No holding back for Hamlin; Edwards has cause for concern.
If Kevin Harvick truly is one of the heavy favorites to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, he’s going to have to prove it on Sunday.
Fighting a loose-handling car during Friday’s time trials, Harvick brushed the wall at Martinsville Speedway and qualified 33rd. Starting that deep in the field for Sunday’s Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 presents a litany of complications for the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet.
With the 33rd pick of a pit box, Harvick won’t have a stall that will lend itself to making up ground under yellow. Starting that close to the rear of the field in the first event of the Chase’s Eliminator Round, Harvick will have to tax his equipment to keep from getting lapped.
“You start back there, and it’s tough for a lot of reasons,” said second-place starter Joey Logano, when asked to describe the problems Harvick will face. “Obviously, the leaders are going to be there in a second, so you’ve got to go pretty hard. But, really, when you’re that far back, the line checks up so much… the inside lane just keeps checking up a lot into the corners and you can shove the nose in pretty quick there and really be trying to take care of yourself, and the next thing you know, you’re in the back of a car.
“So I think that will probably be something you’ve got to be aware, and obviously guys fighting to the bottom and the sense of urgency back there is very high, so you’re not really saving any tires because you’ve got to go. If it’s a long run, that’s where you can get in trouble pretty quick--if it’s a long green flag run on the first run. I’ve been there before. That’s how I know.”
All that said, the main things mitigating against Harvick are history and statistics. Only once in the annals of the legendary .526-mile track, over the course of 131 races, has a driver won a Cup race from a starting position outside the top 24.
That was in 2002, when Kurt Busch collected the first of his two Martinsville wins from 36th on the grid.
The good news is that Harvick was fifth fastest in race trim during Saturday morning’s Sprint Cup practice session and fastest during Happy Hour.
The bad news is that he has a lot of cars to pass on Sunday.
Hamlin must make his move now
Now that the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup has entered the Eliminator Round, with the number of drivers eligible for the championship to be cut from eight to four after the Nov. 9 race at Phoenix, Denny Hamlin’s attitude has shifted to all-out aggressive.
“You have to have all the pieces together, now that you’re part of the final eight, because the four that move on will be the four that stand out, I think, in this round,” Hamlin said.
“It’s not going to be about surviving or backing your way (in). I don’t think anybody other than the race winners (at Martinsville and Texas) will be going into Phoenix thinking, ‘OK, let’s just have a solid week here and move on to Homestead.’ There’s no more hanging back and trying to be conservative from here on out. You’ve got to be fast.”
A four-time winner at Martinsville in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, Hamlin is the only non-Chevrolet driver to take a checkered flag at NASCAR’s shortest Cup venue since the spring race of 2004.
And Hamlin showed excellent speed in Friday’s qualifying session. He’ll start fifth in the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 on Sunday.
Chase drivers take 4 of top 10
Chase drivers occupied four of the top 10 spots in Saturday’s final NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice session at Martinsville, with Kevin Harvick topping the speed chart at 97.322. Brad Keselowski was third fastest, with Jeff Gordon fifth and Joey Logano ninth.
Gordon paced the field in average speed over 10 consecutive laps, running 96.550 mph to edge Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson.
After Happy Hour, championship contender Carl Edwards has cause for concern. Edwards’ No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing Ford was 33rd fastest in single-lap speed and 32nd quickest in 10-lap average, neither a good omen for the first race in the Eliminator Round of the Chase on Sunday.
Edwards will start 11th in the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500, but he’ll need to find more speed to hold that position at a track that hasn’t been particularly kind to him in the past.
NASCAR Wire Service, Reid Spencer