Final four in NASCAR title hunt stay loose ahead of last race
HOLLYWOOD, FLA. — Kevin Harvick has made a predictable habit of trying to rattle his opposition when the stakes are at their highest.
With Jeff Gordon sitting to his left, the reigning NASCAR champion didn't dare play any mind games.
NASCAR's annual title contenders news conference was a feel-good affair Thursday as all four drivers played nice and lauded each other with platitudes. It was a bit surreal when Harvick, the driver who is always good to stir the pot, said he didn't want to make anyone angry in advance of Sunday's season finale.
Since when does Harvick care what others think?
Apparently, when it includes Gordon.
"You don't want to be the guy that was disrespectful at Jeff Gordon's last press conference or say something that's just a total jackass move," Harvick said.
Gordon will race for his long-overdue fifth championship on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Win or lose, he's retiring at the end of the race and will cap one of the most storied careers in NASCAR history.
His inclusion in this final four has made him the sentimental favorite to take the Sprint Cup, which will go to the driver who finishes the highest among the four on Sunday. Gordon will go head-to-head with reigning champion Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.
This is the closest Busch and Truex have ever been to a Cup title. For Busch, it comes in a year in which he missed the first 11 races of the season with a broken right leg and broken left foot, and Truex's shot comes with the single-car team based in Denver that he joined after a cheating scandal by Michael Waltrip Racing in 2013 cost him his job.
Harvick needled Joey Logano ahead of last year's finale, but said the stories of each of contender this time around made it difficult to play any mind games.
"I think there's a lot of respect for where everybody is at," Harvick said. "You look at Martin and everything that those guys have done with what they've got in Colorado and here they are, and you look at Kyle breaking his leg and fighting back, and Jeff who's going to retire and run the last race, there's really no reason to create a story. There's no reason to create a moment."
ALL SMOOTHED OVER
Joe Gibbs said NASCAR chairman Brian France came to the race shop on Monday to meet with both suspended driver Matt Kenseth and then the team owner. The meetings were separate and done in advance of Kenseth's return to the track this weekend.
Kenseth was suspended two races for intentionally wrecking Joey Logano in retaliation. The payback ultimately cost Logano a spot in Sunday's finale.
"We had good meetings, I think we're all in a good place right now," Gibbs said. "I think Matt is, too. I appreciated getting the chance to meet with Brian and I think Matt did, too."
Gibbs also said he and Roger Penske had a pair of phone conversations as the feud between Kenseth and Logano brewed. He said Penske called him after Logano spun Kenseth at Kansas, and Gibbs called Penske after Kenseth wrecked Logano at Martinsville.
"I think we really get along with each other," Gibbs said. "The things we kind of talk about it are between us."
With rain in the forecast for part of the entire weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway, NASCAR is facing the real possibility of a disrupted season finale.
Any sort of weather delays would be a disappointment, particularly after last weekend's final elimination race at Phoenix. The race was delayed seven hours by rain, then called 93 laps from the finish when another storm rolled in.
Steve O'Donnell, vice president of operations, said NASCAR wants to run the finale to the checkered flag.
"Our intent, and we'll do everything possible within reason to run the full race, but it's going to be a decision based on where we are, what's happened, working with the track, looking at the race fans and then make a call," he said. "We can't compare what we've done at other races. If we were going into a non-championship race, I'd have the same answer because it's just depends on what's happening."
NASCAR declined to finish the Phoenix race on Monday instead, but wasn't as committal about the finale not being held over a day. But, O'Donnell stressed the race would not start unless NASCAR felt it could run it to completion.
"We wouldn't start the race without thinking we can go the full distance," he said. "It will always be if we start the race, we expect that we've got a shot to get the full race in, and then you never know what happens radar-wise or popup showers, but that's the intent."
Kyle Busch has a new contract with Joe Gibbs Racing, which also got sponsor Mars Inc.'s M&M's brand to extend its deal.
Mars announced earlier this week it had extended its M&Ms sponsorship with Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 18 Toyota team for the next several seasons, but Busch only revealed his extension on Thursday.
"For us to get an extension on our contract with (Mars) and then to get Kyle wrapped up in that, it's a huge deal for us," Gibbs said. "It made me reflect on what this weekend means. For us, you have Toyota's chance to win a Cup title for the first time ever, you got M&Ms for the first time ever and you got Kyle. I think everybody is nervous and everybody knows what's at stake."
Busch is racing for his first Sprint Cup title and should he pull it off, it would be the first for manufacturer Toyota, as well.
Mars has been with Busch since 2008.
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