Kevin Harvick at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday, where he won.
Photo: Robert Laberge (Getty Images)

In modern NASCAR, the title comes down to four drivers and a 400-mile shootout in Florida. There’s only one race left before that shootout, and three days after driver Kevin Harvick secured himself a spot in it, he’s now lost his guarantee and sits at risk of playoff elimination—all thanks to a huge penalty.

Harvick led the most laps in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday on his way to winning the race, and, under NASCAR’s new and objectively convoluted points system, a spot in the final round of the playoffs to determine the series champion.

But in an inspection at the off-site NASCAR Research and Development Center after the race, NASCAR deemed that Harvick’s winning car from Texas wasn’t exactly legal—stripping Harvick and his team of every benefit from the win except for the trophy, and docking 40 driver and owner points.

(It takes a combination of mathematician skills and a photographic memory to piece together all of NASCAR’s rules around the title these days, but, in the most basic explanation possible, winning is key now. Wins qualify drivers for the 10-race playoffs, and wins automatically put them through the playoff elimination rounds. That’s why Harvick losing his win in Texas loses him a guaranteed spot in the one-race final round, where the title goes to the highest finishing championship contender. If you want a full rules explanation, here.)

NASCAR announced that the penalty from Texas was for Harvick’s spoiler, and this was all the sanctioning body said about what was wrong with it:

The team violated Section 20.4.12 of the NASCAR Rule Book that is specific to spoilers. Spoilers must be used exactly as supplied from the manufacturer and not altered.

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Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing team said it won’t appeal the penalty, and the team published a statement after the news came out on Wednesday. Here it is, via ESPN, emphasis ours for the sole reason that this is a great way to describe breaking a major rule:

“We work tirelessly across every inch of our racecars to create speed and, unfortunately, NASCAR determined we ventured into an area not accommodated by its rule book,” SHR vice president of competition Greg Zipadelli said Wednesday in a statement. “We will not appeal the penalty. Instead, we will direct our immediate focus to this weekend’s event in Phoenix and control our destiny on the race track.”

The penalties take Harvick, who’s been dominant all season, from a guaranteed spot in the final round of four drivers racing for the title to fourth of the eight drivers remaining in the playoffs. Four of those eight drivers get eliminated after this Sunday’s race in Phoenix, and Harvick is only three points above the cut line as of now. If there’s a tie for the final transfer spot into the round of four drivers, NASCAR said in the announcement, Harvick can’t use the Texas win as a tiebreaker.

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Harvick will also have to run the last two races of the season without his crew chief Rodney Childers and car chief Robert Smith, who have been suspended for the next two races. Former Cup Series crew chief Tony Gibson will take Childers’ spot, according to ESPN.

Harvick’s contention for the championship has been obvious all year, but doing it without the person who’s run the pit box for him all year—should he qualify for the final round, at this point—will be more difficult.

But Harvick has been one of three dominant drivers this Cup Series season, with an absurd eight wins in the series’ 34 races so far. The other two on that list, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr., have seven and four wins, respectively.

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Under NASCAR’s new rules system, the eighth win he got in a dominant race at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday was the one to take the pressure off and put him straight into the title race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in a couple of weeks. Instead, the penalty made that do exactly the opposite. He now trails Busch, Truex and Joey Logano, who won his way into the final round a couple of weeks ago at Martinsville Speedway.

But the next and final track before the title race in Miami is Phoenix, where Harvick is disproportionately better than most of the rest of the field. That means he’s far better off than he could be, but when one race decides it all for a person, plenty of unexpected things can happen.

Sounds kind of like the championship title, when you think about it.