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Race Coverage
Second Place

Who needs luck?
Bob Pockrass, NASCAR Scene

            This is the way the Chase is supposed to work. Chase contender battling Chase contender battling Chase contender.

            A driver is supposed to win the Nextel Cup championship, not back into it. Another driver is supposed to come up just short, maybe losing because of a bad pit stop, not for getting caught up in someone else’s mistake or because of a blown engine or a controversial call by NASCAR.

            Finally, the 2006 Chase For The Nextel Cup produced a real championship race, where none of the drivers still in contention had any problems.

            While that might have been great for fans, it wasn’t great for the guys trying to catch Jimmie Johnson with time running out.

            Kevin Harvick won the Checker Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix International Raceway and made up only 15 points on Johnson, because it was Johnson who crossed the finish line on Harvick’s bumper.

            Johnson kept most of his biggest threats in the Chase behind him. Matt Kenseth struggled mightily and finished 13th. Denny Hamlin was third and Dale Earnhardt Jr. ninth. Kenseth sits 63 points behind Johnson, while Harvick and Hamlin are tied for third, 90 points back. Earnhardt Jr. is barely in sight, 115 behind.

            Having never won a title, Johnson made sure he kept those title contenders in his rearview mirror by playing it slightly conservative on the final lap, unlike his attempted pass for the lead at Talladega, which resulted in a crash at the end of the fourth Chase race.

            Not wanting a repeat, Johnson had a decent run on Harvick following a restart with three laps remaining, but backed off when it looked like they could possibly wreck. Instead, Johnson hoped that his actions would merely delay a championship celebration for a week, until after the Nov. 19 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

            In some weeks in the Chase, winning could have meant much more for a driver like Harvick. So Harvick had to be satisfied with just having the dominant car. He led 252 of 312 laps with his only worry being a dead alternator that drained his battery.

            “[Johnson] was racing as hard as he could,” Harvick said. “All we can do is win races at this point. We knew he had to finish behind us. So we did what we had to do.”

            Harvick won, but all he could do was put himself in position to take advantage of a problem by Johnson at Homestead. It’ll take Johnson having a mechanical failure or an accident in the final race for Harvick to even have a chance to win the title.

            “Obviously they have had a great year and, like all of us, they have had slumps that they got through and came out of,” Harvick said. “They came out of the last slump swinging, so they have done a really good job all year making their stuff better.

            “You know, we all try to make our stuff better, but they were down pretty good there for five or six weeks and they came out like gangbusters, so they have done a good job.”

            At least Harvick has a chance. Four drivers were officially eliminated – Jeff Burton, Mark Martin, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch – and Jeff Gordon will have his championship hopes completely scrapped as long as Johnson starts the Homestead race.

            “We’ve all had the same opportunity,” said Todd Berrier, Harvick’s crew chief. “We have to capitalize on where we are and there’s nothing we can do about it at this point.”

            That was the way most of the Chase contenders reacted to Johnson’s points lead. They aren’t bemoaning their own bad luck during the Chase. They just respect what Johnson has done this year.
             “We did everything we should do short of winning,” Hamlin said. “We ran really well. We ran top-five. ... The 48 [team] didn’t make any mistakes.

            “And honestly, they are championship material right now. We are not at the level they are. This is a good day for us, a really good day. Those guys are top-five every single week it seems like, and we’re just not to that level.”

            The only driver who didn’t have a “we did about all we could do” attitude was Kenseth, whose team struggled the entire weekend. He dropped as far back as 30th at one point in the race and the 13th-place finish was about the best he could do, but certainly not what he expected.

            “This car, we ran third with it in the spring, so, for some reason, none of our stuff is running, and I don’t know why,” Kenseth said. “I don’t know what we’re doing wrong, but we’re doing something wrong. I’m not too optimistic about it.

            “Obviously, anything can happen. We’re still within striking distance if they have a mechanical problem or some type of problem like that, but, certainly, I don’t think we can beat them on performance.”

            Kenseth finished 13th and was ninth among the Chase finishers. In many races earlier in the Chase, a 13th-place finish would have ranked fifth or sixth among title contenders.

            Harvick said, though, that while someone in the Chase has had trouble in every event, he has often seen Chase drivers near him when he’s run well.

            “It seems like every week heading into the Chase, you have eight out of 10 guys you’re racing against in the same spot,” Harvick said. “It seems like that group, other than a couple having trouble here and there, have been in the top 10 week in and week out.”

            The faulty alternator could have meant trouble for Harvick. He was worried about seeing his car coast without power into the garage. He needed a push-start after a red flag with five laps remaining just so he wouldn’t have to change the battery.

            “I didn’t want to touch anything that had to do with the battery, so I just got the tow truck,” Harvick said.

            Besides that, he didn’t have many challengers. And when cars got a run on him, Harvick believed it might have been because of the weak battery.

            “That’s probably why we could not get going on the restarts as good as we could and could not get off Turn 2 on the corners like we needed to,” Harvick said.

            Even though Johnson could get a run on him on the restart with three laps remaining, Harvick knew Johnson wouldn’t risk wrecking him late in the race.

            “I knew he was going to push me, but I figured he wasn’t going to take any unnecessary chances and he was just going to try to see if he could make us make a mistake,” Harvick said. “Luckily, we didn’t do that and we were able to keep on going.”

            It didn’t have much to do with luck. It had to do with Johnson using his head, thinking about being on stage at the postseason banquet in New York City.

            “I was in a position, just inside of him going into the dogleg,” Johnson said. “If I would have been close enough inside of Kevin, I would have had a lane into [Turn] 3. I was just barely there and he came down to block and we touched a little bit.

            “If I stayed on the gas, it would have turned him into the grass down the dogleg and it would have been one hell of a mess. I saw that developing. I could tell we were just making contact through the dogleg and I didn’t want any part of that. We just needed to be smart here.”

            Harvick was smart, too. His team didn’t bring the car he won with at Phoenix back in April. He brought a new car, a better car.

            “We don’t have the same car, we don’t have the same engine package, we don’t have the same setup,” Harvick said. “That’s how fast our sport progresses, and you have to keep up with that to be competitive, and we all know that and we’re just going to try to keep making it better.”
            Harvick wasn’t able to do that a few weeks earlier at Atlanta, and that likely doomed his title hopes. Kenseth, for some reason, hasn’t been able to keep up the last few weeks, and now it looks as if he has little chance at the title. Hamlin, the rookie, has his head spinning with the surprising year he has had.

            Which meant that Johnson left Phoenix with a championship to lose, one that he refused to lose at Phoenix by settling for second.

            “I have six days until we are in this position again,” Johnson said. “My mind hasn’t had a chance to play games on me yet.”