CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Reigning NASCAR champion Kevin Harvick shrugged off his critics Tuesday and insisted he did not intentionally cause a wreck at Talladega Superspeedway to preserve his spot in the playoffs and keep his bid for a repeat alive.
Harvick was accused by at least four other drivers of triggering an 11-car accident at the end of Sunday's race to avoid being eliminated from the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field. NASCAR said Tuesday a review of the incident failed to show Harvick did anything intentional, and he also dismissed the claims.
"They can look at it 100 different ways, but you can't quit. You can't roll over and be done with it and say, 'We tried our best,'" Harvick said. "I don't need to defend myself."
Harvick had an ailing engine and knew his Chevrolet would struggle to accelerate on a restart at the end of the race. Harvick maintained his position in line, and when Trevor Bayne darted around his slow car, Harvick ended up hooking the back of Bayne's car, triggering the crash.
Among those who accused Harvick of intentionally starting the wreck were Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth, who were both eliminated from the playoffs.
"From their perspective, I can understand their frustration of not being in the Chase," Harvick said. "I am not going to throw stones because I don't believe that's the right thing to do. I did the best I could on the restarts to get going, I got out of the way, and I never even saw (Bayne) until he was by me. You can't stop. You have to try to let it play out."
Not everyone thought Harvick was in the wrong.
"That was his shot, he did what he had to do," four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon said Tuesday. "You can't blame him for that."
Kyle Busch, teammate to Kenseth and Hamlin, thought the Chase system was to blame and not Harvick.
"Don't hate the player, hate the game," said Busch, who felt he might have been punished by NASCAR if he had done the same thing but Harvick got by based on his status as champion.
"I think it depends on whose name is above the door. If I would have done it, I probably would not have been racing (this week) at Martinsville. Last year's champion did it and they're not going to do anything to a champion."
Joe Gibbs Racing was the heavy favorite for the title this year with all four of its drivers in the Chase field. But two were eliminated at Talladega, and only Busch and Carl Edwards are still in contention.
Harvick's final laps at Talladega didn't sit well with Edwards, either.
"It appears that they caused that caution, that's tough, to be completely frank," Edwards said. "That makes me uncomfortable that if that's the case, that a team could do something like that, that's calculated to alter the outcome of the most important race of the year."
Harvick and JGR have needled each other since the start of the Chase, when Harvick dismissed the four-car contingent as legitimate contenders and said "we're going to pound them into the ground," during the playoffs.
He had a more understanding approach Tuesday to the criticism from Kenseth and Hamlin, but said he didn't feel the need to speak to either driver about the Talladega ending.
"Look, Denny is a very emotional person," he said. "I think as you look at that, he's a very opinionated person. He's going to stand behind what he believes in. That's fair. I don't think anybody can knock him for that."
In explaining his decisions made Sunday, Harvick said pulling out of line because of his ailing engine was not an option because of the stakes involved. He said the last time he quit something was his wrestling season his senior year of high school, and he has vowed to always play things out since then.
"I quit once in my life and I'll never quit again," Harvick said of skipping a regional wrestling match his final year of high school because it fell on the opening weekend of racing. He said he felt at the time he was making the correct decision, but eventually realized how much he let his team down and wondered about how he would have finished his high school career.
Harvick acknowledged that the pressure of the Chase dictated his strategy in the closing laps Sunday. Had it been a regular-season race, Harvick acknowledged he likely would have headed to pit road when his engine began to fail.
"If you are at the cutoff race at Talladega, you have to play the restart out. You have to try," he said. "If it falls on its face, you crash, you still have that little glimmer of hope. That's your season. It's a more cutthroat system, for sure."