By Rick Minter/ Andrews McMeel Syndication
Sunday’s Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard delivered a string of storylines, from Kevin Harvick’s victorious run to Jimmie Johnson’s crash that ended his career-long playoff streak to two drivers earning playoff berths to Bubba Wallace’s impressive third-place finish to a number of violent crashes that took out several top drivers.
Harvick’s dominating win in the Cup circuit’s regular-season finale, in which he led 118 of 160 laps, including the final 30, was the 48th of his career, his third of the season and his second at the Brickyard.
His three wins this year have all come in the past seven races, and that recent surge has established him as one of the drivers who are likely to take the championship battle to the four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers — Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Erik Jones — who combined to win half the regular season races.
But in his post-race interviews, Harvick wouldn’t go so far as to say he has gained an advantage on the Gibbs drivers.
“I think we’ve definitely made some strides in getting … closer to where we want to be,” he said. “I think we still have some things that we have to work on at certain styles of racetracks.
“But this [playoff format] is survive and advance, and you don’t necessarily have to have the fastest car. We had the fastest car [at Indy], maybe not the best handling car, but we survived, and really, a day like [Sunday] is a lot like how you’re going to have to approach every race in the playoffs.”
He said his Stewart-Haas team is still developing its cars to maximize their performance under the new lower horsepower/higher downforce handling package that is being used this year.
“I still feel like we’re learning a lot about this particular rules package at certain types of racetracks,” he said. “We’ve been changing things and working on things, and there’s a lot of little things that you put together to start the playoffs that you put through the manufacturing side and the engine side and the 100 other things that you put together, and you just have to execute at this point.”
Harvick said that as he heads to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the playoff opener, the technical details about the cars aren’t as important to him as the personnel factors.
“The most important thing is that … we have a lot of confidence in each other and the things that we’re doing right now, and sometimes that’s more important than fast cars,” he said.
Another driver talking about his crew was Ryan Newman, whose determined drive to an eighth-place finish allowed him to take the No. 6 team at Roush Fenway Racing to the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
Newman took the 16th and final berth by finishing three spots ahead of his closest challenger, Daniel Suarez, while Clint Bowyer, with a fifth-place finish, also secured a playoff spot.
Newman, in his first year in the No. 6, said he was proud of his team’s turnaround.
“It’s been a year of progress, a year of learning, a year of a lot of things,” he said. “I’m more rookie this year than I’ve ever been, but an ice-cold Coke never tasted so good after these first 26 races.”
He acknowledged that it’ll take more improvement to stay in the playoffs for multiple rounds.
“What happened [at Indy] could happen in three more races, so we’ve got to put our nose to the grindstone,” he said. “I think we have a lot of work to do. …
“We’ve showed that we can progress throughout the race, but we’ve got to start qualifying in the top 10 to be able to finish in the top five, and then we’ll prove that we’re made of more than what we’re showing.”
For Johnson, the grinding crash on Lap 104 symbolized his season to date. He’s been fast at times, but had misfortunes arise that negated his efforts.
He was philosophical in his post-race comments to the media.
“Unfortunately, we had a bad 25 races that led to the position we’re in here, and we needed a stellar day,” he said. “I think we were having a strong day. I’m really proud of my team with what’s been going on. The No. 1 car [Kurt Busch] had a little trouble on the restart. I’m on the inside going into the corner and it was just super tight. It’s unfortunate that happened.”
Johnson also said he’s not conceding the remainder of the season even though he won’t be running for the championship.
“We have that to be proud of,” he said. “Sure we wanted [the 15-year playoff streak] to continue on, but the goal is to win a race. This team is getting stronger each and every week and [crew chief] Cliff Daniels is doing an amazing job of leading this group … and we’re ready to roll. We’ll dust ourselves off and go to Vegas and try to get a trophy.”
Suarez also was looking ahead after coming up short in his bid for a playoff spot.
“We just didn’t have the straightaway speed this weekend for whatever reason,” he said. “We have to keep working on it and try to keep getting better.”
Kyle Busch, who had already clinched the regular-season championship and the 15 bonus points that come with it, heads into the playoffs as the points leader despite falling out of the Brickyard 400 with a blown engine.
“I didn’t think we had a chance to win,” he said of his prospects at Indianapolis. “We were just way too tight, we were off a little bit today. Thought we were going to have a solid third-to-fifth-place car anyways and come out of here with a solid effort and have some momentum rolling into the next week.
“Unfortunately, we blew up.”
Several drivers besides Johnson were sidelined by crashes, among them Erik Jones, Landon Cassill, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Larson.
Keselowski hit a stack of tires and said the Indianapolis track, which was the first to install SAFER barriers, needs to address vulnerable places like the one he hit.
“This track really was part of the safety revolution about 15, 20 years ago, and I think it is time for another,” he said. “I think there probably should not be weird angles like that to wreck on.”
PHOTO CAPTION: Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard winner Kevin Harvick has the straightaway to himself as he takes the checkered flag Sunday in Indianapolis. Chris Graythen/Getty Images for NASCAR