Don’t count Kevin Harvick out just yet

As Kevin Harvick tries to win a third straight Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points race for the second time this season, he’ll be starting Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (6 p.m. Sunday on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) with a severe handicap—several of them, in fact.

Harvick’s No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, winner of five events plus the exhibition Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race this season, failed pre-qualifying inspection three times on Thursday. As a consequence, Harvick will take the green flag from last place on Sunday evening.

Additionally, the team lost the services of car chief “Cheddar” Bob Smith for the weekend. If the crew chief is the captain of the race team, the car chief is the executive officer and organizer.

“The loss of Cheddar means I have to work a hell of a lot harder, but I was a car chief for many years,” said crew chief Rodney Childers. “I can do it as good as anybody can, so we’ll get through it, but we’ll miss him on Sunday.”

The inspection failures also cost Harvick 30 minutes of practice time on Saturday, a penalty that grew in significance when rain forced cancellation of Saturday’s first session. Harvick was 17th fastest in Happy Hour.

The saving grace is that, by race time, Harvick routinely has outstanding speed.

“You either got a good car or you don’t, and I’m guessing it’ll be pretty good,” Childers said philosophically. “We’ll just have to serve our penalty and move on.”

In fact, betting against Harvick this year would have been a quick way to go broke. Starting from rear is a handicap the 2014 series champion can overcome. It just makes the task more difficult—and potentially more impressive.

SHORT STROKES

Erik Jones put his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota on top of the speed chart in Saturday’s only practice session for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The Byron, Michigan, driver, who will turn 22 next Wednesday, ran 187.045 for his best lap. Jones also claimed the best consecutive 10-lap average at 184.579 mph, establishing himself as a threat to earn his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory. Kyle Larson had the second fastest single lap at 186.664 mph and was second to Jones in 10-lap average.

Coke 600 pole winner Kyle Busch was 18th fastest in final practice on Saturday, turning a lap at 184.691 mph. Joey Logano, who will start beside Busch on the front row, was the workhorse of happy Hour, turning 55 laps. Logano had the fourth fastest single lap at 186.047 mph. Larson and Kasey Kahne (ninth) had the two fastest Chevrolets in final practice. Eight-time Charlotte winner Jimmie Johnson was 11th on the speed chart.

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