KANNAPOLIS, North Carolina – The only guaranteed way to gain entry into the 16-driver 2016 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoff field is to earn it.
Kevin Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Busch Light Chevrolet SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), earned the first requirement for entry into the 2016 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup in thrilling fashion when he scored a win in just the fourth race of the season at Phoenix International Raceway by .01 of a second over runner-up Carl Edwards. He can fulfill the next requirement to earn his Chase berth Saturday night in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Kentucky 400 at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta by becoming the first driver to officially secure a top-30 points finish.
The series points leader is 356 markers ahead of the 31st-place driver in the standings heading to Kentucky. If he leaves there with a 361-point advantage over the 31st-place driver, he would be guaranteed a place in the top-30 after the 26th and final race of the regular season at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway in September.
While Harvick will be one step closer to the 2016 Chase, he will not technically clinch a Chase berth unless he earns a win Saturday night in Kentucky. Eleven drivers have scored wins through the first 17 races of 2016. With nine races remaining before the start of the Chase following the race at Richmond, there is the potential for nine first-time Sprint Cup winners in 2016.
It is improbable that six or more new race winners will emerge in the next nine races, but it is possible. If more than 16 full-time Sprint Cup drivers secure wins, then points will determine the 16-driver Chase field.
Seventeen races into 2016, Harvick has earned a series-best 565 points with an average finish of 8.9. He leads several other statistical categories, including: 108.4 driver rating, 8.739 average running position, 586 fastest laps run, 14.5 percent of fastest laps run, 4,406 laps in the top-15, 89.3 percent of laps in the top-15, and average running position of 6.3, in addition to his average finish of 6.9.
The Bakersfield, California native ranks second with seven top-five finishes, 13 top-10s, 701 laps led, 16.6 percent of laps led, 891.7 miles led, 4,822 laps run on the lead lap, 97.71 percent of laps run on the lead lap, and 20 bonus points.
If Harvick hopes to clinch his spot in the Chase with a win this weekend, he will have to do it at a racetrack where he has never won in NASCAR’s premier series. In fact, Kentucky Speedway is the only track on the current Sprint Cup schedule that Harvick has yet to lead a lap or score a top-five finish.
On June 13 and 14, Harvick and the No. 4 team attended the NASCAR open test to gain seat time and information at the newly repaved 1.5-mile oval in Sparta with hopes to better their performance.
Harvick hopes to lead his first laps at Kentucky Speedway this weekend en route to his second win of the season to officially earn his spot in the 2016 Chase field.
KEVIN HARVICK, Driver of the No. 4 Busch Light Chevrolet SS:
What were your initial thoughts and assessments of the repave after testing there several weeks ago?
“There’s really no way to assess it 100 percent, just because it takes so long to clean the racetrack off and put rubber down. So, really, the morning was just spent trying to really condition the racetrack. Turns one and two have taken some rubber very well. Turns three and four have cleaned up, but I think that’ll definitely be the problem spot to try to make the car handle as far as that goes. It’s definitely going to take some time to get it all right but, so far, so good.”
What would you say the character of the track is following the repave?
“I think it’s too early in the process to know what the character of the track is going to be, but it’ll be your typical new asphalt type race. You’re going to want to stay in the groove and the restarts are going to be challenging. New tires are going to be challenging. I think you’re going to have all of those same characteristics. It’s a pretty big difference in how you enter turn one and how you enter turn three, so just getting the balance between the two corners is definitely going to be the hardest part.”
You ran the low-downforce package at Michigan and also at the test at Kentucky. What is your assessment of this package?
“When you look at the things that it accomplishes from a throttle standpoint, I think as drivers we were really looking for off-throttle time and I think we accomplished that and had good straightaway speed, but it had a lot of off-throttle time to lower the center of the corner speed. I think, as far as the car, we have some work to do to balance the aerodynamic side of things to get the aero balance right and work on the tire a little bit more to get it configured to this particular aero balance. It definitely takes time but, with what we were trying to accomplish from slower corner speeds, I think that really helped.”
When they change or repave a track like Kentucky, how much of the stuff you’ve done before is still relevant?
“None. And you won’t leave with a headache. That’s the best part about it, in my opinion. Before, the drainage was probably the biggest issue in terms of drying the racetrack, not losing track time and making the fans sit around for no reason. I think that part of it is important and they did a great job with that and fixed that. Really putting in the effort and the money to do something like this is really exciting and shows the commitment that Kentucky Speedway and (Speedway Motorsports Inc.) have. It’s different. We run in a lot places that have new asphalt – Kansas being one of those places and Michigan being one of those places, especially since we just ran there with this same aero package – where you figure out what you can do. It’s going to take a little time for everyone to get a handle on it.”
Can you tell how much more speed you’ll be carrying coming out of turns one and two and how much more challenging will that make turn three?
“It’s definitely going to make turn three more challenging. I think that’s already one trend that we’ve seen develop with the new package. The car is looser getting into the corner, which it should be with the spoiler cut off the back of it. It’s a big difference down there, similar to the Charlotte, Kansas-type speed where there is a bump between where the two seams of asphalt meet that’s about three-quarters of the way around the corner that you’re going to have to navigate. It doesn’t do anything to the car right now, other than move the car, but that’ll be one spot that you have to navigate as the speeds keep coming up. By the time it’s all said and done, you’ll be well into the 28-second bracket. Right now, it’s just that turns one and two are rubbering in well, but turns three and four are going to take some time because it’s so flat on entry that you can’t carry that much speed. There’s definitely two drastic handling differences from one end to the other that you’re going to have to remember which end you’re on. But, turn three has always been hard because it’s so flat.”
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