Column: SHR will be hard-pressed to get 4 cars into finale

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick are through to the next round of NASCAR's playoffs. That is the entire lineup at Stewart-Haas Racing, for those keeping score at home, and quite an impressive display of balance and teamwork.

It is also half the eight slots in the playoff field and SHR of course wants to get its quartet into the championship round and guarantee itself a title at Homestead-Miami next month.

Will all four make it to the finale? Probably not.

"This is what we have built up to all year with our Fords," said Kurt Busch, who in 2004 won Ford's last Cup Series title. Busch won in the first year NASCAR moved away from its season-long championship race to a playoff-style system, and Ford has been trying to claw its way back into contention ever since.

Numbers are certainly on Ford's side with the four SHR cars and Joey Logano from Team Penske in the round of eight. Five spots to Ford drivers left room only for a pair of Toyota drivers, reigning champion Martin Truex Jr. and 2015 winner Kyle Busch, and a lone representative from Chevrolet in Chase Elliott.

But those numbers can also hurt Ford's chances, particularly if SHR suddenly fractures and its drivers take a selfish approach during the next three races.

"Racing teammates is tough," said Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Elliott. "They can give each other no quarter at all. That's a hard thing to do. That's a hard thing to kind of balance. To move on, you have to full throttle, hammer down. If you get into a riff, which is going to happen with your teammate, it's a tough situation."

Gustafson even wondered if SHR's juggernaut will inadvertently help Elliott and the Hendrick Motorsports team, which doesn't have a single Chevrolet ally remaining in the playoffs. But if SHR turns on each other, well, the rest of the field better be ready to pounce.

"In some ways I think it can be an advantage for us because it is difficult to balance it when you're all kind of infighting against each other," Gustafson said.

There's no infighting yet at SHR, at least not publicly. The four drivers executed perfectly at Talladega Superspeedway two weeks ago by sweeping the front two rows of qualifying and working together to stay in line and hold off traffic for almost the entire race.

Had a late caution not sent it to overtime, where Kurt Busch ran out of gas and Harvick had to stop for fuel, SHR cars might have raced each other four-wide for the finish. It was Almirola who got the victory, the first for the No. 10 car that Almirola took over from Danica Patrick this season, and it pushed him into title talk.

Almirola has consistently proven this year that if given a fast car he can deliver, and his results have shown a skill level far superior to that of Patrick. Perhaps Almirola's addition to the lineup has been what SHR needed to become a balanced organization, even though Harvick has been the star.

Harvick has seven wins already this year and has been the most dominant driver in the series. He has been challenged by Kyle Busch and Truex as the so-called "Big Three" combined for 17 of the 26 regular-season victories, and Harvick won't move out of the way for anyone — even his teammates.

He was annoyed Sunday that he foolishly sped on pit road to cough away a shot at the victory, which instead went to Elliott.

"That was my fault. I tried to get a little too much and wound up going too fast," Harvick said. "We have had fast cars and whether it is speeding on pit road or flat tires or valve stems or fuel, we haven't put together a full day except for Richmond. Hopefully we have gotten all that out of our system."

This could be Kurt Busch's final chance at a second championship. The veteran's contract was not renewed and he is expected to move to Chip Ganassi Racing to close out his Cup career. With everything on the line he doesn't have many reasons to share all his secrets with his teammates.

Bowyer, meanwhile, barely made it through the second round. He was in an accident at Dover and finished 13th on Sunday at Kansas, just enough to squeeze into the next round. While he may appear right now to be the weakest link in the SHR group, the next round opens at Martinsville, where Bowyer snapped a 190-race losing streak earlier this year.

He knows what is at stake now that the 16-driver field has been cut in half and the championship is just four races away.

"Now it is getting down to the nitty-gritty, eight good teams," Bowyer said. "There are 16 good teams but there are eight damn good teams. Now you have to pick up the pace or go home."

SHR is likely going to send some cars home, even if the organization flawlessly manages the next three races. How it plays out could be as exciting as the races.

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More AP Auto Racing: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-AutoRacing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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