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Ryan: How did Kevin Harvick get beat at Pocono? A lack of willing followers

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Gander Outdoors 400

LONG POND, PA - JULY 29: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Mobil 1 Ford, pits during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Gander Outdoors 400 at Pocono Raceway on July 29, 2018 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

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You never will beat the fastest car in a race by following it.

That seven crew chiefs adhered to that axiom – after many inexplicably resisted its truth in earlier races this season at Richmond and Michigan – is the primary reason Kevin Harvick wasn’t in victory lane last Sunday despite having the fastest car at Pocono Raceway.

Ostensibly, the tipping point was a collision in the pits with Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Aric Almirola, necessitating an extra stop that dropped Harvick to 30th on a restart with 40 laps remaining.

But Harvick already had spent 16 laps battling through traffic to reach fifth before the incident and was facing longer odds of earning his seventh win of 2018.

How did this happen to the driver of a dominant No. 4 Ford that started 28th but was in the top 10 within the first nine laps and seemed to be dictating the race in its second stage?

It was a cascading chain of events that began simply enough with a rejection of the groupthink that too often rules the course of a NASCAR race.

With Harvick cruising toward a Stage 2 win and the pits about to close, Kyle Busch, Erik Jones, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Aric Almirola and Daniel Suarez peeled off the track.

They sacrificed stage points for improved position to begin the race’s final stint because there was no other way of getting around Harvick.

When he and the rest of the lead-lap cars pitted after the second stage ended, those six cars fell in behind leader William Byron, who also didn’t stop after pitting 13 laps earlier.

Harvick, who led 30 of the first 101 laps, never led again while Busch, Suarez and Jones would finish 1-2-3.

“It definitely changed the course of the race,” said Adam Stevens, crew chief for Kyle Busch.

Losing a spot in the pits would prove costly for Harvick, who restarted ninth – on the inside lane that had been demonstrably worse. He lost four spots on the Lap 105 green flag. He had gained eight back when the yellow flew on Lap 122 but still trailed the leader by 5 seconds and would have had difficulty getting to the front if it had stayed green.

That largely is because there were enough crew chiefs individually willing to take the chance that it might put them at the front while burying Harvick in traffic. Though the six cars pitting on Lap 97 were all Toyotas, Stevens said their decisions weren’t coordinated.

It’s an encouraging sign if you like your races sprinkled with the plot twists that only result from tactical gambits and crew chiefs who possess the agency to make them.

Maybe there have been lessons learned from Richmond, where 15 teams dutifully followed eventual winner Kyle Busch into the pits with nine laps remaining. Or from Michigan, where Clint Bowyer’s team was alone in choosing two tires despite a vast line of dark rain clouds threatening to make the next restart the last.

Perhaps if there had been as many crew chiefs who embraced risks at Pocono, there would have been different outcomes in both races.

And with the regular season growing late, perhaps there will be more.

The opportunities will become only more enticing and not just because of playoff positions at stake.

Driven by the confluence of downward trends in sponsorship and increasing fidelity in the highly engineered simulation programs used for setups, the disparity between the fastest and slowest cars in a Cup field is as great as it’s been in maybe a few decades.

Outrunning the competition might be harder than ever, but outmaneuvering always is an option.

It’s still hard to fault Rodney Childers, though, for being unable to counter the decisions that cost Harvick the victory.

The No. 4 crew chief could have stayed on strategy with the other six drivers by bringing Harvick to the pits, but that would have meant giving away a playoff point. If the pit crew also holds serve, Harvick likely gets a much better restart that could have carried him to a win.

Childers deserves credit for being the first to pit on Lap 20, and his team also rebounded from the loss of its car chief after two inspection failures that lost its pit selection (which probably didn’t help in the accident with Almirola).

There have been several instances over the last five seasons in which pit miscues negated winning opportunities for Harvick, but Pocono largely felt circumstantial.

