AVONDALE, Ariz. — Kevin Harvick appeared a sure bet to be eligible for the NASCAR Cup Series championship in the 2020 finale, and it seemed likely he would close out one of the most dominant seasons in years by following through with the title.
Instead, the Stewart-Haas Racing veteran was eliminated when the field went from eight drivers to four after the third round of the playoffs, and the hyped head-to-head matchup between Harvick and Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin has been scrapped. For better or worse, NASCAR's format to determine its season champion knocked the strongest team this year from contention at Phoenix Raceway.
"I'm not going to view if we win it any different whether he was in or out," Hamlin said.
No one denies Harvick deserved a chance at the title. The 44-year-old won a series-high nine times, had a whopping 20 top-five finishes and led nearly every statistical category this year. It was part of a back-and-forth battle with Hamlin that most assumed would go down to the finale.
Harvick had a poor third round of the playoffs, however, and his season — and hopes for a second Cup Series crown to go with his 2014 title — collapsed. He's out of the way, and Hamlin will compete against Hendrick Motorports' Chase Elliott and Team Penske's Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano for the title.
Harvick is a nine-time winner at Phoenix, which is hosting NASCAR's championship weekend for the first time, and so while he is out of the mix for the title, he might still be in contention for the race win.
"They've got a chip on the shoulder, and if they've got a fast car, they are going to give the guys in the championship a whole lot of trouble," former Cup Series driver and current NBC Sports analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "I think Harvick might hustle up in there and just not care."
The 39-year-old Hamlin, who has seven wins in the JGR No. 11 Toyota this year, believes the eventual champion has to win Sunday. He also knows Harvick has nothing to lose.
"I still think I'm going to have to race him," Hamlin said. "I would think they probably come loaded and ready to go out and show that they should be champions, right? I don't expect him to waffle around and just kind of let all four of us go race for it."
Hamlin has had conversations with Harvick and some of his crew members since the dramatic elimination after last Sunday's race at Virginia's Martinsville Speedway. Hamlin appreciates the campaign his rival has put together in the pandemic-altered season, when there was no practice or qualifying; Harvick and his crew were good every week with the car brought straight from the shop.
"In my mind he was deserving of racing for a championship but didn't earn it because of the system," said Hamlin, whose best season finish was second in 2010. "I understand their pain."
There's a balance, though, in commiserating with Harvick and exulting over the opportunity ahead. Keselowski won a series-high six races in 2014 but didn't make it to the final four that season as Harvick won the title. Now Keselowski is in the championship round with a chance at his own second crown, with the first title coming in 2012.
"It's a helpless feeling. It's a frustrating feeling. But it's what the format is," said Keselowski, 36, who will be back in the No. 2 Ford for Penske next year after receiving a contract extension in August. "I do feel those sympathies for him. In a selfish way, I'm glad that I won't have to compete against him."
Logano raced his way into the finale as one of only two playoff drivers with a third-round victory, with Elliott the other last weekend. Since clinching his berth three weeks ago at Kansas Speedway, his crew has been focused on a plan for Phoenix and doesn't much care about Harvick's fate.
"I honestly as a competitor don't have many feelings for others," said the 30-year-old Logano, who won the 2018 title in the No. 22 Ford. "When I'm competing, it's about my team."
Elliott, racing in the final four for the first time in his career, has somewhat shielded himself from the dramatics of the season and focused only on his effort in the No. 9 Chevrolet. The 24-year-old from Dawsonville, Georgia, has taken a break from social media over the closing months of the season and didn't focus on Harvick's season.
"For us to sit here and talk about others, or the other three guys in it, or who's not in it, who somebody thinks the favorite is or isn't, is just very unproductive in my eyes," Elliott said. "I'm just really thinking about us, being selfish in a lot of ways this week, trying to put emphasis on the things that are going to make us go fast. Me ranking Kevin's season is not one of them."