldn’t consider us behind the Gibbs cars,” Harvick said. “I think we are going to pound them into the ground. That’s what I think.”
Harvick has never backed away from a challenge, and he’s always used his confidence to his advantage. He loves to poke at his rivals in an attempt to rattle them and get them off their game.
His attempt Thursday didn’t rattle JGR driver Kyle Busch, who is tied with teammate Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson for the top seed in the Chase, which begins Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway.
“I thought (trash talk) was supposed to be (said on) the Media Day before Homestead, not the Media Day before the Chase starts,” Busch said.
He also said Harvick doesn’t do his trash-talking directly.
“He won’t do it to our faces; he’ll just do it through you guys,” Busch said. “I’d really hate to see him blow a motor here the first week. That would be really, really bad.”
Harvick, though, isn’t backing down from the Gibbs drivers.
He noticed how all four Gibbs drivers raced each other hard during last weekend’s race at Richmond when Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards stormed to the front of the field. Should they keep that intensity up, even when racing each other, Harvick thinks JGR could be in trouble.
“Hopefully, they can beat themselves,” he said.
JGR has done a good job of unraveling come championship time, and the organization has not won a Cup title since Tony Stewart won his second one in 2005. Denny Hamlin made it to the final round last year, but lost to Harvick in the finale.
He acknowledged the Gibbs group is strong right now, perhaps a tick better than Stewart-Haas Racing, but his experience over this 10-race format gives him the edge.
“I don’t know that we’re better than them. I think for us, it’s all about having the experience,” Harvick said. “It’s really not all about the fastest car. It’s about having the experience to go out and handle the emotions of 10 weeks and I think as you go into these 10 weeks, you have to put it all together and there’s a lot more than racing to handle.”
RESTART WOES: There’s not a driver in the Chase field who doesn’t have questions about the way NASCAR is currently handling restarts, and the topic has been debated for more than a month.
It flared again after Saturday night’s race at Richmond when team owner Roger Penske was irked that NASCAR didn’t penalize race-winner Matt Kenseth for a restart against Joey Logano that Penske believed was illegal.
“I’m not comfortable one bit with how they’re officiating it,” Kyle Busch said of NASCAR. “I think they need to step in. I think it’s gone too long. It’s really stupid the way some of these restarts are being handled by the drivers.”
Jeff Gordon said he didn’t see Kenseth’s restart, but suggested Kenseth wouldn’t be shy to jump the start because NASCAR doesn’t seem to take any action against the drivers.
“He knows they’re not going to call it, and until they call it, guys are going to continue to push,” Gordon said. “It’s mainly because the restart box isn’t big enough. If you make the restart box bigger, they’re not going to have to worry about calling that because now you can (go) anywhere in that box and get that edge you deserve (as the leader).”
Kenseth agreed that the onus is on NASCAR.
“I think that they need to probably make some calls, and then we’ll get everybody more honest,” Kenseth said. “When the second-place guy jumps the first-place car and it’s obvious, I think they need to make that call and then it won’t happen anymore. I think you make that call one time, two times, three times — whatever it may be — and it will stop.”
LOOK WHO’S 40: Jimmie Johnson planned to start his first day as a 40 year old with a run along Chicago’s waterfront.
Instead, he got talked into an impromptu celebration Wednesday night that had him feeling very much his age on Thursday.
Johnson was feted by the other 15 Chase drivers during the traditional gathering of championship contenders and NASCAR executive. He was feeling the aftereffects Thursday, his actual birthday.
“I feel 80 right now, not 40,” he joked.
Johnson put the blame on Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth for kicking off the birthday celebration.
“I thought I was going to bow out early and go to bed, and had plans to go for a nice run or something on the boardwalk this morning, and between Bowyer and Kenseth, they talked me into my first drink, and with all 16 there, the energy kept going and a lot of fun was had,” he said.
Bowyer, for his part, had a fuzzy memory of the evening. He had to be reminded Thursday that it was Johnson’s birthday, even though he’d been the ringleader the previous evening.
“I didn’t even know it was his birthday, and we were celebrating him,” Bowyer said. “I sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to him!”