Speaking publicly for the first time since their post-race altercation at Chicagoland Speedway last Sunday, Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson struck considerably different tones on Friday afternoon at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Saying that he hasn’t spoken with Harvick since the reigning Sprint Cup Series champion punched him in the chest while standing in the driver motorhome lot, Johnson explained his rationale for seeking out Harvick after their mid-race collision that resulted in Harvick’s cutting a tire and hitting the wall.
While Harvick finished 42nd and suffered a severe setback to his hopes of repeating as Sprint Cup champion, Johnson continued on to finish 11th and leave Chicagoland in position to be among the 12 drivers who advance out of the Chase Challenger Round.
"I’ve been on the flipside of (situations like) that before, and although I wasn’t happy to see whoever it was, it meant something to me and I appreciated the fact that they came to my bus to see me, so that’s all I was trying to do there," Johnson told a scrum of reporters at New Hampshire.
Was Johnson caught off guard by Harvick’s abrupt punch to the chest?
"I wasn’t surprised he was that upset," said the six-time Sprint Cup Series champion. "Believe me, I knew good and well going over there that he wasn’t going to be in the best of moods, so it was just important to me to try to make contact with him and try to talk to him, based on experiences I’ve had and the position it’s put me in, so that’s what led to me going over there."
Harvick, who originally fell to last place among the 16 Chase drivers but moved up a spot when Clint Bowyer was penalized this week, was terse and non-conciliatory when asked about the situation during post-qualifying media obligations in New Hampshire.
"I’m just here so I don’t get fined," Harvick said, referring to NASCAR’s requirement that the top two qualifiers visit the media center.
Asked to describe what led to the post-race incident with Johnson, Harvick remained tight-lipped.
"I don’t have a lot to say about any of it," the Stewart-Haas Racing driver said. "I’m here to race and do what I have to do to do what I need to do in the next two weeks (of the Challenger Round)."
Harvick then sidestepped a question about whether he might retaliate and whether he regretted not immediately pitting when the contact with Johnson caused a tire rub a couple of laps before the tire failure sent his No. 4 Chevrolet into the wall.
"I don’t look back," Harvick said. "I just do what we have to do to focus on what we need to do looking forward. We’re not going to use you guys (the media) to make threats. I can do that myself."
Johnson, who had jumped to Harvick’s inside and down onto the apron on a restart moments before the two drivers rubbed together, continued to defend his move — just as he did immediately after the race.
"It really was a racing incident. I was just trying to get back on the racetrack, and unfortunately that contact took place," Johnson said. "It just sucks for those guys. I feel for Kevin, I feel for Rodney (Childers, crew chief), I feel for the Stewart-Haas folks, for Tony (Stewart, SHR co-owner), Gene (Haas, SHR co-owner). That’s not the situation that any of us wanted to have happen. Unfortunately, it’s racing, there was a lot going on on that restart and we had the contact."
As for what’s next in the ongoing saga, Johnson wouldn’t rule anything out. He rolls off fifth in Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire, where Harvick starts second.
"I truthfully don’t know what to expect," Johnson said. "I certainly know what I hope for, but there’s no telling what will end up taking place, and I think that’s the exciting part about this Chase."