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2021 Sept1 Underdogs Hero

Underdogs in playoffs aim to march on

Ever since the NASCAR Cup Series went to an elimination structure for its 10-race playoffs in 2014, the 16-driver field has had its share of underdogs starting on the bottom end of the grid. Rarely has that lower handful had the top seed from the year before among its ranks.

Yet here is Kevin Harvick, a nine-time winner in 2020, opening the Cup Series postseason as the 16th seed and one of three winless drivers among the title hopefuls. The Stewart-Haas Racing veteran is part of a hardy group of lower seeds aiming to survive the opening round of three races, avoiding being among the first four cut.

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It would seem to be an unfamiliar spot for Harvick, a five-time qualifier for the Championship 4 final. He insists, however, that he’s seen plenty in his 20 years racing at NASCAR’s top level — “there’s really not anything that can surprise me at this point.”

“You obviously want to win, but some years just don‘t go exactly how you want them to go and I think those are the years that you‘ve got to dig down and do the things that our guys have done this year,” Harvick says, “so, gotta be in it to win it, and we‘ve given ourselves a chance and see where it all falls in the end.”

All 16 will kick off their playoff journeys in Sunday’s Cook Out Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM) at historic Darlington Raceway. Two short tracks — Richmond Raceway (Sept. 11) then Bristol Motor Speedway (Sept. 18) — follow before the field will be whittled down to 12 championship-eligible contenders.

To keep those title hopes thriving, those drivers on the lower rungs will need to claw out of the bottom four. Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell is among those. The Front Row Motorsports vet clinched his playoff berth in the 2021 opener and finished 21st in the regular-season points; he ranks in a three-way tie — with Christopher Bell and Aric Almirola — for 12th place, sitting 47 points behind top-seeded Kyle Larson.

Instead of patiently waiting for other drivers ahead of him to make mistakes, McDowell says his team’s tack is to go on the offensive with a more proactive strategy. In other words, he says, “we have to crush it in order to move on.”

“We’re kind of taking the other approach of just being as aggressive as we can on the track, strategy, everything,” McDowell says, “because we realize for us to advance that we’re going to have to have the three best races of our careers. And so if you’re not in the top 10 and challenging in the top 10 those first three races, it’s going to be hard to advance, I feel like.

“So there’s always the chance that somebody has some misfortune, a crash, whatever it might be, but that’s only going to be one, one or two guys — and you’ve got to beat four. So our approach is really just to be super-aggressive. You know, every point, every spot, every lap, and knowing that we have an uphill battle, that really is our only approach. So we just have to go for it.”

Almirola — like McDowell, a one-time winner this year — is in a similar place. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver salvaged a rocky campaign with a stirring surge to victory in New Hampshire, ending the regular season in 23rd place before the standings reset.

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But Almirola says his No. 10 Ford team is opting against an all-out approach for something a little more risk-averse, playing to his organization’s strengths. In this case, it’s the Cup Series’ 750-horsepower, low-downforce rules package — an SHR strong suit and a configuration that will be used at all three tracks in the Round of 16.

“Yeah, honestly taking big swings and going off on science experiments and stuff rarely works out,” said Almirola, who is making his fifth playoff appearance. “You’re just throwing darts at a board hoping that one sticks, so you really have to go off of knowledge that you currently have, a notebook that you currently have, and make really smart, educated decisions based on that. So yeah, we are not in a situation or are willing to, you know, throw caution to the wind and have these big Hail Marys or science experiments for setups. It really is just about maximizing what we do have, that’s our mentality is, hey, we know that our 750 package is good. Let’s go be great at that. …”

“If we find ourself in a situation to where we can pull something off strategy-wise or something, then we’ll evaluate that at the time, but really our mindset going into playoffs is just really focus on the details, do every all the little things right, score every single point you can. If you can finish sixth instead of seventh in one stage, you know, take it and be aggressive to get that point because we’ve seen time and time again that the round to round, you can be eliminated by a single point.”

That theory of perseverance has already applied to 15th-seeded Tyler Reddick, who survived a topsy-turvy night in the regular-season finale last weekend at Daytona. The effort was enough to seal his first Cup Series playoff appearance as the final qualifier on the postseason grid.

Reddick has won two championships in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, so his experience with deep runs in an elimination format could serve as an intangible benefit, even though he says he’s not sure if it’s 100 percent applicable. The bigger indicator for his playoff potential: a stretch of five top-10 finishes in the last eight races — a closing kick that helped him erase a 50-point deficit to overtake Richard Childress Racing teammate Austin Dillon for the final postseason berth.

“I think we can do some damage with where Tyler’s at mentally and where our cars have been,” said Randall Burnett, crew chief of Reddick’s No. 8 Chevrolet. “We’ve had good speed, run top 10 week in and week out. We’ve got to turn some of those top 10s into top fives and wins, so that’s going to be the main goal for us. We’ve proved we can run up front, we’ve got speed every week. We’ve got to take that, and we’ve got to be consistent, we’ve got to get points and race for wins. That’s the only way you’re going to be there at the end in Phoenix. I think everybody on the team knows that and everybody’s ready to step up and do it.”