You can't say Kevin Harvick didn't try -- even though there was no championship on the line.
Eliminated from the Chase for the Sprint Cup a week earlier, Harvick nevertheless put forth a pole-winning effort for the Ford EcoBoost 400, the race that would decide the title among four contenders--Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Carl Edwards.
Harvick subsequently led 79 laps last Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway before finishing third behind now seven-time champion Johnson and Larson. After a lackluster Chase by his lofty standards, Harvick finished eighth in the final Sprint Cup standings.
“I’m proud of everyone on my Jimmy John’s team and every person that’s prepared my cars this year,” Harvick said after the race. “We fought to the very end and tried to close out the season with one last win. We finished strong, and we’ll be back in 2017 to try and make another run at a championship.”
Most points scored, but no championship
Over the course of the 36 race season, Harvick tallied the most points (1,159), not counting bonus points for wins in the frst 26 events. Logano was second (1,132), followed by Kyle Busch (1,104), Brad Keselowski (1,089) and Denny Hamlin (1,084). Jimmie Johnson was eighth on the list with 1,003 points.
Though, to some, calculating championship possibilities under old points systems is an amusing exercise, it shouldn't be construed as a knock on Johnson, who has now won titles under a variety of Chase formats, including the most recent elimination system.
Quite the contrary. The No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team ran a remarkable campaign. After scoring just two wins throughout the first 26 races, Johnson won at the most critical points in the Chase — the Round of 12, the Round of 8 and the Championship 4 round for the title. Johnson’s comeback from starting at the rear of the field (thanks to a pre-race penalty for unauthorized modification of the "A" posts on his Chevy) made his performance in the championship race one for the ages.
Johnson’s fifth win of 2016 broke a tie for victories with Busch, Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., and Keselowski. The winningest driver also won the title — something that hasn’t happened in the last three Chases before and after the new format was introduced in 2014. In 2012, when Keselowski won the championship, Keselowski, Johnson and Denny Hamlin each had five wins.
And while Johnson had three formidable opponents in the final four, drivers such as Harvick, Keselowski and Truex could only play spoilers in Sunday’s contest. All three drivers were in contention for the race win until the nine-car wreck with 10 laps remaining in the race. Of the three, only Harvick finished the race.
Harvick also earned the most points throughout the first 26 races of the season before bonus points were added when the Chase seeding was re-racked.
Harvick’s four victories put him in a four-way tie for the second-most wins on the tour. His 17 top-five finishes tied him with Kyle Busch for the best in Cup. His 27 top 10s and average finish of 9.9 was the best in the series.
Racing for wins vs. for points
After his win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in the Chase, Harvick said the strategy for the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team was to race for wins instead of points.
“You can control a lot more of your destiny if you’re winning races in a round then points racing,” Harvick said. “It just leaves you very vulnerable to being eliminated.”
Not winning makes a team vulnerable, too. Harvick won in the first two rounds of the Chase which saved him from three finishes of 20th or worse. However, there was no magic bullet for the No. 4 team in the third round following a 20th-place finish at Martinsville.
While Harvick had won five of the last six Phoenix races, his luck ran out at the track two weeks ago. For the first time since NASCAR changed the format in 2014 -- the year Harvick won the title -- he failed to advance to the Championship 4 round.
“It was a very challenging Chase for us for all the mechanical failures and situations that we had going on,” Harvick said after Phoenix. “We kept rebounding and winning races. We were a lap down and came back to have a chance at the end. That says a lot about the character of our race team; we just came up short this year.”
Harvick was a factor in the title hunt all year — until it mattered most — in the Chase. His average finish of 13.7 over the final 10 races was too much to overcome. But with the resolve of the Rodney Childers-led team, chances are good that Harvick will come back stronger in 2017.