By virtue of his win in the Cook Out Southern 500 this past Sunday at Darlington Raceway, Kevin Harvick is guaranteed a spot in the next round of the NASCAR Playoffs. As a matter of fact, with all of the playoff points the 44-year-old driver amassed during the NASCAR Cup Series regular season it would be difficult to imagine a scenario in which he and his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team do not advance at least as far as the semi-final ‘Round of 8’ in the championship contest.
However, the same cannot be said of the other three SHR drivers and teams as the Cup Series heads toward its second race within the 10-race stretch that will determine the eventual title winner.
Yes, Stewart-Haas did accomplish the noteworthy feat of placing all four of its teams in the playoffs. That said, though, three of its drivers find themselves flirting with first round elimination if they are unable to move up in the standings following the soon-to-be-held events at Richmond Raceway and Bristol Motor Speedway.
Of the SHR drivers not named Kevin Harvick, Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer lead the way in the NASCAR Playoffs standings among that organization’s competitors not already secure in the second round. Unfortunately for their organization, they are currently tied with each other for the final transfer spot. Rookie Cole Custer currently sits just three points in back of his two teammates.
While it is certainly possible that all three of these SHR pilots could advance into the next round, it is more likely that at least two of them will be fighting with each other as well as others for that golden ticket when the NASCAR Cup Series heads to BMS on September 19th. And as with every other driver in the playoffs, there will come a point in which personal desires will outweigh team needs.
So how hard do you race your teammate when battling for your playoff life?
Perhaps the most obvious driver to look at in terms of teammates fighting among themselves to gain entry into the next round is Bowyer. Although SHR team manager Greg Zipadelli has been quoted as saying that he does not anticipate any changes in that organization’s driver lineup for 2021, the fact remains that no official announcement has been made regarding the 41-year-old driver’s future with the company. Furthermore, there is little doubt that NASCAR Xfinity Series championship contender and Ford driver Chase Briscoe would be a highly prized addition to any Cup Series roster.
And more, there is always that looming possibility of red hot Kyle Larson being brought back to NASCAR and SHR has been thought of as a place where that return could potentially occur. Even Zipadelli acknowledged that he would be excited by the prospect of adding the 28-year-old dirt racer to his team.
Until a deal is actually announced, Bowyer has to be considered on thin ice.
Moving on to the next round might be the difference in staying or leaving, and Bowyer has stated that he wants to stay. With all that said, the driver of the No. 14 will almost certainly cut no breaks for any other driver over the next two weekends, teammate or not.
Almirola and sponsor Smithfield have inked a deal that will bring them back to the No. 10 SHR Ford in 2021. But that renewal is apparently only good for one year. This 36-year-old driver almost certainly plans on racing for more than just one additional season in the NASCAR Cup Series. To do that, he needs to prove to his team, his current sponsors, and potential sponsors that he is a legitimate title contender and getting into the next round would go a long way toward doing just that.
It isn’t Almirola’s job to help Bowyer or Custer go further into the playoffs than he goes, especially if that comes at his own expense.
And finally, there is the case of Custer. Here is a rookie driver who had a great season in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2019 and parlayed that into a Cup Series ride this year. And while most of his 2020 campaign was not exactly stellar, he made his way into the playoffs by virtue of a race win in Kentucky. This is a guy who has absolutely nothing to lose. And after the Darlington race he finds himself just three points back of the current tie between fellow SHR drivers Bowyer and Almirola in the battle for the final cutoff spot.
Why would Custer not just go all out and try to forge his way into the next round?
There are ways in which a driver can race others aggressively without just blatantly wrecking them. Blocking another driver’s entry into a pit stall, staying out an extra lap to prevent someone from getting a lap back, or stopping short in a pit stall to make it harder for the car behind to exit its own stall. Any of these tactics and many more could cost another driver two or three points here or there, and of course, that could be the difference between advancing or not.
In Formula 1 the rivalries between teammates are as vicious if not more so than the rivalries with drivers from other organizations. After all, a teammate theoretically has the same equipment so to get beat by that guy reflects very badly on the other driver.
In a perfect world for Stewart-Haas Racing, all four of their cars would advance to the second round. But as 2020 has shown us, this is far from a perfect world. And if the fight comes down to one teammate versus another, no driver wants to lose out on that battle.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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