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Harvick win tightens up NASCAR Cup game of musical chairs

Auto Racing Digest on FanNation logo Auto Racing Digest on FanNation 8/8/2022 Brian Eberly

One spot remains to make the playoffs, with three races remaining to do so. But what if two or three first-time winners reach victory lane in those three races? Then what?

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Heading into Sunday's FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway, the major storyline was Ford Performance’s domination at the two-mile oval, as the manufacturer had won seven consecutive Cup races at the Brooklyn, Michigan track.

Kevin Harvick was the driving force behind that domination, having won four of the last six Cup Series races at Michigan and his five career wins (2010, 2018, 2019, 2020-1 and 2020-2) were the most among active drivers at the track.

But past performance isn’t always indicative of future results. Ford had just four wins on the 2022 season and Harvick was mired in a 65-race winless drought, with his last win coming back in September 2020 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Coming into Sunday's race, Harvick had led just 13 laps thus far this season and was 17th on the playoff grid, 96 points back from the postseason cutline with just four races left in the regular season. Without a win, the 46-year-old was at risk of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

Earlier in the week, Mark Rushbrook, Global Director of Ford Performance Motorsports, called the manufacturers' performance unacceptable.

“Four wins is not enough, it’s not acceptable," Rushbrook said. "We need to get more wins. We need to have drivers further up (in) the standings and hopefully at least four if not more drivers into the playoffs. It’s certainly going to be hard with where we are with only four regular season races left, so it’s been a struggle with the new car, the new package with getting our head around it and how to set it up properly going to the track and optimizing it.”

Harvick, Ford, and the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team figured out how to optimize it on Sunday afternoon in the Irish Hills, as Harvick took off from the front row for the final restart and led the final 38 laps, taking the checkered flag by 2.903 seconds over Bubba Wallace for the 59th victory of his Cup Series career. Denny Hamlin finished third, followed by two other Ford drivers in fourth and fifth: Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney.

“Just good timing for sure,” Harvick said with a huge grin after climbing from his No. 4 Busch Light Apple Ford. “We’ve had several good runs the last few weeks – Loudon and Pocono where the car ran good and just didn’t have everything work out.

"I’m just really proud of everybody. They’ve been digging all year long trying to make these Mustangs run faster. They haven’t been great this year, but our guys have done a good job in trying to take what we have, maximize it and do the things that we need to do. I’m just really proud of everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing.”

While many may have questioned Harvick’s chances of making the playoffs, it was never a doubt for the 2014 Cup Series champion who won a series-high nine races in 2020.

“Everybody who doubted us doesn’t know us," Harvick said. "They obviously know we thrive in these types of situations and a lot of things went our way today, which we haven’t had all year long things go our way and have things fall our way. There at the end we pitted and didn’t go a lap down and then the caution came out and got control of the race. That’s the thing I struggled with most today was traffic and restarts and just having to make up ground, but once I got clear track that baby was hunting.

“You go out and try to put yourself in position to win the race and try to capitalize on a day and put a whole day together and today we put a whole day together.”

The winless drought is over for Harvick and the Bakersfield, Calif. native will be in the playoffs for the 13th consecutive season. His victory shook up the playoff grid once again, as the season has seen 15 different winners and several new faces in victory lane. If Harvick and Stewart-Haas continue putting whole days together like Sunday, it very well could be a familiar face hoisting the championship trophy in Phoenix come November.

However, there is still one thing to keep in mind. While NASCAR has touted its "win and you're in" philosophy ever since the playoff format was introduced in 2004, this year could be much different. With three races remaining in the regular season, if three more winless drivers -- up to this point -- in 2022 win any of the next three races, drivers with the fewest points, regardless if they have a win, could potentially be eliminated from the playoffs.

That's why it's to every driver's benefit -- particularly for a guy like Harvick -- to go for a second win in the remaining three races to essentially assure themselves a spot in the playoffs, for sure. In other words, instead of "Win and you're in," it will have to be "Win two and you're in."

How about them (Busch Light) apples?

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