By: Zach Catanzareti, Staff Writer
But when you zoom out from race view to playoff view, it was the biggest gut punch of the year.
Entering the weekend well within grasp of the 16th and final playoff position, Harvick was a likely option of easing his way into the postseason for the 13th straight year. And judging from the early pace in New Hampshire, it may even end with a victory to stop the points conversation in its tracks.
The Ambetter 301 went without a significant hitch for Harvick, who qualified 10th and ran top five most of the afternoon before finishing fifth. A late two-tire pit call may have cost him track position for the final restart, but he bounced back still for his fifth top-five finish of 2022.
The top five, however, was overshadowed by Christopher Bell, whose first victory of the season catapulted himself into the playoff grid. This causes Harvick to drop to 17th and a whopping 68 points outside the cutline with six races remaining in the regular season.
Just like that.
Though the points haul is a long one, Harvick is looking upward after the strong day.
“We put two tires on there, which we all thought was the right thing to do,” Harvick said, “and it just would not get going. We were sliding up the race track and it took seven or eight laps to get the car underneath you. And then about 20 laps to get the pace back. Then at the end, everybody was just out of tires.
“I am proud of everybody. We will keep plugging away.”
The tire strategy, which targeted track position over fresh rubber, was common practice on Sunday. But it proved to be the game-changer in keeping the 2014 champion’s winless streak alive.
“When the car was handling good, [passing] was not bad,” he said. “But when everybody was sliding around there it was tough if you were the same speed. We passed a lot of the cars that were worse than us. It just depended on what your handling issues were.”
Shifting to the playoff view, the point gap is more than a full race worth. To his benefit, Harvick’s No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford has shown much-needed consistency this year, as Sunday was the 10th top-15 finish in the last 11 races, including his fourth top 10 in the last five.
Additionally, Harvick’s stats are above that of Martin Truex Jr., the man holding down the 16th spot ahead of driver No. 4. Harvick has more top fives (five to three), more top 10s (11 to eight) and better average finish (12.6 to 13.6) through the first 20 races.
Will these narrow numbers make the difference over six races? Likely not, as Harvick would need to best Truex by an average of more than 10 points in each of the remaining races. That’s a feat he has achieved only three times all year.