CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Kevin Harvick's bid for a second NASCAR Cup Series title suffered a massive setback Wednesday, when he was stripped of his championship-eligible berth in the season finale because his car failed inspection after the Stewart-Haas Racing driver won this past Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.
The discovery of an illegally modified spoiler, made during a detailed post-race inspection after the No. 4 Ford returned to NASCAR's Research and Development Center, negates the automatic berth Harvick earned to be one of the final four drivers who will compete for the title Nov. 18 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The rule violated states that spoilers must be used exactly as supplied from the manufacturer and not altered.
In addition to losing the berth, Harvick must race at Homestead-Miami and this Sunday at ISM Raceway near Phoenix without crew chief Rodney Childers and car chief Robert Smith. Both were suspended for two races, and Childers was fined $75,000.
Harvick was docked 40 driver points, and SHR was docked 40 owner points. Harvick's points total is fourth among the remaining eight playoff drivers, three points above the cutline — but should there be a tie for the final transfer spot, Harvick would not be eligible to use the Texas victory in the tiebreaking procedure.
Greg Zipadelli, vice president of competition at SHR, said the team will not appeal the penalties. Tony Gibson will be Harvick's interim crew chief and Nick DeFazio will be interim car chief.
"We work tirelessly across every inch of our race cars to create speed and, unfortunately, NASCAR determined we ventured into an area not accommodated by its rule book," Zipadelli said. "We will not appeal the penalty. Instead, we will direct our immediate focus to this weekend's event in Phoenix and control our destiny on the race track."
Harvick's win at Texas was his series-leading eighth in 2018 and helped him join Joey Logano in gaining a a championship-eligible berth for the finale. Now three spots will be up for grabs Sunday at ISM Raceway.
Harvick won the 2014 Cup Series championship and went to the race before the finale that season in a must-win situation to remain eligible for the title. He pulled it off and is a nine-time winner at the Phoenix-area track, including earlier this year. Harvick has been among the four championship-eligible drivers in NASCAR's season finale three of the past four years.
The penalty is disastrous for SHR, which went into the third round of the playoffs with all four of its drivers eligible for the championship. After Logano grabbed the first final four spot with his win at Martinsville Speedway, the best SHR could do was qualify three drivers for the title run. SHR could wind up locked out of championship eligibility outright if Harvick doesn't advance — teammates Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch all are below the cutline and likely need to win Sunday to remain in the championship chase.
The penalty against Harvick also closes a rough race for NASCAR, which erroneously penalized Jimmie Johnson moments before the green flag dropped. Johnson was sent to the back of the starting lineup because NASCAR believed his car failed inspection three times, but he had failed only twice.
NASCAR announced the mistake during the race and said Monday it has updated its procedures to prevent a similar mistake moving forward.
"It is not our desire to issue any penalties, but we'll do so when necessary to ensure each race and championship is contested on a level playing field," said NASCAR senior vice president of competition Scott Miller. "We will now return our focus to Phoenix and the battle for a championship."
Truex's next ride
Martin Truex Jr. and his crew chief will move to Joe Gibbs Racing next season to remain in the Toyota organization after their race team folds in two weeks.
Truex won his first Cup Series title last year driving for Furniture Row Racing. Barney Visser had funded the team out of pocket for most of its existence but received relief help the past few seasons from sponsorship.
When the primary sponsor of the No. 78 decided to leave NASCAR and Visser couldn't find a replacement, the owner decided he would close after this season because he found it too expensive to field a championship-contending team without outside funding.
Truex will replace Daniel Suarez as driver of the No. 19 Camry. Sponsorship was not announced.
"Anytime you have an opportunity to bring two people of this caliber into your organization, it's certainly an exciting time," team owner Joe Gibbs said. "They obviously have developed a chemistry that has led to tremendous success, including a championship. We've gotten to know them well over the past few years through the alliance and having been part of the Toyota family. They both make us stronger as an organization."
Truex has 19 victories at NASCAR's highest level, including a career-high eight victories in 2017. A member of the so-called Big Three that has dominated the Cup Series this year, Truex has four victories and goes to ISM Raceway near Phoenix this weekend in contention for a championship-eligible berth. Only one of the three slots for the Nov. 18 season finale has been filled, and Truex is above the cutline to qualify for Homestead-Miami Speedway with a shot at repeating as champion.
"I'm really excited to have the opportunity to join Joe Gibbs Racing," he said. "Obviously to be able to make this transition and still be able to work alongside Cole (Pearn) is something that was very important to me. There is also a real comfort level working with the JGR team, and I wanted to stay in the Toyota family.
"We still have big goals for the remainder of this season, but it's nice to know what we will be doing in 2019."
Pearn was promoted from lead engineer to crew chief for the No. 78 car in 2015 and has guided the team to 17 wins.
Suarez, meanwhile, is looking for a new job. The 26-year-old Mexican driver won the 2016 Xfinity Series title driving for JGR and two months later was unexpectedly promoted to the Cup Series when Carl Edwards walked away from NASCAR.
Suarez has 21 top-10 finishes and one pole position in two seasons with JGR. He's currently ranked 20th in the standings, the same place he finished last year.