NASCAR chief operating officer Steve Phelps caused a minor stir before Sunday’s race in taking aim at those reporting team sponsorship declines. Phelps used the oft-cited statistic (though it isn’t exclusive to team sponsors) that 28% of Fortune 500 companies invest in NASCAR (which is up 29 percent since a decade ago, according to NASCAR).

“I think there’s a misconception out there that sponsorship in NASCAR is not doing well, and that’s not true,” Phelps said in helping announce the rebranding of the Gander Outdoors Truck Series. “We have more sponsors in this sport today than we’ve ever had. We’ve got almost half the Fortune 100, almost a third of the Fortune 500. It’s a lot of large companies who are in the sport not because it would be really cool to go racing. It’s because it works.

“I think this industry tends to focus on the negative. I’m not really sure why.”

That would be a subjective analysis of how sponsorship news has been digested.

How about an objective look at what’s happened with team sponsorships in Cup over the last three years?

Assembled from NASCAR, team releases and news reports, here is a look at some of what has transpired recently.

Sponsors re-signing (beyond 2018): NAPA (through 2020, 26 primary sponsor races annually with Chase Elliott), Shell Pennzoil (through 2022, full season with Joey Logano), FedEx (multiyear, full season with Denny Hamlin), Mountain Dew (through 2020, four primary races annually with Elliott), Fastenal (through 2021, 14 primary races with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. last season), Sunny D (through 2021, five primary races with Stenhouse last season), Fifth Third Bank (through 2021, eight races with Stenhouse last season).

Sponsors arriving: DC Solar (moving into Cup for “double-digit” primary races with Kyle Larson; “handful” with Jamie McMurray); Wyndham Resorts (multiyear, seven primary races this season with Matt Kenseth); John Deere (handful of races with Stenhouse), ITsavvy (multiyear, two primary races with Clint Bowyer this season); World Wide Technology (eight races with Bubba Wallace this season).

Sponsors departing: Target (primary sponsor with Larson in 21 races last season), Lowe’s (36-race primary sponsor this season with Jimmie Johnson), 5-hour Energy (co-primary sponsor with defending series champion Martin Truex Jr. in 30 races this season), GoDaddy (33 primary races with Danica Patrick in 2015), Dollar General (25 primary races with Matt Kenseth in 2016), Farmers Insurance (12 races with Kasey Kahne last season), Great Clips (10 races with Kahne last season), Subway (five primary races with Carl Edwards in 2016), Aaron’s (36 primary races with Michael Waltrip Racing in 2015).

Is chivalry dead in the era of “win and you’re in, so anything goes”?

Justin Allgaier essentially posed the question after Christopher Bell slammed past him for Saturday’s Xfinity Series victory at Iowa Speedway. Allgaier was “salty” about Bell’s pass but also resigned that he would find no sympathy on social media among a fan base that’s been inured to NASCAR as a contact sport.

“It’s cool to watch, and I hope fans got their money’s worth,” Allgaier said in the NBCSN interview above. “But we raced clean all day. I hadn’t touched him all day. It’s just disappointing to get run over like that.”

No one can accuse Bell of doing anything wrong, but Allgaier raises an interesting point: What recourse remains for feeling as if there’s no reward for racing “fairly”?

There are three primary takeaways from Erik Jones’ second-place finish in the Pocono truck race after starting from the rear on about two hours’ notice and no practice:

  • Jones really is that good.
  • Kyle Busch Motorsports’ trucks really are that good.
  • The competition in the truck series … maybe isn’t as good.

The quasi-inversion of the field made for a more intriguing race, but that was the only upside of failing 13 cars in inspection Saturday night after qualifying at Pocono. The starting lineup was finalized nearly four hours after the pole position was “awarded,” and it made the qualifying session seem like a largely empty exercise for those who invested an hour in watching it.

NASCAR can hold teams responsible for the debacle, but culpability isn’t nearly as important as just ensuring it doesn’t happen again.