Opinion: A different theory on Harvick’s controversial burnout

About 15 years ago or so, I was talking with Gary Nelson, then the NASCAR Winston Cup Series director, about how the minds of racers are different than the minds of normal civilians.

"If you’re not winning races, what are the only two things you can do?" Nelson asked me.

I reached for the conventional answers — more horsepower, more downforce, a better chassis setup.

Nelson shook his head at me.

"No," he said to me. "If you’re not winning, there’s only two things you can do are: 1. Make your car faster. 2. Make the other guy’s car slower."

Baffled, I asked him, "How in the hell do you make the other guy’s car slower?"

"Easy," he said. "You distract the other team. Get them worrying about everything other than their car. That’s when you can gain on them."

How do you distract other teams? A million different ways. You spread rumors that their crew guys are looking to jump ship. You show up with a new piece of equipment that no one else has and they spend hours wondering what you’re doing with it. You paint your wheels a different color or suddenly block off your garage stall from letting people walk near it. Absolutely anything you can do that draws attention to your car and your team and takes the focus away from the competitors.

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You want the other teams wondering what you’re up to and worry about it and trying to figure it out.

It sounds silly, I know, but it’s gone on forever. Psychological warfare is a huge part of racing. Always has been.

I was reminded of the conversation with Nelson earlier this week, when Kevin Harvick crushed the field at Dover on Sunday and then supposedly backed his Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet into the wall, causing enough body damage so that it couldn’t be properly inspected after the race. After every Sprint Cup races, the top two finishers and a random third car are taken back to the NASCAR R&D Center in Concord, North Carolina, for a thorough going over.

But the Harvick wall contact after Dover sent tongues wagging in the garage.

"I think it has been going on for a really long time, but it’s something definitely that NASCAR should look into," said Denny Hamlin. "Maybe look into these cars before they damage them after the race. While it may look like it’s an accident sometimes hitting the wall, more than likely it’s not."

"The cars aren’t teched the same way at the track as they can be teched at the R&D Center," said Brad Keselowski. "It’s been going on for a long time. … It’s not anything new to this sport."

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Not coincidentally, Hamlin drives for Joe Gibbs Racing and Keselowski for Team Penske, the two teams with the best chance of knocking off Harvick and winning the title themselves.

On the face of it, the notion that Harvick’s car was illegal and he somehow hid the illegality by hitting the wall is absurd. At least 13 times this year — three times after victories and 10 times after runner-up finishes — Harvick’s car has been taken to the NASCAR R&D Center for inspection. It’s passed every time. And there were no victory burnouts or wall damage in any of the second-place finishes.

But now, guys from his two biggest competitors are wondering and thinking about his car and what happened: Was there something wrong with his car? Did he back it into the wall on purpose? What was he trying to hide? What can NASCAR do about it?

And the more everyone else worries about Harvick, the less time and energy they have on going fast themselves. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if Harvick deliberately hit the wall, not because his car was cheated up, but just to cause a distraction and throw his competitors off track.

"Kevin is just one of those guys that likes to rile things up a little bit and get people on their toes or get people on edge," said Kyle Busch.

Yes, he is. And that’s one of many reasons this championship season is shaping up to be an interesting one.