Kevin Harvick did more than win the Bank of America 500 on Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
He earned some peace of mind, clinching a spot in the next stage of the Chase before going to Talladega next Sunday, a huge relief for a guy who hasn’t won in six months and is still chasing his first Sprint Cup championship.
And he didn’t start a fight.
Harvick was busy doing his victory burnout while the garage area threatened to turn into a street fight with drivers throwing punches, crew members in head locks and tempers running hotter than an Arizona summer.
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“That was awesome,” race runner-up Jeff Gordon said upon ducking into the infield media center and out of the pushing and shoving in the garage.
The aftermath of the race, with Brad Keselowski trying to spin out Denny Hamlin and then running into Matt Kenseth and into Tony Stewart’s parked car, provoking a not so gentle bumper bump from Smoke himself, was more entertaining than the race itself.
It was enough that Kenseth went rumbling through the garage like Liam Neeson chasing bad guys. That doesn’t happen every day, though Keselowski has a way of irking his colleagues with his style and personality.
“The format is definitely creating a lot of drama,” said Gordon, who will go to Talladega in good shape to advance to the round of eight but with no guarantees.
If the goal of recreating the Chase format was to inject new life and more uncertainty into the season-ending stretch, it’s happening.
Six times in the previous 10 Chase seasons, the driver who led the points after the fall Charlotte race went on to win the whole thing. But that was when the Chase was won on total points accumulated over the 10 races.
It’s not that way now, especially with Talladega looming.
More than any other track, Talladega is where weird things happen – and not just in the infield on Saturday night. It’s the ultimate rolling of the racing dice.
It’s where a driver can do everything right and still be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s where luck and timing are often more important than horsepower and handling.
If you’re not Harvick or Joey Logano and you haven’t secured your spot in the next stage of the Chase – eight drivers will advance after Talladega – it’s a frightening place to go with the mandate of making something happen.
“This is the night we needed to win. I don’t want to go to Talladega next week,” Harvick said. “We came here thinking this would be the hardest round to get through because of Talladega. There’s so much you can’t control there.”
That’s the beauty of the new Chase format. It forces the action. Winning matters more than before because it guarantees you still have skin in the game.
It also focuses the attention on the drivers at the bottom of the Chase standings because of the reality of elimination.
Unless you’ve already won your way into the penultimate stage, being careful and conservative may not work at Talladega.
Imagine if the Chase finale – where four drivers start even and the top finisher wins the whole thing – were at Talladega rather than Homestead. That would be serious fun to watch.
Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. head to Talladega needing a win or a very high finish to advance to next round. That’s a dangerous position.
The Talladega race should be more entertaining than Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where nothing particularly dramatic happened until the race was over.
It was big news that the Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s shifter broke during the race and we all know how awkward that can be. Happy birthday, Jr.
Otherwise, it wasn’t the most compelling racing of the season. Jeff Gordon led for a while. Kyle Busch led for a while. Kyle Larson, perhaps the next big thing, led for a while.
And the rain stayed away.
It wasn’t exactly “Days of Thunder.”
Until the end – and Talladega awaits.