NASCAR Barometer: Harvick Takes Charlotte Pressure Cooker

NASCAR Barometer: Harvick Takes Charlotte Pressure Cooker

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Kevin Harvick rose above the pressure and the competition to pull away to victory in the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and advances to the elimination round of the Chase for the Championship. While other teams were working pit strategies to gain track position Harvick simply pulled ahead at every opportunity. A late restart gave him some cause for concern, but yet again he was able to stretch his legs and cruise ahead of the fray for the win.

The tire problems that Goodyear warned teams about due to the high speeds never materialized, but a few expired engines and tricky handling did enough to jumble the order and eliminate some from contention. Some of that contact came on the final restart when Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, and Denny Hamlin took on an argument. Their tempers boiled over after the finish and into the garage area with plenty of tackles and punches to entertain. The emotions and stress of trying to score a top finish to secure advancement into the next round of the Chase was enough to push some over the edge.

With the dust somewhat settled, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick are the only two drivers guaranteed to advance in the Chase. From Kyle Busch in third position in the points all the way down to Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 12th, no others are safe. The next race on tap is at Talladega Superspeedway, and the pressure is only going to rise.

UPGRADE

Kevin Harvick - As the miles wound down in Saturday night's 500-mile race, Harvick's car seemed to get better and better. The championship contender was clearly capable of racing anyone who challenged him, and pulled away once in front. For the number of weeks where he had the fastest car, Saturday's race came down to the right strategy call to stay out during a late caution, a finishing move the team has been lacking more recently. The car Harvick had was simply too strong for anyone to challenge and the No. 4 sped into the distance to book his place in the next round of the Chase. Harvick finished seventh in this season's first visit to Talladega Superspeedway, and has no championship pressure this week.

Kyle Larson -
Larson continues to impress more and more each week. The young rookie looked poised to score a win Saturday night in Charlotte, running inside the to five nearly the entire night. This driver is getting the best out of his Chip Ganassi Racing machinery, and has made himself a regular contender each week. A small mistake on Saturday when he brushed the wall may have robbed him of his first victory, but he can take a lot of positives out of the race despite the mistake. His lone Sprint Cup start at Talladega granted him a ninth-place finish earlier this year, and there is no reason fantasy players should worry when choosing the rookie this week.

Jamie McMurray -
McMurray proved that Charlotte is one of his best tracks, picking up an important top-5 finish in Saturday's race. After two weeks of having a fast car but stumbling, McMurray was able to put together an entire race. The team performed consistently on pit road and made the right calls to be in touch at the front. His third-place finish on Saturday rights consecutive finishes worse than 20th in Kansas and Dover. He won the Sprint All-Star Race in May, and backed up that performance on Saturday in a points race. McMurray is a two-time winner at Talladega, so he has another opportunity to try again for that victory next week, but will have to overcome the struggles he had there earlier this season.

Jeff Gordon -
Getting right back on the horse after a fall can sometimes be the best medicine, and that is essentially what Gordon did with his performance in Charlotte. The former champion had a mistake-free race to finish second, but simply didn't have enough to match Harvick for the win. Gordon advanced his cause in the Chase with Saturday's run, and picks up a little more room over other drivers that continued to struggle in the standings. This could still be Gordon's year to hoist the Sprint Cup, and races like Saturday's should make him appear as a favorite. Gordon has won six times at Talladega, but hasn't finished in the top 10 there since the fall race of 2012.

Ryan Newman -
Newman found himself spinning to avoid contact with Danica Patrick who was turned into the wall after connecting with Joey Logano. After two consecutive finishes outside of the top 15, Newman was looking for a top result in Charlotte. Unfortunately, his battle took a lump with that incident, but it wasn't the end of his night. There was plenty of distance left to continue digging and the team used a two-tire stop as their last green-flag stop to vault the car forward and pick up a handful of positions, salvaging a top-10 finish on the night. Newman has rediscovered his consistent top-10 finishing form, which could be a valuable asset for fantasy rosters as the season draws to a close.

DOWNGRADE

Clint Bowyer - Bowyer's night in Charlotte didn't last long. The Michael Waltrip Racing car lasted just about 100 laps before succumbing to an engine failure. Bowyer has only scored two top-10 finishes in his last five races, and picking up a DNF last week is not going to help turn the tide in his favor. The good news for this team is that Bowyer typically runs well at Talladega. He has two victories and an average finish of 15.1 in his 17 starts at the track. The team will have to overcome their stumbles in order to match those results, though. Bowyer has only scored three top-10s in the last dozen races, and fantasy players must wonder if they're heading the wrong direction.

Paul Menard -
Menard lost his engine while running strongly in Saturday night's race in Charlotte. The Richard Childress Racing team put together solid practices and grabbed a decent starting position in an effort to bag another top finish as the season draws to a close, but it wasn't meant to be. Menard was running in and around the top 10, and that type of strength has been evident from the team recently. Unfortunately, the engine trouble didn't let him finish the effort. Saturday night's engine failure puts another dent in what could have been Menard's best season to date. Menard now has four consecutive finishes outside of the top 10, which is a far cry from when he was a regular top-10 runner earlier this season.

Matt Kenseth -
Contact on a late restart ruined the Joe Gibbs Racing team's efforts on pit road to give Kenseth track position with the leaders at the front of the field. He and Keselowski came together at the next green flag, putting Kenseth into the outside wall. Instead of racing among the leaders following with the earned track position, the No. 20 steadily dropped backward and lost momentum. The argument between the drivers carried on well after the race and into the garage as tempers flared. Kenseth was in the top five at the time of the contact, but only managed to finish 19th due to the incident. Kenseth has a 2012 win at Talladega, but an average finish of 18.3.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Yet again Earnhardt finds himself on the wrong side of the weekly column. His gear handle broke off just shy of the midpoint of Saturday's race, forcing him into the pits multiple times to make the fix. The team was never able to effectively remedy the issue, and now find themselves on the outside looking in to the 2014 championship. This isn't the first time a car in the Hendrick stables suffered the shifter problem, but it struck at a horrible time for Earnhardt after also suffering problems in Kansas. Earnhardt does have five past Talladega wins, which could signal an opportunity for him to return to form quickly, but he virtually has to win next week to advance.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Kurt Busch - The No. 41 team is one that has struggled since the first race of the Chase, but Busch took a number of strides forward with Saturday's performance. Busch's car was consistently one of the fastest in practice, and that speed was put to good use in the race as well. He led two laps by the time the checkered flag waved, but more importantly caught and raced the top runners all evening with no mistakes. Busch notched an 11th-place result for his efforts, which will be a good tonic after three races of not cracking the top 15. Talladega could offer Busch, one of the better restrictor-plate drivers, a chance to reverse his current trend of finishes at the track.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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